A new theater company is up and running at Bergamot Station, just in time for the new decade.
Bergamot Station was one of the biggest popular successes in L.A.'s visual arts scene during the '90s. An enclosed cluster of galleries in eastern Santa Monica, it attracts 750,000 visitors a year, according to Wayne Blank, who runs Bergamot and owns many of its buildings.
Yet Bergamot also was the site of one of the biggest missteps in L.A.'s theater scene during the '90s. In 1995-96, the Mark Taper Forum planned to capitalize on Bergamot's location and popularity by building its long-awaited mid-size theater on the premises, but the deal fell through at the last minute. A key backer withdrew his pledge to purchase three buildings in the complex and lease one of them to the Taper for $1 a year. The Taper then turned to Culver City for its Westside outpost; it continues to prepare plans--as yet unfinanced--for a mid-size theater there.
Other theater companies also have looked into Bergamot. The fledgling Loretta Theatre--best known for the famous names among its founders (Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Holly Hunter, Beth Henley)--concluded that it would be too expensive to build a theater there. Loretta later reached the same conclusion about a site on Santa Monica's Main Street and now plans to rent space in a yet-to-be-named spot for its first production next year, according to Henley.
Where big names feared to tread, however, in stepped Douglas Weston and his "Servant of Two Masters" company.
Not only did the company mount its acclaimed "Servant of Two Masters" production outdoors at Bergamot, but producer-actor Weston has devised a plan he hopes will raise enough money to share one of the existing Bergamot buildings with two other organizations that are already there (the for-profit screenwriting workshop Writers Boot Camp and the Santa Monica Film Festival). He intends to stage four indoor shows in a 99-seat space at Bergamot each year, do an outdoor production each summer and establish programs in training and outreach. He considers Bergamot "a natural hub" in the sprawling greater Los Angeles area.
Weston professes to have "no worries" about raising the money. After citing three "billionaires" with whom he's in touch, he said, "An enormous amount of money is ready to be given to people who'll convince you they'll do something with it."
This might sound like bravado, but Weston's record so far isn't bad. He convinced a fellow Princeton alumnus, L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, to personally contribute a sizable chunk of the budget for "The Servant of Two Masters." Weston and his partners talked a number of other theaters, arts institutions and businesses into contributing this or that for "Servant."
Audiences are given soup, vodka and desserts as part of the admission price, all of which has been donated to the production. Patagonia provided blankets that help keep theatergoers warm even in mid-November. The most recent Tony-winning set designer, Richard Hoover, contributed his services to create the alfresco stage.
Weston, who reveals his age only by saying he was born in the '60s, denied that his family was particularly wealthy. That may be true when compared to some of his schoolmates--the most famous of whom, at Scotland's Gordonstoun school, were the princes Andrew and Edward. However, as the son of two attorneys--a father from England and a mother from Brooklyn who later developed the English Weight Watchers franchise--and as someone who attended school in Switzerland before Gordonstoun and Princeton, Weston certainly doesn't feel out of his element when he approaches rich potential donors. His cosmopolitan adventures continued in adulthood--he worked as a wildlife researcher in Asia and Australia, as a broker in London and as an actor in New York before moving to Los Angeles.
The genesis of his current project, in the summer of 1998, was a workshop that the acting teacher and director Anne Bogart taught in Los Angeles. It was "phenomenally intense," Weston recalled.
Some of the members of this group, including Weston, reunited in the spring to work in a production of the commedia dell'arte classic "The Servant of Two Masters." Director Beth Milles, who had worked with Bogart and won awards for her commedia-influenced staging of "The Imaginary Invalid" at the Actors' Gang, was slated to stage "Servant" last summer for Joe Stern's Matrix Theatre, a company best known for double casting roles, enabling actors to take jobs in TV and film without wrecking the play in their absence.
Rehearsing so many actors for "Servant" didn't work, however, Milles recalled. "It's a challenge to use double casting for improvisation and lazzi" (bits of physicalized comic business in commedia), "especially if people can't be there sometimes." As opening night drew near, Stern asked the cast who among them felt ready to go on, and not enough were ready. So he pulled the plug.