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In for the Long Run

Laguna Playhouse Celebrates Its 80th Anniversary This Weekend With Renewed Vigor Theater


The past recedes quickly in Orange County, where orange groves have virtually disappeared and old traditions and cherished landscapes are impatiently shunted aside by fresh developments.

As the Laguna Playhouse, the county's oldest theater, celebrates its 80th anniversary this weekend, there are few, if any, links left between the institution's present and its past.

For its first 70 years, the playhouse was a community theater where amateurs put on shows for fun, glory and camaraderie. It was recognized as one of the best theaters of its kind in the country.

The last 10 years have brought a complete change in leadership and direction. Now the playhouse is a fully professional, nonprofit regional theater that aspires to be recognized as one of the best in the country, period.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 27, 2000 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Laguna Playhouse--An Oct. 20 story incorrectly reported that artistic director Andrew Barnicle had scouted the musical "Enter the Guardsman" in London before it was booked into the Laguna Playhouse. Richard Stein, the theater's executive director, did the London research on "Guardsman."

Executive director Richard Stein arrived in 1990; the following year, Andrew Barnicle became the playhouse's artistic director. In 1995, they realized their aim of going pro, as the playhouse signed a contract with Actors' Equity ensuring that most--and in many productions, all--roles would be played by union actors earning union wages.

The theater's growth over the last decade has been rapid, even by Orange County standards.

Stein says the annual budget has quintupled from $800,000 when he arrived to $4 million. The full-time staff has grown from 12 to 20 with many more positions filled by part-timers.

"A lot of the things I wanted to have happen have happened," Barnicle said. "It looks like the place I wished it to become 10 years ago."

There is more wishing and striving to be done, however. The big dream at the playhouse is to build a second, smaller stage to complement the 420-seat Moulton Theater. The company has an ideal site for the project--an adjoining office building it bought in 1998 for $3.1 million--but lacks the cash to remodel it.

Fund-raising has been proceeding quietly. Chastened by a thwarted capital campaign during the mid-1990s, Stein and Barnicle are staying mum about budgets and timetables for the expansion--at least until the playhouse secures a major cornerstone gift.

They have plenty of competition for the local arts-philanthropy dollar. The Orange County Performing Arts Center is in the midst of a $200-million expansion campaign. South Coast Repertory--long considered the county's top theater and now regarded as among the nation's best, especially as an incubator for new plays--also is engaged in a capital campaign to add a stage to its complex in Costa Mesa.

What's more, Stein acknowledges, the playhouse has struggled in its annual fund-raising efforts. This year's target is $750,000--a good chunk of it to be raised with the 80th anniversary gala Saturday night. If successful, the playhouse will fund 18% of its budget with donations, far below what Stein says is a national standard of about 40% for nonprofit theaters. South Coast, with its $8.3-million budget, seeks to fund about 30% of its operating costs via donations.

South Coast has a 161-seat second stage to launch new work without taking a big box office risk; until it builds another stage, the Laguna Playhouse doesn't have that luxury. (The playhouse has premiered three plays and one new adaptation of a classic during the Stein/Barnicle tenure, with a fourth new play, "Who's Hot, Who's Not," on tap later this season.) If two or three shows in its seven-play seasons don't do well, Barnicle said, the result can be a deficit.

Which is what happened last season.

"We ran a large deficit," Stein said, declining to give a figure. "But we're back on track," said Barnicle.

The playhouse has been buoyed by a leap in season subscribers, Stein said. There are 10,000 now, up from fewer than 7,000 a year ago, with a record renewal rate of 80%.

Stein said that $500,000 in repair costs over the last two years contributed to the 1999-2000 deficit as the playhouse replaced antiquated stage lighting and fixed the roof, the air conditioning and the plumbing in the 31-year-old Moulton Theater.

"I think we also made mistakes in marketing last year, and we have adjusted for it," Stein said. "I won't go into a lot of details. Let's say there were some new approaches and ideas tried out, and by and large they failed."

The theater had gotten a big boost in 1997-98 from a musical comedy revue, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," that grossed $1.25 million, a record, and helped lift attendance to an all-time high of 110,000.

But the next season had a good deal of the challenging fare--including plays about AIDS and the Holocaust--that Stein and Barnicle see as an important part of their mission. They think that may have chased away some subscribers brought in by "I Love You."

Consequently, Stein says, the playhouse has emerged with a large core audience that has stuck with it--"people who did embrace the eclectic philosophy." Last year's attendance was about 95,000, and the playhouse leaders expect 100,000 or so will be the norm.

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