SUMMER@THE BROAD: Alan Cumming: Uncut, Fri. July 9, 7:30 & 9:30 pm. Tickets: $60-$75. The Broad Stage; Celebrity Autobiography, Mon., July 19 & Sun., Sept. 26, 7:30 & 9:30 pm. Tickets: $35-$65, The Edye Second Space. The Broad Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica; 310.434.3200 or thebroadstage.com. Parking is free.
If you build it, they will come. At least that’s what Dale Franzen believed when a dinner party exchange with Dustin Hoffman led the two to spearhead a 10-year capital campaign to build a world-class performing arts center west of the 405 Freeway.
Now two years after their efforts birthed the 499-seat Eli and Edythe Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center and its 99-seat Edye Second Space companion in October 2008, presenting artists ranging from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Placido Domingo to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on The Broad Stage and more eclectic fare like Jane Austen Unscripted With High Tea in the Edye, Franzen has launched her third season dipping a toe into summer programming. It’s a mash-up of family fare and adult content that led with new musical Daddy Long Legs taking the high road on The Broad’s main stage juxtaposed against an upcoming one night stand with Alan Cumming: Uncut and Celebrity Autobiography unspooling monthly in the Edye’s newly transformed cabaret style space.
The 2009 Drama Desk Award winner for “Unique Theatrical Experience” and 2010 Bistro Award winner, Celebrity Autobiography features a rotating cast of celebrities performing unedited excerpts from the tell-all memoirs of other celebrities as solo or ensemble pieces. “Authors” interpreted range from Tommy Lee to Sylvester Stallone, Loni Anderson to Burt Reynolds and Ivana Trump to Tiger Woods. The new July 19 cast includes Scott Adsit (30 Rock), Lesley Ann Warren, Fred Willard, Dayle Reyfel, Eugene Pack, Brooke Shields and others to be announced.
Scottish actor/singer/writer/director Alan Cumming brings the latest version of his critically acclaimed one-man show, featuring the Tony winner’s irreverent blend of cheeky humor and powerhouse song covers.
Last week LA STAGE sat down with The Broad Stage director and former professional opera singer at Huckleberry’s in Santa Monica to talk about the new season, her quest to de-amplify performers, what’s she’s learned being the newest kid on the performing arts block and why community advocate might be her most important calling of all.
LAS: Let’s start with your new summer experiment. What were your thoughts behind it?
DF: My gut feeling was that Santa Monica is an ideal place to have a summer season. Many performing arts centers are closed because they’re tied to the school year. People from all over LA County come out here during the summer. We’re seen as a vacation or staycation destination. A cool, fun place to hang.
LAS: How did you come up with the mix?
DF: I kind of did a test market. I did two shows that are completely opposite. One is very adult and one is very family. Both of them brought in completely different audiences. I thought Daddy Long Legs would be a great show to start with. I looked really hard to find a show that everybody could come to. Eighty five percent of the people at Celebrity Autobiography are new. So I want those people. The question is, are they a summer audience? I think they are a year round audience but this is a way to bring them in.
LAS: You converted the Edye into a club environment to accommodate Celebrity Autobiography.
DF: We wanted to relax a bit more especially with the Edye. We’ve reconfigured it as a lounge, as a club, as a cooler space. The kind of stuff we do there can be different. I hate the word edgy because I don’t think edgy is the right word. I think we can go in a different direction than I would in The Broad. The Broad is this beautifully elegant also intimate space with a very different kind of energy. I’m really looking to develop our summer season and I want it to be an important part of our year.
LAS: Does that mean you’re also considering cabaret acts for the Edye? Will you stage theatre again in that space?
DF: I don’t want to be pigeonholed right now. For me everything is driven by if I think it will work in my venue and if it’s something that will add to our programming. So if a great dramatic piece came along, I would put it in there. There’s a show I wanted to do this year but the tour fell out. I’ll probably bring it next year. The Edye is a totally flexible space. It can be whatever we want. I think the way we set it up is really fun and creates a different kind of intimacy. I’m really not so much driven by category as quality.
LAS: Who are you opening with this next season?
DF: Instead of an iconic name, we’re having an opening weekend. First we have Esperanza Spalding, a totally iconic new jazz performer. If you haven’t heard of her you will. That’s Thursday night. Friday night is Judy Collins. A totally beautiful show. She’s amazing at 72. She sounds exactly the same and she looks great! Saturday we have the great cellist Lynn Harrell in recital. Then a week later the Globe comes with The Merry Wives of Windsor. So, it’s an intense fall.
LAS: It looks as if you’re expanding your offerings again this year including Peter Brook coming next spring with the west coast premieres of Fragments by Samuel Beckett and The Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
DF: In many ways I feel like last year was our first real year. We had 80 shows. That’s a real season. We had 40 the year before. This year it’s 120. So we’re certainly in the broadening and deepening phase. My gut is we’re going to stay there. But it’s also really driven by programming. I’m not programming just to program. So if I don’t find the right fit, I won’t do a summer season. It has to be something I think we can sell and something I think can be a good show. I’m not tied to selling a subscription series like the Geffen or the Taper. Mine is much more driven by who I think is a good thing for us to do.
