Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.

Stayin’ Live Summit Ponders Viability of Theater in Hollywood

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A small group discussion at the Hollywood Onstage Summit.
Michael Kricfalusi, executive director of Celebration Theatre, talks with co-members of his break-out team at the Stayin’ Live! Hollywood on Stage Summit

To be, or not to be? That was the subject under consideration by around 50 representatives of theaters, community groups, real estate and government entities on Saturday — but the question was being raised about theater in Hollywood, not about a Danish prince.

The Stayin’ Live summit considered how property development, rent, parking, municipal rules and regulations affect Hollywood theaters.  Although Hollywood is fabled the world over as a movie and TV capital, it’s also the geographic location of Theater Row along Santa Monica Boulevard, as well as larger theatrical venues near Hollywood and Vine.

One of the latter is the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre (formerly known as the Doolittle, the Huntington Hartford and the Wilkes Brothers Vine Street Theatre, among other names for it since 1926), and it was the site of the Stayin’ Live event.

In an interview there, John Flynn, artistic director of Rogue Machine — located three miles south of Theater Row on Pico Boulevard — lamented the adverse role gentrification has played vis-à-vis LA’s playhouses, saying: “What’s happening in LA and Hollywood is smaller arts organizations, including theaters, come into areas they help to redevelop, attracting business and the community grows. Then the rents rise and those arts organizations that built the community up are forced out, such as Celebration and Open Fist.”

Daniel Henning, artistic director of Blank Theatre, introduces Stayin’ Live! Hollywood on Stage Summit

Administrators of those two companies — both of which were formerly ensconced in Hollywood — were among the representatives of various theatrical interests that participated in Stayin’ Live. Others included Elephant Theatre, Vox Lumiere, the Academy of New Musical Theatre, Couerage Theatre, Lyric Theatre, L. Ron Hubbard Pulp Fiction Theatre, Antaeus Theatre, Festival of New American Musicals, the new Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles, Arts for LA and LA STAGE Alliance, as well as Discover Hollywood magazine. Producer Michael Butler, the “hippie millionaire” who produced Hair on Broadway in 1968 and produced a revival of it in Hollywood in 2007, attended.

The session was convened by producer/writer/director Daniel Henning, who is the Blank Theatre’s founding artistic director, serves on the Actors Fund’s Western Regional Council and is vice president of the Hollywood Arts Council (HAC), which partnered with Henning in creating the conference. For years, he has been attempting to grow the Blank from its small Theater Row space into a Hollywood-based midsize theater company.

Introduced by Henning, HAC President Nyla Arslanian welcomed the assembled stakeholders and explained the council’s “mission is to promote and nurture the arts in Hollywood,” which, she insisted, “are vital to the economic development of the area.”

Keith McNutt, Western Region Director of the Actors Fund — a nationwide human services organization supporting performing arts professionals since Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum co-founded the Fund in 1882 — reinforced the latter point during the presentation of his Stanton Fellowship paper entitled “LA Creates: Supporting the Creative Economy in Los Angeles.” McNutt’s report served as Stayin’ Live’s de facto keynote address, containing these eye-opening points:

One out of every eight jobs — or 640,000-plus — in the region is in the creative economy, which is LA’s fourth largest employment cluster out of 66 fields of endeavor. The creative economy — film, TV, music, visual arts, museums, fashion, auto design, theater, et al — generates almost a quarter of a trillion dollars per year in LA, including $200 billion in sales and $3 billion in taxes. “We have a tremendous multiplier effect: Every 10 direct jobs [in creative and performing arts] supports nine indirect jobs; it’s pretty remarkable,” McNutt noted. Charts screened during his power point presentation indicated that theater accounts for up to an approximately nine-percent slice of this economic pie.

Keith McNutt, The Actor's Fund, Stanton Fellow, presents his paper “LA Creates:  Supporting the Creative Economy in Los Angeles”
Keith McNutt, Actors Fund Stanton Fellow, presents his paper “LA Creates:
Supporting the Creative Economy in Los Angeles”

McNutt asserted that “LA has more artists employed than anywhere in the country” and “is the creative capital of the US.” He contended that this status called for planning and policies, with a partnership between artists and government, on municipality- and county-wide levels, to support what McNutt called “creative entrepreneurs.” As part of his fellowship McNutt traveled widely and found, to his chagrin, “that the economic development folks never talk to the arts and culture folks. That is unfortunate and needs to be broken down because the creative community contributes greatly to the overall economy.” (For example, consider how Broadway is a vast engine of tourism for Manhattan.)

In particular, in his Stanton Fellowship report (endowed by the Durfee Foundation),  McNutt argued for a regional branding of Los Angeles that’s in keeping with its artsy nature. To this end he came up with the “LA Creates” slogan to be a sort of West Coast counterpart to the “I Love NY” campaign that emerged to reassert pride in New York City at a time when high crime and an economic downturn beset that metropolis. In the “LA Creates” rebranding initiative, McNutt stressed the importance of involving various stakeholders and cautioned that it was important to prevent “film and TV from being the elephants that trample other arts.” He urged those from various art forms to lay aside past grievances and to look beyond their differences to see what is in the creative community’s current common interests.

