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El Portal Opts to Cut Ties With Founding Artistic Director

Theater: Board doesn't renew Morris' contract. He says company is in dire financial straits.


The board of directors of the new El Portal Center for the Arts in North Hollywood has decided not to renew the contract of the theater's founding artistic director Jeremiah Morris, who has in turn charged that the company is in such severe financial straits that it may not be able to produce its second season next year.

Board President Arthur Aaronson acknowledged that financial concerns were an important factor in the decision not to keep Morris on, but he hotly disputed Morris' speculation about the future.

"We'll survive," Aaronson said. "Our fund-raising is continuous. We expect to raise a substantial amount in the next three months"--before the second season is slated to start with a Morris-directed play, "Shooting Craps."

The turbulence over Morris' job is just the latest chapter in a long-running saga of tribulations at the three-theater complex, which occupies a renovated 1926 movie palace on Lankershim Boulevard. In 1994, the center was about to open when the Northridge earthquake struck, wiping out a smaller city-supported renovation. Since then, federal disaster relief money was used to bring the theater back to life. It opened in January and has hosted four productions at the 390-seat main stage, as well as four in a 99-seat space.

Morris' contract is scheduled to expire Saturday. In August, he asked the board for a two-year extension, including a raise during the second year. Aaronson declined to discuss the terms of the counterproposals that followed. But Morris said that he was offered an extension that would cover only January through March--following three months of time off with no pay through the rest of 2000, when the company is not producing. He responded with a proposal to work for the first six months of next year, instead of just the first three, but it was rejected.

Morris and Aaronson agreed that Morris is owed several thousand dollars in back salary and fees. Morris also said that his contract requires the company to keep him on during the search for a replacement. Managing director Pegge Forrest said the board is likely to name the theater's staff producer, Jim Brochu, as a temporary replacement.

Asked why the board is letting Morris go, Aaronson said it was "tough" for the company to pay his salary, reported by another source to be about $50,000 plus separate fees for each show Morris directed. He also said that Morris has "alienated some of the people around there" with outbursts of temper.

When the theater opened in January, Morris, who was then 70, told The Times that he probably would leave after a couple of years. On Tuesday, he said that he had asked for a two-year extension beginning this fall primarily as a negotiating tactic. But he said that the board's idea of asking him not to work this fall was "insanity," because designers and actors will have to be picked for the first production during the next few months, and rehearsals will begin in December.

Morris disparaged the board's fund-raising abilities. But Forrest said that Morris frequently asked to be kept out of the loop on financial matters. Two of the next season's four productions have attracted sponsors who have pledged $100,000 each, she said. Along with fund-raising auctions and a telemarketing campaign for new subscriptions that begins on Monday, she expects that at least $500,000 will be raised by January to finance the new season.

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