LAS: You have a $10 million endowment set up by the Broads. Does that cushion allow you to have fewer economic worries than those other venues face?
DF: No. I have to earn the money to produce my season. We do a huge amount of fundraising. We’re in the same boat as everyone else. The wonderful thing is, thanks to Eli and Edye Broad, we do have a $10 million endowment that will kick in for 2012. So that’s great. Even with that endowment, there’s still a lot of fundraising we have to do.
LAS: I think people just assume you’re attached to Santa Monica College and that relationship somehow makes a difference in your sustainability.
DF: We’re not attached to the school. We are a separate 501(c) (3). We’re like KCRW. We’re a separate entity that functions. How we’re attached to the school is they are extremely important partners in this whole endeavor and I couldn’t have done it without them. They’ve been fabulous. We do a lot of outreach and we do a lot of opportunities for the students. But we’re not attached. The same way that UCLA Live! is not attached.
LAS: You mentioned having a more community centric mission than the others.
DF: I feel like I’m more like BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] or 92nd Street Y. We’re a community-based performing arts center in a very wonderfully vibrant artistic community, both affluent and not affluent. We are aligned with an educational institution. I feel like we have a community service to perform and that does change how you see things. I actually believe venues like this can change entire communities the way BAM did Brooklyn. I think we can have a huge impact on culture, art and taste making in our community and in this region. I love working with KCRW. I work very closely with Ruth Seymour who’s on my board. And now [KCRW General Manager] Jennifer Ferro. That’s a very unique alliance in many ways. Having them here and working with them is a very unique thing for a performing arts center. I don’t minimize that.
LAS: You don’t have exclusive domain over use of the Broad Stage & Edye space, right?
DF: The school has priority booking and we have to negotiate dates sometimes like with the Globe [Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre] coming back from London. There were some conflicting dates we had to negotiate. The school has the theatre first and then they turn it over to me. I think it’s very fair and it’s a great partnership. [Santa Monica College President] Dr. Tsang and my immediate boss Don Girard have been incredibly supportive. They’re thrilled. This has brought a light on the college in a way that they’ve never dreamed. We’ve gotten international press. The level of programming I think has exceeded what even they thought they would see.
LAS: Where are you in terms of presenting vs. producing?
DF: I’m really mostly presenting at this point. I’m not producing from scratch where I’m paying for the show and producing it but things like Jane Austen Unscripted, which I brought last year to huge success and we tied it to a high tea, I mean that’s my package. For Celebrity Autobiography, changing everything in the Edye for that lounge look was my idea. I haven’t really gone into full steam producing and until we’re really stable financially and I feel I can really go out and do that – I mean I’m looking at things and people are talking to me – but I don’t think we’re there yet.
LAS: Are you finding as you’ve started to prove yourself that people are now pounding on your door?
DF: Absolutely. I would say my first year I was making all the calls! (laughs) I was just banging on every door on every level all over the country and all over the world. Now it has really changed. I’m getting calls from all over but also the landscape is changing. I knew that would happen. It takes a lot of time to develop loyalty and trust in a venue. So we’re in our second year. But the first big thing was getting the Globe. That was a huge coup for us. The Globe has opened many, many doors. Because it’s kind of like, well if they can do the Globe, then they’re real and they can handle things.
LAS: It must be ironic to have this state-of-the-art space people are hesitant to use.
DF: We are the new kid on the block. We don’t have the decades of loyalty the Geffen or UCLA or the Taper have. There are a lot of shows I wanted that I didn’t get. And I’m sure that will happen again. That’s how life is. But I definitely know the reason I didn’t get them is they didn’t know me. They didn’t know my venue. It makes a huge difference when people come see The Broad. But I feel like I’m really gaining trust. My staff is fantastic. They work unbelievably hard. The artists that are on stage constantly say to me it feels like they’re playing to a large living room but on a world-class stage.
LAS: Are you attracting the kind of audience mix you thought you would?
DF: Not yet. Of my ticket buying public, and I would say this is true for every theater in America, 63% is white women over 45 who make more than $100,000. That’s great. But I want to see a lot of other people coming, too. I want to see people who maybe don’t come to the theatre and make it part of their lives. We’re working on a kind of inclusiveness that’s very different. If I don’t see certain people there, it bothers me. I don’t know if that’s true for other presenters but it bothers me. I want everybody to be at this party. I think that’s much more interesting. We get ghettoized here in many ways. So I’d like to change that. It may be a pipe dream. But that’s one of my dreams.
LAS: In the early stages of The Broad, Dustin Hoffman said he wanted to launch a repertory theatre company here. Are there still plans to do that?
