Renovations, additions reshape L.A. theater scene

Los Angeles has a legitimate inferiority complex.

Scratch a theater animal in this town and you’ll learn that Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” had its U.S. debut in Los Angeles one full year before it became the sensation of the current Broadway season. The dance extravaganza “Fosse,” now entertaining audiences at the Ahmanson, won’t hit the Great White Way until next year. “Ragtime” and “Master Class” got their respective thumbs-up here well in advance of their New York openings. And the Royal National Theatre’s acclaimed production of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” with Sir Ian McKellen, recently made its only U.S. visit — to L.A.

That such one-time NYC fare as “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” and musical “Titanic” form the highlights of the 1998-99 season here … well, “Footloose” to you, too, Broadway!

These days, the key to quality L.A. theater has less to do with what played where vis-a-vis New York than with the growing number of noncommercial theaters here that are abandoning their 99-seat Equity Waiver plans to become higher-profile mid-size (200 to 600 seats) venues.

In this one very important aspect of theater life, L.A. is only now catching up to Gotham. In the past, L.A.’s answer to New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theater, Manhattan Theater Club, Roundabout, Second Stage, Playwrights Horizons, WPA, Atlantic Theater and New York Theater Workshop has been the very small nucleus of the Mark Taper Forum, Pasadena Playhouse and Geffen Playhouse. Fortunately, this tiny L.A. grouping is getting some much-needed company.

Two years ago, Glendale’s A Noise Within theater expanded from 99 seats to 144, with plans to grow to 450 seats eventually. Next year, Silver Lake’s Colony Studio Theatre will move to a new space in Burbank, increasing its 99-seat capacity to 276. And the East West Players made the big move last spring, growing to 240 seats.

But the question remains: When it comes to quality theater, does size really matter?

Absolutely.

“Being in a larger theater opens up new possibilities in terms of getting the rights to material we’d like to produce,” says Barbara Beckley, producing director of the Colony. “A number of authors prefer their plays not to be done in 99-seat theaters. They prefer an Equity situation.” The Colony, located at 1944 Riverside Drive for the past 23 years, is moving next year to a renovated 276-seat space on the corner of Cypress and 3rd Street in Burbank.

“It gives your theater more validity on the arts scene. It makes you available to a lot more works,” artistic director Timothy Dang says of 99-seat-plus theaters. Last March, Dang’s East West Players moved into a new, larger theater at 120 Judge John Aiso St. in Little Tokyo.

Beckley’s and Dang’s comments regarding more easily secured plays also apply to high-profile actors. For example, the East West Players’ upcoming production of Philip Kan Gotanda’s play “Yohen,” about an interracial marriage, will headline “Lethal Weapon” star Danny Glover.

“He’s known about the work,” Dang says of Glover. “He said, ‘Maybe we should take it to New York.’ ” Apparently, the East West Players’ larger venue helped to change the actor’s mind regarding the choice of coasts. Come next season, “Yohen” will have its world premiere on Aiso Street.

Art Manke, artistic co-director of A Noise Within, is quick to point out another benefit of a larger venue. Actors in a 99-seat Equity Waiver theater production earn as little as $5 per performance. Bigger theaters obviously mean bigger paychecks. “Philosophically, it has always been part of our mission to be able to pay the artists closer to a living wage with each passing year,” Manke says of his 7-year-old company.

Located at 234 S. Brand Blvd., A Noise Within currently is negotiating with the building’s owners to acquire control of the space. The city of Glendale has earmarked $2.5 million for capital improvements and expansion of the theater, but the money can’t be applied until A Noise Within obtains either full ownership of the building or a 99-year lease. “It’s all sort of hanging on these negotiations,” Manke says of the planned expansion.

Beyond the issues of better pay and better plays is one of growth. “We played at 97% capacity,” Manke says. “Once we’d been hitting that barrier for a solid year, we knew we had to expand or we would start to die. There were no more performances we could add. The only way we could expand is to add seats.”

Fortunately for A Noise Within, the company has been able to expand its seating capacity within its existing structure. The East West Players, on the other hand, had to renovate and move into an entirely new theater, as will the Colony, which will lease a building from the city of Burbank.

East West Players’ Dang was in a position to offer the Colony’s Beckley some excellent advice regarding such a drastic transition. “Don’t count on construction schedules!” he told her. Dang ought to know. East West had to delay its planned fall 1997 opening for five months.

In the end, the biggest hurdle wasn’t passed until after the opening: For a noncommercial theater, more seats mean more money has to be raised. Dang made sure his theater had one year of operating expenses under its belt before opening in the new theater. If he could make the transition all over again, “I would have done three to five years,” he says. “You need more of a cushion so that, when you come up to this level, you don’t have to worry about money so much.”

It’s hoped L.A. theatergoers will benefit from these newly expanded noncommercial venues. Some in the community already are seeing an upside: East West Players has kept plaque makers very busy. “We have named everything in our building after somebody,” Dang says.

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