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Survey Surprises Make El Portal Rethink Premieres

February 25, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

The people who run El Portal Center for the Arts in North Hollywood recently surveyed their audience--or the 2,000 theatergoers who filled out forms--to learn what types of shows they prefer.

Leading the list: big musicals. Unfortunately, El Portal isn't large enough or sufficiently well-endowed to do big musicals.

The least popular type of show: world premieres. Oops. Two of the four shows in El Portal's current main-stage season are world premieres.

Women between the ages of 50 and 70 with family incomes of more than $100,000 made up 55% of those surveyed. It's "the 'Golden Girls' set," said El Portal's acting artistic director, Jim Brochu.

The survey will influence planning for next season. Expect fewer premieres. Brochu also acknowledged that the panned premiere that opened the 2001 season, Tom Dulack's "Shooting Craps," "wasn't ready. It needed to play out of town first."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 28, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater Notes column--Jim Brochu's title was incorrectly reported in the Theater Notes column in last weekend's Sunday Calendar. He is artistic director at El Portal Center for the Arts. The column also misidentified the only production in El Portal's first main-stage season that had been previously produced in L.A. It was "The Play's the Thing."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 4, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater Notes--Jim Brochu's title was incorrectly reported in the column in the Feb. 25 Sunday Calendar. He is artistic director at El Portal Center for the Arts. The column also misidentified the only production in El Portal's first main-stage season that had been previously produced in L.A. It was "The Play's the Thing."

The company cannot afford to workshop plays before they arrive on the 354-seat main stage, Brochu said. By contrast, with lower costs in El Portal's 99-seat Circle Theatre, the company was able to workshop "Snapshots," which closed there last Sunday--and "Snapshots" became the Circle's biggest hit.

The survey points to a perpetual dilemma facing many mid-size companies: Do you pick sure-fire fare that your existing audience wants to see, or do you try to build newer, younger audiences by taking a chance on new plays?

Companies with more specifically defined missions don't face this question so starkly. East West Players concentrates on Asian American work, most of it new or at least unfamiliar. A Noise Within does the classics. But most of the other mid-size companies that sprouted in recent years grapple with this issue.

El Portal, without any sizable existing audience base, began with grand plans to avoid the chestnuts. "It's Only a Play" was the only one of the four plays on the initial main-stage season that had been previously produced in L.A.

In retrospect, and contradicting the survey indications, "It's Only a Play" was hardly the most popular of the four. The company's edgiest choice, the profanity-laced "Popcorn," drew the most protests from theatergoers but also was named the second most popular of the four in the recent survey. The mild-mannered "Over the River and Through the Woods" was the most appreciated production.

Of the first season's subscribers, nearly 70% renewed. Without many newcomers, the number of subscribers fell from about 5,800 late last season to 4,228 last week. Brochu believes a turn toward more familiar fare, at least on the main stage, is in order.

El Portal is no longer the San Fernando Valley's only mid-size company with an ongoing Actors' Equity agreement, since Colony Theatre Company received Equity's permission to move immediately to 168 seats, with a plan to use all 276 seats at its new Burbank Center Stage home by 2002.

Like El Portal, the Colony presents a mix of old and new, with a little more emphasis on the old--playing now are "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and "The Cocktail Hour." Before full capacity is reached, Colony also will stage "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," the local premiere of "The Clearing," and "Into the Woods."

The Colony has more subscribers than El Portal--nearly 4,800--but it started with a bigger base of support from its quarter-century as a 99-seat theater in L.A. Its philosophy, said producing director Barbara Beckley, is that 'we pick things we want to do. Our audience has grown because they like what we do. The audience taste reflects our taste," not vice versa.

Among Los Angeles County's other new mid-size companies, International City Theatre in Long Beach is somewhere between El Portal and the Colony on the spectrum of new versus old plays, while the Hermosa Beach Playhouse is the most conservative of them all.

Hermosa's executive director, James Blackman, said that in the relatively theater-deprived South Bay, even A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia," which recently closed at Hermosa, isn't well-known. South Bay residents are not likely "to get back on the 405" after working all day and drive to Los Angeles to see the latest plays, he noted.

However, after three seasons of preparation, he believes his audience is ready for something new, so Hermosa's next show will be a premiere--a musical, "Bingo." Next season, however, it's back to the tried and true: "Late Nite Catechism," "All Night Strut," "I Do, I Do" and "Driving Miss Daisy."

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