DF: We’re not going to do that. We had a long conversation with somebody and I’m so glad we didn’t do it. I think in retrospect it would have been the wrong thing to do. It would have been way too much pressure. There’s a reason there are very few repertory companies in LA. It’s really hard to do. I’m in conversation with the Atlantic [Theatre Company] about doing stuff here because it’s such a great repertory company and they develop great work. There are also companies here in LA I think I can help. Like the way we’re working with the Celebrity Autobiography creators and Theatre Impro. If it’s the right fit, there are ways we can help them be in our venue with our marketing and what we can bring to the table. I don’t think I need to invent the wheel, at least not right now.
LAS: How did the Daddy Long Legs come about? I know the Rubicon Theatre Company developed and world premiered it last fall.
DF: We’re part of a consortium of four theatres. It was the Rubicon, TheatreWorks, Cincinnati Play House and then we tagged on. It came together because we were looking for a family show. And it’s really hard to find a family show! (laughs) Michael Jackowitz was telling me about this show over and over again so I flew up to TheatreWorks to see it. I thought it was really sweet and endearing. I really liked the message. I just thought the story of a young girl finding her voice through writing and through working was a great story for anybody. I mean I had a lot of men crying, men getting misty eyed.
LAS: The show has a simpler, more melodic style than say Green Day’s American Idiot.
DF: I thought it was something really different. It’s a very leisurely, anti-email pace, which I liked. A lot of women in our age range came up to me saying it was so nice to be in a leisurely environment instead of this mad concert.
LAS: I interviewed Jerry Herman recently and he said there should be room for shows that focus on melody to co-exist next to youth-driven rock musicals.
DF: I think it’s the whole issue of commerce and art as Sondheim said. Art isn’t easy. Commerce now is trumping art in many ways. It’s very tricky. Believe me, I’m running a business. I have to think on both sides of that track and there are daunting moments. The audiences are also changing. We’re not who they’re making shows for anymore even though we’re buying the tickets. If they don’t bring in the 35-and-under crowd, they’ll be nothing happening in another 20-30 years. It’s funny. I like American Idiot. I didn’t see it again. I love Spring Awakening. I love Hair. Those are rock shows and there’s a place for that. The issue for me is that when every show at the Tonys is a rock-n-roll show, it’s like you don’t even have to sing anymore. Without a microphone, none of these people would have careers.
LAS: As an opera singer, I imagine amplification completely irritates you.
DF: It’s kind of a personal agenda but I really want to turn my theatre into a non-amplified space. I didn’t want to amplify Daddy Long Legs but they’re not used to singing without mikes. And they were only here for two weeks. I couldn’t change it. If I develop a show, I’m not amplifying it. We have great acoustics in that house. And if you can’t fill a 500 seat house…
LAS: A lot of people I know who saw the great Broadway stars wonder why the younger generation can’t do the same.
DF: Because they don’t train that way anymore. It’s just shocking. It’s ridiculous. And this is the problem. It’s the iPod generation. They’re used to having everything blasted in their ear instead of having to listen. We didn’t mike the Globe and the Globe did great. Now they’re all amazingly trained actors but there’s been a real shift. And that depresses me. I just can’t stand the miking. It really bugs me. I want to try to make a difference but it’s going to be a hard road. Producers don’t want to change it. They’re like it gives us much more flexibility. It’s called singing! Learn how to sing! Take a voice lesson!
LAS: You worked a long time to make The Broad a reality. Now that it’s manifested and in its toddler phase, is it what you expected? What has surprised you?
DF: To manifest something and then have it turn out better than you thought? That’s how I feel. The theatre is better than I dreamed on every level. It’s really a world-class theatre. The Broad is an amazing space. Every time I sit there and something works, I’m just pinching myself, going ah! People bought tickets! I can’t believe it! Just to see the response. People are starting to get this larger-than-a-living-room-salon kind of community that I missed in LA and that I’m trying to create here.
LAS: So you’re actively cultivating a salon atmosphere before and after performances.
DF: It’s definitely becoming a place where you meet new friends and see your old ones. My staff recognizes everybody. Our whole messaging is intimacy. When you come to the Broad, we know who you are and we want to be part of your family. We want you to be part of ours. I’m interested in seeing what we can create in this lonely big sprawling city where it’s so hard to feel comfortable. Sometimes I just work the lobby and go up to people I don’t know and say hi, is this your first time here? I haven’t seen you before. And the thing is, everybody likes that. It’s the one place we can come together. It doesn’t matter who you’re voting for, what money you’re making; it’s all about who you want to see on that stage. So that’s a personal challenge for me.
LAS: You said in the past you wanted to build something that acts as catalyst for arts advocacy and local community building. It seems that wish is coming true.
DF: That flabbergasts me more than anything else. I actually did what I said I was going to do! When you start projects like this you write a lot of stuff. God only knows if you wind up doing them. There are other theatres built in LA who started with a mission and that’s not at all what they’re doing now. I sold my bill of goods and I’m doing my bill of goods. And that’s kind of cool. It’s actually what I thought was missing here. You can go to a theatre but I wanted to go somewhere where I was part of the community. I really wanted something different. It’s really a 21st century community center that happens to have high-end art.
For a preliminary schedule of The Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center’s fall season, please click here.
Feature image of the Broad Stage Theater by Benny Chan.