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THEATER

No Energy Shortage at This Company

The Powerhouse has had a make-over to match its expanded artistic vision.

April 08, 2001|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | F. Kathleen Foley is a regular theater reviewer for Calendar

There's nothing like getting a new lease on life when you're in your 80s. Once largely obscured by masses of bougainvillea, the formerly frumpy Powerhouse Theatre is now handsomely visible from the trendy shops and restaurants on Santa Monica's Main Street.

But there's more to this transformation than a simple trim. The Powerhouse has had a major make-over that has left it looking, if not exactly nubile, certainly more spruce.

And if last season's hit "The Apollo of Bellac" and the current production, "Last Train to Nibroc," are any indication, the theater has toned up not only physically, but artistically as well.

First built in 1910, the old power station was converted into a theater in 1982 by Paul Linke, who premiered his celebrated one-man show, "Time Flies When You're Alive," at the space. After Linke left, the theater became primarily a rental house, falling gradually into disrepair.

But Andrew Barrett-Weiss, executive director of the Powerhouse Theatre Company, saw the possibilities beyond the battered facade. The burly, bearded former television executive of 30 and a group of friends took over the space in 1995, intent upon reestablishing the Powerhouse as an artistic force on Los Angeles' small theater scene.

Of seven original partners in the Powerhouse endeavor, only Barrett-Weiss remains, a testament to endurance-or possibly foolhardiness. "As with any theater company, there were tensions, and some people left because of those," Barrett-Weiss says. "Also, we were all working as assistants in the television industry, and any time anyone got a promotion, they left. With me being the exception. I was the nut. In retrospect, looking back, I think we were all nuts. We signed the lease and took over the property on April Fools' Day 1995. Somehow, I don't think that was coincidental."

At the time, Barrett-Weiss didn't realize he was facing an almost farcical succession of obstacles. Stumbling blocks were all too literal-walkways were clogged with debris; ceilings were collapsing. The list of fire code violations included a wiring system so antiquated it could have been personally installed by Thomas Edison.

"It was a mess," he recalls. "It was completely overgrown, a shantytown. In the first couple of years, we had the Fire Department coming every six months with problems. We were shut down a number of times. It was a completely unsafe building."

Physical dilapidation wasn't the only problem. The location of the Powerhouse, smack on the boundary between L.A.'s Venice neighborhood and Santa Monica, resulted in a snarl of red tape that threatened to strangle the fledgling company.

"Whenever we ran into a problem and needed the Police or the Fire Department, we got the same run-around," says Barrett-Weiss. "The city of Santa Monica would say, 'No, you're in Venice,' and then Venice would say, 'No, call Santa Monica.' It was a real lesson in the workings of city government. Now, since we've put our main entrance on 2nd Street, it's a lot less of an issue. We are now technically in Santa Monica. That has been established."

But through all the hardships, Barrett-Weiss remained keenly aware of the space's potential. "I love our theater," he says. "It's a really sturdy building with a lot of character. The theater is really a good use for the facility. Because it feels like a theater. When you sit in that space, it's a wonderful feeling."

Most of the time, anyway. There have been drawbacks. "A few years ago, people would sit down, and the seats would go right out from under them," Barrett-Weiss says. "It was a pretty sad situation."

But potential audience members interested in seeing "Last Train," a bittersweet World War II-era romance, can be assured that comfortable new seats were one of the first upgrades. Among other major improvements are a new wiring system and a welcoming wood deck that wraps around the back entrance to the theater. Future plans call for new landscaping, more lighting equipment and a renovated backstage area.

Yet the revitalization of the Powerhouse has been as much psychological as it has been physical.

"About 21/2 years ago, we decided we wanted to move away from being a rental house," Barrett-Weiss says. "The feeling was that you can't be a rental house and maintain quality. When you run a theater, you never want to book something just because you need to pay the rent. That's when you're really in trouble. And that move away from rentals was probably most orchestrated by Aron, our artistic director."

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