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THEATER | Theater Notes

Shakespeare Festival/LA Finds a Home

May 28, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Shakespeare Festival / LA, a mostly itinerant troupe for 16 years, is planning a home of its own and a major redesign of the company, said producing artistic director Ben Donenberg.

"We're becoming an institution," Donenberg said. And this institution will have a permanent mid-size theater on the western edge of downtown Los Angeles.

The plans grew out of the festival's educational efforts, which have been a year-round activity for a company that's generally known to the public only for its summertime, free, alfresco Shakespeare.

In 1997, the festival applied for a grant from the Neighborhood Development Program of the city's Community Development Department. Donenberg proposed building a "youth employment and enrichment center" near Belmont High School and vowed to target the Belmont student body for his company's efforts. Since most of those efforts involve theater, the building would house a theater and also serve as the festival's headquarters. As far as "youth employment" goes, the festival will hire 80 disadvantaged youth for seasonal jobs, Donenberg said.

The city approved the idea and initially granted $300,000 toward the $375,000 purchase of a building near Beverly Boulevard and Union Avenue. But that deal fell through when the owner changed her mind about selling.

The city raised its ante up to $550,000 toward the purchase of another building in the neighborhood, this one priced at $850,000. But that deal collapsed, too, after an environmental report revealed problems--a small-scale reflection of the considerably more publicized problems of the Belmont Learning Complex nearby.

So far, at least, the third time's the charm. The festival returned to a property that had been examined earlier but was, at the time, slated to be bought as part of the massive City of Angels Monument development. The property became available again recently--yet another omen for the monument project, which is reportedly on the ropes--and the site passed an environmental exam, Donenberg said.

Located at 1242 W. 1st St., across the street and down the block from the ill-fated new Belmont campus, the building contains 13,400 square feet. The festival plans to include a theater that will seat between 300 and 500, designed by Jules Fisher and Josh Dachs. The building doesn't have the high ceilings that theaters usually require, but "we may raise the roof," Donenberg said.

The price for the building was $900,000, but the city transferred its previously allotted $550,000 to the plan (all of it actually federal block grant funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development). Philanthropist Frank Sherwood, a festival board member, contributed the other $350,000, plus an extra $50,000 for related costs.

Now, of course, more money must be raised to convert the building into a theater, as well as to pay for the expanded programming Donenberg envisions.

Donenberg will continue to honor the festival's niche, which he defines as "seasonal theatrical traditions." But he wants to cover more seasons and more traditions.

With the new theater, Donenberg hopes to add an annual fall production, perhaps "Hauntings--A Shakespearean Seance," which he produced at the Pacific Design Center in 1998. For a winter tradition, he wants to do an annual theatricalization of literature that's being read by high school students in the L.A. Unified School District; he would gear his choice to whatever literature appears to be widely required reading in that year's curriculum. And for the spring, Donenberg wants to do an annual musical based on Shakespeare.

The redesign of the festival won't extend far into the summertime, however; longtime festival fans can rest assured that "Will's Wheels," the truck that moves the summer productions from one location to another and then converts into a stage at each site, will continue to roll--and that the productions will stay outside. "That's our flagship," Donenberg said.

This year's "flagship," by the way, will take "Much Ado About Nothing" from Burton Chace Park in Marina del Rey, June 29-July 2, to downtown's Pershing Square, July 6-16, to South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes, July 20-30.

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