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The For-Profit Scene Gets a New Leader

November 26, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Does L.A.'s indigenous commercial theater industry have a new major-domo? It's beginning to look as if James Freydberg is filling that position.

When Joan Stein left Canon Theatricals for a television job with Steve Martin earlier this year, the arena of L.A.-based for-profit theater (commercial shows that aren't part of a larger national tour) lost its most prolific producer. Canon kept going under Stein's partner, Susan Dietz, but Dietz has been shepherding a movie lately and hasn't produced anything on the L.A. stage since Stein left.

Enter Freydberg. He's not exactly a fresh face--he ran the Coronet Theatre from 1994 to 1996 and has collaborated with the Mark Taper Forum, although most of his productions have been in New York. He has homes on both coasts, and "I love living in L.A.," he said, "so to be able to produce here is really a gift."

He's doubly gifted right now, for his productions occupy L.A.'s two main commercial mid-size houses. The Dietz-managed Canon is the home of "The Vagina Monologues," and the Coronet is host to "Fully Committed"--both produced by Freydberg along with a group of partners and investors that differs slightly from one show to the other.

True, both shows are actually imports from New York. Stein's departure "left the door open from me to bring in some New York shows," Freydberg said.

But he also wants to produce plays here first, before New York. And lest you think that he is wedded only to solo shows ("Fully Committed," "God Said 'Ha!' " and "Blown Sideways Through Life") or shows that consist of monologues ("Vagina"), he also wants to produce plays with larger casts.

He's thinking of doing a new play here next year, including two stars, he hopes.

Stars are essential for new plays in L.A.'s commercial theater, he said. Such productions can't rely on subscribers, as nonprofit theaters do. The potential audience asks "not what it is, but who's in it," he said.

Finding that audience is a greater challenge here than in New York, he said. Because of the geographical dispersion of the potential audience and the theaters, commercial producers must spend a lot on advertising. Freydberg's ad budget is triple what it would be for the same shows in New York. During some weeks, the ads make up half of his costs, he said. But staging two shows at once allows him to cross-promote them.

So far, "Vagina" has made money every week of its run. "Fully Committed" was in the red only during its first week. Freydberg would like both shows to go on for months, but it's anyone's guess as to how vigorously they can survive the holiday period. Mark Setlock, the original star of "Fully Committed," leaves today to do the show in Boston; he'll be replaced by Ethan Sandler, who did it in San Francisco.


THE WIRELESS WORLD: Before just about any theatrical performance these days, someone tells the audience to turn off all cell phones and beepers. These admonitions may have created the impression that the theater and the wireless industry are somehow mortal enemies.

Harvey P. White, chairman and CEO of Leap Wireless International, a wireless carrier based in San Diego, would beg to differ. He recently contributed $5 million to the Old Globe Theatre in an unrestricted gift.

It's the largest single donation in the history of the Old Globe. In recent Southland philanthropy for theater companies (at least donations that have been publicly announced), it's matched only by a gift last year from Joan and Irwin Jacobs (who, as chief executive at Qualcomm, is White's former boss) to La Jolla Playhouse and by David Geffen's contribution that changed the name of the Westwood Playhouse to the Geffen Playhouse.

White has been on the Old Globe board for four years, for the past year as president. So it's not surprising that he's full of praise for the company. But it's more surprising that people whose fortunes are derived from technology are so committed to what is often considered an old-fashioned art form.

"I don't care what century you're in," White said. "There isn't anything like live theater."


SPLIT SEASON: In 2001, for the second year in a row, the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts will present two of its four shows in mid-size venues at Los Angeles Theatre Center, instead of the company's 99-seat home in Lincoln Heights.

The bigger productions will be a Spanish Golden Age spoof, "Don Mendo's Revenge," by early 20th century writer Don Pedro Munoz Seca (April 27-May 27), and "Salon Mexico" (Sept. 21-Nov. 4), by the company's artistic director, Margarita Galban, and Lina Montalvo--the same duo who wrote this year's BFA production of "Don Quijote, the Last Adventure." "Salon" is based on an incident that occurred in the Mexico City nightclub of the same name in the '30s.

The company hopes soon to present all of its shows at LATC, said President Carmen Zapata. Proving that the company can do an entire season in a costlier, bigger theater might advance the ultimate goal of building the BFA's own mid-size venue in the Olvera Street neighborhood, she said.

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