Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.

Los Angeles Mid-size and Large Theaters Feeling the Pain of a Shifting Economy

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by STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS

[dropcap]On[/dropcap] Monday, we received the dismaying news that the 22-year-old Cabrillo Music Theatre (which operates out of the 1,800 seat Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza) is suspending productions after July, due to — here we go again — the rent being doubled. And you thought this was just a problem for the 99-seat theaters.

As we have reiterated until we’re weary of our own voices, we’re all in this together — larger theaters and small. Arts districts, spurring local business with theaters large and small — please! Rent subsidy for non-profit arts organizations, please! Youth engagement and diversity, please!

This comes on the heels of equally dismaying news last month that Burbank’s 270-seat Colony Theatre cancelled the final two productions of its season due to projected budget shortfalls. According to artistic director Barbara Beckley, the Colony is currently exploring options of restructuring its producing model into a hybrid of presenting, renting, co-producing and producing shows, with the hope that such a hybrid will be more financially sustainable for the organization over the long-run.

And, for the record — hello Actors’ Equity Association! — the woes of both of these theaters have nothing to do with competition from neighboring 99-seat theaters, which are suffering enough woes of their own. Nor do their challenges have much to do with greedy landlords — well, maybe, somewhat.

Both the Cabrillo and the Colony lease(d) city-owned venues — the cities of Thousand Oaks and Burbank, respectively. But what brought each of them to their current “suspension bridge” is, well, a tale of two cities.

Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Artistic Director, Lewis Wilkenfeld, explains that the city of Thousand Oaks built its $64 million, two-theater complex (the second theater is the 400-seat Scherr Forum) in 1994, on the condition that city residents would not be paying for any of it through taxes. Brilliant!

Instead, the city designated Alliance for the Arts — a Thousand Oaks-based non-profit membership arts support organization — to be the fundraising wing for the facility, tapping local patrons and broader-based funding wherever possible. Cabrillo Music Theatre had been a renter of the larger theater for eight weeks per year. And though Wilkenfeld is strategically vague on some of the details, he says a combination of the way funds were disseminated, in conjunction with a municipal funding crisis, resulted in a doubling of the rent for his theater, and his decision to suspend production after July.

“I think they found it more profitable to book one-offs than to keep committing the theater to one of our [periodic] two-week runs,” Wilkenfeld says.

Even in the non-profit arena, this is what inevitably transpires when commerce runs the show.

The biggest support the community can offer, he adds, is to buy tickets to the remaining two productions: Children of Eden (running April 8- 17), and Disney’s The Little Mermaid (July 15-24).

“Pack the theater,” he pleads, “just to show them what they’re losing.”

There was no rent-gouging over at the Colony, Beckley says. “The rent is low and it hasn’t changed in 16 years.”

With perhaps too much self-deprecation, Beckley blames herself for the Colony’s current situation — the latest in a boom-bust cycle during which the theater was saved by the mega-hit production, Joanna McClelland Glass’ Trying in 2007, starring Alan Mandell and Rebecca Mozo. (After a rave review in the L.A. Times, the production’s entire run sold out in five days.) Then came the theater’s “Save the Colony” campaign, which did just that, followed years later by a life-saver Kohl Foundation grant.

But over the long run, Beckley shoulders the responsibility for the theater’s wobbling fortunes. “The world changed,” she explains, “and I didn’t react. At least, I didn’t react fast enough.”

She wistfully recalls the heady days of the 1990s, when she ran what might have been arguably the city’s most artistically and financially successful 99-seat theater (the Colony Studio Theatre) in Silver Lake, in what remains a dicey stretch of Riverside Drive.

“We had 99-seats and 3,500 subscribers,” she recalls.

She says she came to Burbank with a really good business plan based on their storied history. So what happened?

The Colony turned mid-size, resulting in a quadrupling of the production budgets, while, as Beckley puts it, “we continued operating on the 99-seat theater model.” Compounding the lack of stability resulting from a small but passionate board of directors was the shortage of corporate support, and no educational component that’s often a cornerstone of successful mid-size theaters, such as A Noise Within and Independent Shakespeare Company. And then, “the world suddenly changed,” Beckley explains.

Contributed income dropped, though it did not plummet as it did at other local theaters, but audiences also started to dwindle. After 9/11 came what Beckley describes as a “nesting” impulse, audiences staying home for their entertainments. Interactive experiences, such as theater, yielded to ever-shrinking devices. Beckley also noticed that her theater lost a generation of younger audiences.

“Subscribers have always been old,” she explains. Young people start careers and families. But after the children move away, they find themselves in their 40s and 50s, and they start seeking something meaningful in life — that’s when they rediscover the theater, presuming they’d attended theater in their childhood.

But the middle-age crowd stopped coming, because they’d never been exposed to live theater in their childhood — a harbinger of later theater attendance.

And finally, there’s the press. That page 3 L.A. Times review of Trying saved her theater in 2007. “If [like today] it had just been online, it would have done nothing.”

LA STAGE Alliance continues to stand behind both the Cabrillo Music Theatre and the Colony Theatre, behind their history and their place in the city. Their plights — though quite different in the way they’ve manifested themselves — are part of a common, larger pattern affecting theaters ranging in aesthetics and ambition, from tiny Echo Theater and Circle X in Atwater Village to the comparatively cavernous halls of Center Theatre Group. We have to remember that despite size and philosophy, all of these theaters operate at a deficit, for a larger purpose.

That larger purpose binds all of our theaters, and is the reason we need to stand behind, and for, each other, rather than taking the easier, pettier route of being at odds.

So long as that purpose remains clear for each of these theaters, they will endure. And so long as our collective purpose remains clear, so will our community.

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