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Her legacy lives on at the Geffen

It's a new venue, with an eye to new work, from an old name: Skirball-Kenis.

November 20, 2005|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

THE name Audrey Skirball-Kenis is almost talismanic in L.A. theater circles.

Skirball-Kenis was a patron saint of new playwrights, supporting them through the West L.A. play development organization named after her, as well as through donations to new play programs, such as those at the Mark Taper Forum.

But A.S.K. Theater Projects shut down in 2003, a year after Skirball-Kenis died, and this year many of the Taper's new play programs were ended.

However, a second Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater is now opening its doors in West L.A., as a new wing of the Geffen Playhouse. The name stems from a $5-million contribution from the Skirball Foundation, which was named after Audrey's third husband, Jack Skirball. Hanging in the lobby of the new A.S.K. Theater is a painting of Audrey and her surviving husband, Charles Kenis.

Like its predecessor, this Skirball Kenis Theater is expected to help develop new plays.

The Geffen has recently commissioned plays from David Rambo ("God's Man in Texas"), Jane Anderson ("Looking for Normal") and Donald Margulies ("Dinner With Friends"), says Geffen artistic director Randall Arney, but "we want not to just write a check but to read plays, workshop them, bring them along."

The new theater, with flexible seating that could range from 117 to about 150, is probably a better place to do all of that than the 522-seat main stage at the Geffen, which must house subscription seasons of finished productions, Arney says. "We hope this will lift the limits on our ability to create new work."

Previous Geffen productions that might have benefited from the immediacy of the smaller space include Bryan Davidson's "War Music" and Lee Kalcheim's "Defiled," Arney adds.

Still, the new venue isn't intended to duplicate the old A.S.K., which had a lot of money but never had a venue of its own. The new Skirball Kenis has no ongoing dedicated funding apart from the regular Geffen budget.

Besides developing fledgling work, the Geffen venue will also serve as a rehearsal room, as a potential recital hall for music and other performing arts beyond theater, and possibly even as a space for revivals.

"I love picking huge plays for smaller parameters," Arney says, citing as one possible example Lanford Wilson's 30-character "Balm in Gilead."

Taking it a step at a time

THE Geffen isn't ready to announce specific plans beyond the opening of "My Buddy Bill." "We didn't want to announce three or four shows there before we knew what it was like to run two theaters," Arney says.

Matt Almos, a former literary manager of A.S.K. Theater Projects and briefly a substitute dramaturge at the Geffen last year, says he's hopeful the new Skirball Kenis might follow in a few of the footsteps of the old.

"It would be great if Audrey's legacy could continue in this venue," says Almos.

Adds Mead Hunter, the former director of literary programs for A.S.K. Theater Projects, "Audrey was the very spirit of active innovation, and it's completely consonant with everything she wanted in the arts that they would build a theater in her name."

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