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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

Too Little, Too Late

Alternative Repertory Theatre Founders Resign, Citing Diminishing Returns of Efforts

May 26, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The husband-and-wife team that led the Alternative Repertory Theatre since its founding in 1987 has resigned, citing the toll of too many financial struggles for too long with too little reward.

Members of ART's board of directors said Thursday that the Santa Ana theater will go on without producer Gary Christensen and artistic director Patricia L. Terry. The couple won widespread respect on the county's theater scene for achieving a sustained run of artistically challenging plays over a long haul on a grass-roots budget.

"Oh my God, that makes me so sad," said local theater figure Joan Lescot, who since 1993 has run a series of small Costa Mesa theaters with her husband, Mario Lescot, under the name the Theatre District. "They've done such a wonderful job for so long. When we first started they were people we looked up to. We held them up as a model."

"I think they did an amazing thing by establishing a viable professional small theater in Santa Ana," said Thomas F. Bradac, the Shakespeare Orange County artistic director who has been staging classics here since 1979. "Anybody who does that kind of work for that kind of extended [period] is a success. Only a handful of people in the county have been able to do it for many years. They did a fine job, and whoever replaces them will have their work cut out."

"We're very proud to say that for 13 years we made a difference in the theatrical community in Orange County," Christensen said. "We raised the bar a little."

Ironically, Christensen, 43, and Terry, 50, are leaving just as the long-struggling theater has achieved the healthiest financial footing in its history--although flat attendance in the 82-seat house remains a concern.

On the verge of going under last February, ART put out an emergency appeal for donations and the theater's supporters responded with more than $15,000. Then BMC Software, a Houston-based company with a branch in Irvine, stepped forward in April with a $50,000 sponsorship grant--about half the theater's annual budget--to guarantee a full schedule of plays next season.

But Christensen and Terry said that the struggles were wearing on them, and differences emerged with the six-member board over how to restructure ART's business operations, which Christensen had managed along with a career teaching part time at several community colleges.

"All of a sudden there was a sense [from the board] that we needed to be more grown-up in the way we were doing business," Terry said. Christensen and Terry said they agree with the board's aim of taking ART from a mom-and-pop business approach to a more "institutional" footing. But neither was willing to volunteer additional time after so much struggle.

"The things that were necessary don't bring me a great deal of joy," Terry said. "Meetings, organizational things--when those begin to overshadow the job of creating, it's not worth the effort."

Christensen and Terry said the board never raised any concerns about their programming decisions or pushed for more "commercial" fare. Their choices for the current season included dramas by Eugene O'Neill, Edward Albee and Athol Fugard, along with a light comedy by John Patrick Shanley and a new comedy by one of ART's company members.

Nancy Lutz, president of the board, said Thursday that the board has and will continue to stay out of programming decisions. The next step will be to find a new artistic director who will choose the upcoming season in keeping with ART's mission to do artistically valid work. At this point, she said, board members have not scheduled a meeting to discuss how to proceed.

"We'll consult with the learned folks out there who know how to do this," Lutz said of the coming search for new artistic leadership.

Terry, a veteran English teacher at University High School in Irvine, said that she and Christensen typically put in 20 to 40 hours a week at the theater on top of their day jobs. They paid themselves a combined stipend of $1,750 a month, Christensen said, and two assistants receive a combined $350 a month. Actors receive $10 per performance, and most of the other jobs around the theater, which has a core company of 10 members, are done by volunteers.

Terry and Christensen had dreamed of earning a living from the theater. Terry said a last-ditch bid came a few months ago when ART applied for a $75,000 grant from the Pacific Life Foundation that would have enabled her to become ART's full-time administrator. The grant did not come through.

"It all comes down to money," Christensen said. "If I'm not having enough fun, I want to be paid a living wage."

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