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A Theater District, L.A.-Style

The boom in mid-size playhouses is happening nearly everywhere you look in Los Angeles County, as befits Southern California's urban sprawl.

March 05, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

For decades, the L.A. theater scene has been divided mostly between the large and the small.

A handful of big theaters--such as the Mark Taper Forum and the Pantages, ranging in size from 700 to nearly 3,000 seats--dominate the territory, staging well-endowed productions and maintaining high public profiles. At the same time, more than a hundred professional but tiny theaters, each with fewer than 100 seats, struggle for a chance to be noticed, often operating on a shoestring.

Now, however, a theatrical middle class is emerging that has the potential to change the face of theater in Los Angeles.

In just the last two months, two companies--the El Portal in North Hollywood and the International City Theatre in Long Beach--that once operated in the vast but anonymous terrain of small theaters have moved into that middle class. A Noise Within and East West Players made similar moves in the late '90s. And the Colony Studio Theatre is expected to upgrade by the spring of 2002.

The '90s brought two brand-new mid-size companies to Westwood: Geffen Playhouse and the Reprise! series at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. The Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, which operates out of a big hall in Redondo Beach, opened a mid-size sister in Hermosa Beach to expand its programming beyond big musicals. Theatre West, long a mid-size theater, has become more active, selling season subscriptions for the first time in decades.

Even Los Angeles County's two large resident theaters with decades-long legacies--the 750-seat Mark Taper Forum and the 686-seat Pasadena Playhouse--hope to open additional theaters with seating for 300 or 400 in the next few years.

Orange County is home to several long-standing mid-size venues, but Los Angeles County has seen the most expansion as part of the current phenomenon.

While individual theaters offer a variety of reasons for joining the mid-size ranks, the dispersion of these theaters across the county creates an unexpected benefit for theatergoers: Regularly scheduled, fully professional theater is closer to home. Tired commuters no longer have to face another long drive to see a fairly substantial production.

"People from out of town look at a map of L.A., see all the theaters and can't believe it--they're all over the place," said Barbara Beckley, whose Colony Studio Theatre expects to move from a 99-seat Silver Lake home to the new Burbank Center Stage.

The moderate size of these venues provides audiences with an alternative to the prepackaged, disembodied entertainment available on home entertainment systems.

"More and more, people want the intimacy and contact of theater--they want to almost feel the breath of the actors," said Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum. "I used to think the Taper was small, that if only I had 250 more seats I could make ends meet more easily." But now Davidson is planning a smaller satellite theater, projected for Culver City.

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The idea of planting mid-size theaters throughout L.A. began to take shape as an organized movement in the mid-'90s. It was the center of discussion at a 1994 conference sponsored by the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre (now A.S.K. Theater Projects) at UCLA--not far from where the commercial Westwood Playhouse was soon to evolve into the nonprofit Geffen Playhouse.

The conference served as the calling card for two out-of-town consultants, Nello McDaniel and George Thorn, who fired up participants with ideas on how smaller companies could make the leap to mid-size status. The two subsequently conducted two years of workshops with 15 local theaters. This activity resulted in a 1997 report that cited the importance of geographical and other kinds of diversity among theaters. While the report acknowledged the necessity of smaller theaters in an area swarming with talent, it nonetheless noted that "in the healthiest theater communities, the mid-level serves as the creative and economic backbone."

Since the report was issued, two consortium participants--East West Players and Actors Alley (now at the El Portal)--moved into larger homes, and four others have staged shows at mid-size venues or plan to do so in the near future.

McDaniel and Thorn "gave us the support to move ahead," said Tim Dang, East West Players' artistic director. Although his company had been discussing a move for years, "all of us were fearful of what was going to happen. Their broader national vision gave us the confidence to move forward. Now we're serving as a model for others around the country."

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"A big theater is too big. A little theater is too small," observed El Portal's Morris.

Indeed, mid-size theaters offer both aesthetic and economic advantages over bigger venues.

New plays especially need a home where the words can carry easily and the economic stakes aren't so high, the Taper's Davidson said, citing the fact that almost all major nonmusical plays in New York now open in mid-size off-Broadway venues instead of the larger theaters of Broadway.

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