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Mark Taper Forum Takes Steps to Remove Them

March 04, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

If you can't climb steps, don't go backstage at the Mark Taper Forum. After going through the stage door, you immediately face six steps to get to the backstage area. Then you discover that the dressing rooms are all on the second floor, up 22 more steps, without an elevator.

This obstacle course has prevented people who can't handle stairs from being onstage, as well as backstage, at the Taper. The only exceptions have been special events in which temporary ramps allowed passage from the interior seating area to the stage.

The Taper was constructed before the passage of federal disability laws, including the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, so it didn't face the same intense scrutiny for disabled access that new buildings face. For two decades, the Taper has run a program, now called Other Voices, that focuses on disabled issues and artists. But most of the Other Voices programs have been presented in smaller, more accessible spaces instead of the Taper main stage.

Changes are afoot. "The Body of Bourne," a play about disabled writer Randolph Bourne, written by the disabled John Belluso, and featuring at least two disabled actors (casting is not yet complete), will begin previews May 26. In anticipation of the play, which was developed by Other Voices, the Taper building is undergoing its first-ever expansion.

Funded by $500,000 from Los Angeles County, which owns the building, the construction will extend the Taper's rear wall eight feet farther toward the neighboring Ahmanson Theatre. The expanded space will include a ramp leading backstage, two fully accessible dressing rooms and additional storage facilities. The extension will fit under the current roof line, which overhangs the rest of the building. The goal of the exterior design will be to harmonize with the recently reconfigured Ahmanson facade, said Center Theatre Group production manager Jonathan Barlow Lee.

Inside the Taper auditorium, disabled audience members also will enjoy more space. The extra room is being carved out of the main cross aisle, immediately in front of the raked back seating area, on the same level as the elevator for patrons in wheelchairs. Six more theatergoers in wheelchairs and their companions will be able to see shows, in addition to the two existing spaces in front of the elevator. The cross aisle will remain the same width, for the back row of the front seating area has been removed.

If the new space isn't filled to capacity with patrons in wheelchairs and their companions, other theatergoers will be able to use the area in portable seats.

Victoria Ann Lewis, founder and co-director of Other Voices, said she "is really proud that the Taper understood this is an artists' issue as well as an audience issue." A number of big theaters have "gorgeous front-of-the-house facilities but no backstage access," she said.

She gave much of the credit to Lee, who "wanted to do this and came up with creative solutions."

HYPERBOLE NOTES: "Los Angeles currently boasts over 250 theaters that mount an average of 3,000 productions a year"--from an article in the February issue of American Theatre magazine

OK, there's a lot of theater around L.A., but an average of 3,000 productions? According to Actors' Equity, in 2000 there were 103 L.A. County productions on Equity contracts (shows in which professional actors are paid more than token fees). And the average annual number of shows on Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan is between 1,100 and 1,200.

Solo performances and other forms of performance art usually aren't under Equity's jurisdiction, and it sometimes seems as if a million of these are mounted around L.A. every year. However, they probably number in the 250 to 500 range, judging from the number that open each week. Most tallies might also allow the inclusion of some regular plays without Equity approval, but the process then becomes a matter of deciding which criteria to use while counting.

How did the writer of the magazine article, Luis Reyes, come up with his figure?

"I am taking into account everything," Reyes told The Times. "Dance performance shows that have theatrical elements, showcases, improv shows, straight plays, community theater," college productions that are public.

If we throw in one-night staged readings, impromptu street performances, sitcom tapings with studio audiences, magic and ice shows, school plays and summer camp shows, 3,000 is probably too low a figure--10,000, anyone?

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