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Survival's at the Heart of This Drama

Grass-roots playhouses in Costa Mesa, 'City of the Arts,' face bleak and uncertain fate. Theater


Drama appears to be in full bloom in Costa Mesa, where the municipal slogan is "City of the Arts."

But cast your eyes down from the flowering upper reaches to the roots of the city's theatrical tree, and drama is in jeopardy.

At the top, South Coast Repertory, with an $8-million annual budget, wins national respect for presenting important new dramatic works. In the middle, Orange Coast College is a hive of student drama, and the theater department at Vanguard University is committed to dramatic work in its four-play seasons.

But at the grass-roots, drama's prospects range from bleak to uncertain. The Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, a 74-seat, $60,000-a-year operation dogged by money woes, is about to play what may be its final card in a bid for survival. After 35 years--the same tenure as SCR--the community theater's directors reluctantly will abandon drama for a lineup of hit musicals.

The January closing of the Theatre District was another blow to serious drama. The 66-seat house in a metal barn at the back of the Lab mall was admired for adventurous work on a shoestring budget.

A better-financed successor, the Trilogy Playhouse, has taken over the Theatre District's site and has a $20,000 refurbishing project well underway to overcome the limitations that prompted Theatre District artistic director Mario Lescot to let his lease lapse after five years. Adult plays are part of a three-pronged Trilogy mix that includes family-oriented plays and children's workshops.

"We tend to stay a little more mainstream" than the Theatre District, director Alicia Butler says. Eager to do serious drama--"A Streetcar Named Desire" and Maxwell Anderson's "The Bad Seed" are upcoming shows--Butler says she nevertheless is ready to adjust if it doesn't draw.

"I really want to play to our audience. If I have to go in [another] direction I will. If we just did adult theater I don't think we would have a chance, but I think there is an audience for it."

The former Hollywood casting director says serious theater didn't fly in Trilogy's previous incarnation as the Laguna Niguel Playhouse.

During an eight-year run in an upscale shopping center there, Butler found that in order to draw, plays had to be suited for kids as well as adults. Even such tested, movie-familiar fare as "Arsenic and Old Lace," "The Odd Couple" and "Harvey" flopped because it wasn't for children.

"There are so many [young] families in south Orange County. I think there's a mind-set of 'If you can't take your kids with you on a Friday or Saturday night, you might as well stay home.' "

Trilogy's first adult play, the oft-staged Ira Levin mystery "Deathtrap," broke even despite bad weather that dampened its prospects, Butler said.

But Trilogy Playhouse can't succeed without the kids and their parents. The nonprofit theater, which Butler said had a budget of about $100,000 in 1999, will pay for its adult productions with "our bread and butter"--income from children's performance classes priced from $90 to $125. Trilogy also has been able to attract private donations that make up about a quarter of its budget, Butler said.

Given her druthers, she would stick to working with the kids and staging adult drama, forsaking entirely the Broadway musicals that were a staple of her seasons in Laguna Niguel.

Offbeat Choices No Longer an Option

For its opening season in Costa Mesa, the Trilogy is offering four dramas and three family-oriented musicals--a children's version of "Into the Woods" (minus the dark second act), "Little Shop of Horrors" and "A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail."

At the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, the good news is that the theater is having its most successful season in at least three years. The bad news is that it's barely breaking even after having lost a chunk of money the previous years.

Lynn Reinert, the theater's president since 1998, has kept it afloat with thousands of dollars from her own checkbook. But she and her fellow board members recently decided that the venerable community theater's future depends on its becoming self-sustaining.

The solution: no more offbeat choices, such as this season's productions of "The Gingerbred Lady," a lesser-known Neil Simon play, and "Coastal Disturbances," a Tina Howe drama that tanked at the box office.

Instead, after the upcoming scheduled run of "Driving Miss Daisy," the playhouse goes into hit-musical mode: a season-ending "Gypsy," followed by a 2000-01 "Season of the Musical" featuring "Bye Bye Birdie," "The Sound of Music," (tentative), "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Into the Woods."

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