(Ironically, while Hollywood is indeed primarily known for its motion picture and television industries, and theater is often cast in the role of the “poor cousin,” it has at least one major advantage when it comes to dealing with the number one threat McNutt identified vis-à-vis L.A.’s creative economy. Live performances can’t be outsourced, so runaway production doesn’t bedevil stages as it does the studios.)

Steven Whiddon, Hollywood field deputy for the Hollywood area’s LA City Council member Mitch O’Farrell, who is the chair of the Arts, Parks, Health, Aging, and L.A. River committee, appeared on behalf of the recently elected councilman. Whiddon said that new developers are asked how their undertakings “benefit the community,” which is a way for theaters to be able to provide a necessary ingredient to proposed property developments that can be mutually beneficial. Otherwise, the City Council representative offered no specific program or proposal.

Steven Whiddon. Council District 13
Steven Whiddon. Council District 13

Hollywood-born ex-child actor Gil Smith, chairman and secretary of the Montalbán’s board of directors, spoke on behalf of theater owners. Referring to the intervention and action that rescued the venue that is now known the Montalbán from being turned into a nightclub, Smith said he joined the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and counseled against the “tendency to not take care of something until it reaches critical mass.” Whereas the Montalbán had been facing bankruptcy, the rescued playhouse is now “in the black,” Smith said.

Michael Kricfalusi, the executive director of Celebration, which has recently relocated to Atwater Village Theatre, spoke at the gathering on behalf of theater companies, declaring, “What’s happening to us is that we’re being priced out of our areas, to the hinterlands, to find a theater space that is affordable enough. What that does is it takes us away from where the audiences want to go. Audiences want to go to see theater where they can also go to restaurants, have an after-theater drink and [be a] part of the community.” Although he called Celebration’s new venue “a great space,” he said that Atwater Village is “isolated out there by itself… We need government help and to come together as theater companies… and come into common spaces where we have multiple stages. It’s done in New York, Chicago, Toronto, European capitals… sharing common lobby and office spaces… Hollywood should be where theater is.”

Rogue’s Flynn called this multi-space notion “destination theater,” similar to the way New York’s cluster of Broadway houses draws tourists and residents alike.

Scott Campbell, president of the Central Hollywood Neighborhood Council, said “our job is to take ideas to elected officials. I look forward to hearing what it is the Hollywood creative community needs so we can work together to meet those goals.”

Realtor Steven Tronson, treasurer of HAC and vice president of entertainment, retail and office for the Avison Young real estate agency, provided a property perspective that those who trod the boards may be unfamiliar with. With an appropriately dramatic flourish, Tronson said: “I’ve been 18 years in Hollywood — I’ve never done a live performance theater deal. I’ve done doggy daycare, strippers… You need to be near lots of parking.”

Gil Smith, Montalban, Kamilla Blanche, Council District 4, Daniel Henning, The  Blank Theatre, Steven Whiddon. Council District 13
Gil Smith of the Montalban board, Kamilla Blanche of Council District 4, Daniel Henning of Blank Theatre, Steven Whiddon of Council District 13

Tronson spoke about the so-called “Hollywood Renaissance” that began in the late 1990s and led to a steep rise in property values, adding: “There are a lot of cranes out there for the next five to 10 years. You need to get in early with developers and need to convince them to build spaces dedicated to live performance theaters… by adding footage in the back of their properties.” (Later, during the group discussion period, a participant mentioned that a law mandating that developers set aside one percent of their projects to benefit communities can be used to the advantage of theaters.)

District Representative Mike Aguilera attended on behalf of U.S. Representative Adam Schiff.  When Kamilla Blanche, the director of Sister Cities and Arts & Culture for Council member Tom LaBonge of the 4th District, addressed the summit, she repeatedly stated she was there “to listen,” although she had missed the first 90 or so minutes of the event.

During a discussion by the group at large, independent producer Frier McCollister advocated more mid-size theaters that could accommodate Off-Broadway type productions as a way to preserve theatrical productions in Hollywood and LA. This was followed with discussions by smaller groups during a breakout session.

Afterwards Henning summed up the summit for LAST: “The end of the meeting created some terrific possibilities. We have created a committee of the HAC on theater, and many of the participants expressed profound interest in serving on it. It intends to be the singular voice that the Council members’ offices suggested we needed. And with the HAC’s political connections, it is the obvious choice to guide the community toward assuring the future of live theater in Hollywood.

“Both Council members Tom LaBonge’s office and Mitch O’Farrell’s office were excited to be able to bring back the issues and ideas to their bosses and get them involved in the possibilities. They have come up with some specific things that can be accomplished right away to bring more light to Hollywood’s theaters and some strategies for future connection between the theaters and the developers.

“Lots of people took advantage of the access to the Council offices and had terrific discussions with Kamilla Blanche and Steven Whiddon…I think we all left feeling more empowered and less cynical about what we can create in the future. There were some specific actions that were created as possibilities that we will explore as well, in terms of marketing initiatives to help join the Hollywood theaters together and reach a wider audience.”