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THEATER | Theater Notes

Big Plans for Mid-Size Sites South of I-10

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

A glance at the map of Los Angeles County's developing mid-size theater scene (see Pages 4-5) reveals that some neighborhoods are developing faster than others. The vast area south of the Santa Monica Freeway is still largely lacking in professional mid-size companies--unless you go as far south as Hermosa Beach or Long Beach.

A few such theaters in this area are in the talking stages, however. Three of these potential projects have ties to the city of Los Angeles' Cultural Affairs Department, and all three are largely African American in orientation. Now is an opportune moment to talk about them, as the African Grove Institute for the Arts--August Wilson's organization that's devoted to the nationwide development of black-oriented theaters--is holding public forums on the subject this weekend at Los Angeles Theatre Center.

One of the projects already has a name: the Washington Boulevard Performing Arts Center. The city's Community Redevelopment Agency plans to build this 402-seat theater on the site of the former Ebony Showcase, a once-pioneering black theater space that had not seen much activity recently and was demolished last year after its roof collapsed.

The new center will include a gallery, sound studio, jazz club and multipurpose community room in addition to the theater. It's being designed by John Sergio Fisher, who designed LATC and a number of smaller theaters in the area.

The intent, said CRA project manager Ed Saulet, is to build a theater that can host touring companies that normally would go to a large venue, not one with only 400 seats. A 75-foot fly tower that could accommodate big sets is part of the plan, but it requires a zoning variance that is under discussion. When the theater is closer to completion, the city's Cultural Affairs Department will issue a request for proposals to any community-based nonprofit groups that might want to operate it.

Farther south, the city-run William Grant Still Arts Center in the West Adams district has its eye on the Metropolitan AME Zion Church across the street. The church and the city are discussing a sale of the property, but nothing has been settled.

The center's director, James Burks, hopes to convert the 500-seat sanctuary into a 250-seat theater. Then he would invite a consortium of existing black theater companies to produce programming at the facility, which he hopes would be named after veteran actress Beah Richards. It would be an ideal space for new play development, he said.

Farther west, in Leimert Park, lies the Vision Theatre, which was owned and operated by actress Marla Gibbs in the early and mid-'90s. The city is in the process of buying the structure for $1.8 million. A former movie theater with 1,050 seats, the Vision hardly qualifies as mid-size, but the seating capacity conceivably could be reduced--or even enlarged, "depending on how it will be used," said Al Jenkins, the CRA's project manager for the area. Again, the plan here is for the city's Cultural Affairs Department to conduct a search for a nonprofit operating company, which would program the theater.

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EVEN FARTHER WEST: Opening before all of the above projects, also south of the Santa Monica Freeway, will be this year's annual alfresco production from Shakespeare Festival/LA. "Much Ado About Nothing" will return the festival to Burton Chace Park in Marina del Rey for the second year in a row, opening there in July, followed by visits to Pershing Square in downtown L.A. and South Coast Botanic Garden in Rolling Hills Estates.

The Shakespeare Festival has been looking for a permanent home and entered escrow last fall on a studio just west of downtown L.A., but questions have arisen from environmental reports on the property, said festival producing artistic director Ben Donenberg. He has now begun looking elsewhere.

The area south of the Santa Monica Freeway would also be home to the new west wing of the Mark Taper Forum, if and when it opens its doors in the former Culver Theatre in Culver City.

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