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New Team in the Pro Ranks

April 15, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Add one more company to the ranks of L.A.'s professional mid-size theaters.

The board of directors of Woodland Hills Community Theatre, which operates out of the 167-seat West Valley Playhouse in Canoga Park, has decided to use a few Actors' Equity members in all of its productions from now on.

The company had been using Equity actors in at least one production a season, but the recently signed Special Appearance Agreement will provide union wages of at least $250 a week to between one and three actors in every show.

The union had suggested a Small Professional Theatre contract, which requires at least two Equity actors and one Equity stage manager in every show. But Woodland Hills went with the Special Appearance Agreement because "for the actor who works, it's a better contract," paying higher wages than the alternative, said company founder and artistic director Jon Berry. For the company's bottom line, the Special Appearance Agreement does not require contributions to the union health plan, though it does require pension payments.

The use of "Community Theatre" in a moniker usually connotes a nonunion organization, and Berry's group has occasionally dropped the word "community." But Berry said the company won't drop the term officially, instead defining itself simply as a theater that serves a particular community.

Even there, however, there may be some confusion: Although named after Woodland Hills, where the organization began, it is now located in the adjacent Canoga Park.

The West Valley Playhouse is a block from the Madrid Theatre-a larger mid-size venue owned by the city of L.A., but one that lacks a resident company. Berry hopes that two mid-size theaters so close by might stimulate the rise of an arts district to match NoHo-on the east side of the San Fernando Valley.

WeNoHo, perhaps?

With El Portal Center in NoHo, the Colony in Burbank and Theatre West on the southern boundary of the Valley, as well as the upgraded status for Woodland Hills, the Valley has taken the lead in the movement to create more mid-size troupes that pay a fairly respectable wage to actors.

Woodland Hills' upcoming shows include "Room Service" in May, "All Night Strut" in August and the premiere of William Link's "Murder Plot" in November. The company's use of Equity actors will qualify its shows for Ovation Award consideration, which was one of the reasons for the board's decision, Berry said.

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SEQUEL CITY: McCoy Rigby Entertainment's 2001-02 season at La Mirada Theatre will include two sequels to shows that were seen there in the current season.

"The Sanders Family Christmas" (Nov. 30-Dec. 16), by Connie Ray and Alan Bailey, will bring back the family of bluegrass gospel singers who were in "Smoke on the Mountain" earlier this year. And "King O' the Moon" (June 7-23, 2002) returns to the story of the Pazinski family introduced in last fall's "Over the Tavern," by Tom Dudzick.

The rest of the season will include Mark St. Germain's historical fantasia "Camping With Henry and Tom" (Oct. 12-28), which was seen at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1996; the '40s revue "Swingtime Canteen" (Feb. 1-17), created by Linda Thorsen Bond, William Repicci and Charles Busch; and "Grease" (April 5-21).

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TWO VIEWS OF DISNEY: At the recent Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards ceremony, actress Audrey Rapoport did a comedy bit in the role of a sodden-voiced, over-the-hill Darlene Gillespie, the former Mouseketeer, talking about hard times at Disney. The real Gillespie was convicted of stock fraud in 1999, so Rapoport didn't pick on Gillespie out of the blue, and the routine got its laughs.

But the most striking thing about Rapoport's act, from an L.A. theater awards point of view, was how drastically it contrasted with the attitude toward Disney at the Ovation Awards ceremony last fall. There, Disney CEO Michael Eisner received a special award and was hailed as the savior of L.A.'s musical theater scene for bringing "The Lion King" here.

Critics Circle producer and co-host Wenzel Jones had attended the Ovation Awards but said he had forgotten the homage to Eisner-'it was just a big blur." The booking of Rapoport, who won a Critics Circle award last year, did not represent a conscious effort to tweak the Ovations, he swore.

Of course, Rapoport was making a conscious effort to tweak Disney. But certainly Mickey Mouse can take a joke.

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