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DJs help get the party started at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

Peter Krouse loves to mix it up in his sets at the theater's 'lounge.' 'I really enjoy experimenting and finding connections,' he says.

April 20, 2011|By Margaret Gray, Special to the Los Angeles Times

As you pass through the Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre, on your way into Martin McDonagh's Irish tragicomedy "The Cripple of Inishmaan," you may be startled by the comfy sofas, the flattering amber lighting and the personable young man who urges you to take your Guinness into the house.

Right, you think. They'll really let you waltz past the usher with a brimming pint. But he's serious.

You feel so hip, and so ineffably Irish.

The CTG's other two theaters, the Ahmanson and the Mark Taper, are located downtown at the Music Center. The theaters' plaza is gorgeous and their lobbies imposing, but both are short on throw pillows and munchies.

Eric Sims and Tom Burmester, the Douglas' operations manager and performance manager, respectively, are going for a different vibe at the baby of the CTG family and its most intimate space. They want to make the play-going experience friendlier. One method is hiring entertainers for the "lounge," as they call their evolving pre- and post-show lobby scene. Music is provided by a DJ on Thursday and Friday nights and a live band on Saturday nights.

Peter Krouse is one of a rotating group of DJs that "spin" at the Douglas. Krouse, 27, taught himself to spin in high school. However, the technology has evolved significantly since then: He now uses a Serato system, including a laptop where his tracks are stored, along with turntables with vinyl record-like disks that are somehow "time-coded" so he can scratch and mix songs like an old-school DJ.

When Krouse discusses his approach to the Douglas gigs, it becomes clear that he's deeply attuned to the power of sound to express and influence emotions. On one level, of course, the work is technical. "I compare it to learning an instrument," he says. "You have to practice the way you would practice piano." Once he mastered that part of it, "the fun began."

Although his first love is hip-hop, he seeks out and incorporates a wide range of styles he learned about through his parents, fans and collectors of eclectic music. "I really enjoy experimenting and finding connections, rhythmically, emotionally, sonically, between songs. Maybe they'll seem to have nothing to do with each other, but they sound great together."

Before a show, Krouse researches the play the Douglas is presenting, pursuing its cultural or thematic clues. His exploration of Irish music for "The Cripple of Inishmaan" led him to Afro Celt Sound System — an African-Irish fusion — "that I never would have heard of otherwise."

"The work is fun because it expands my musical range," he adds.

He makes a point of attending a performance of the play so he knows what his audience will be experiencing. "I see where my head's at," he says. And he considers the crowd's varying ages and cultural frames of reference. For "Venice," the hip-hop musical version of "Othello" last fall, he started out playing welcoming, catchy soul and R&B numbers, then subtly worked in the hip-hop.

Not every play suggests a particular type of music. Or else the music it does evoke isn't in keeping with the mellow, relaxing vibe that Sims and Burmester are going for. For the intense, heavily interactive production "The Author," in February, Krouse made it his goal to help the audience unwind. "One guy came up to me and said, 'I'm happy you're playing this stuff, because my head's all messed up from that show.'"

Unlike a club, where a certain crowd tends to congregate, the theater audience is different every night. Krouse reads and responds to theatergoers the way an improv performer would. He prepares a playlist but mixes it up, depending on how things are going. Patrons are mingling, drinking and sometimes eating food donated by local restaurants — even the cast occasionally joins the party — but he gets a lot of comments and questions.

"My favorite thing is when I play a song and somebody comes up and asks, 'Wow, what's that?'"

"The Cripple of Inishmaan" is playing through May 1.

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