Colleges beckon as theater's home is threatened

It’s the antiwar show that won’t die. The Actors’ Gang production of “Embedded” garnered savage reviews in its run at the Public Theater earlier this year, audience demand kept it running for 14 weeks.

Now “Embedded” has embarked on a profitable afterlife. A London run of the Public’s staging opened in September to milder reviews, while a six-city U.S. tour with a new Gang-affiliated company recently kicked off at Santa Fe Stages.

The Gang hits the road just as its Hollywood home base is threatened. A “for sale” sign recently went up on the Los Angeles theater where “Embedded” began as the pet project of Gang artistic director Tim Robbins. The Gang’s lease is good through June, but managing director Greg Reiner says the landlord’s asking price, $3.3 million, exceeds the building’s appraised value of $2.1 million.

The new surge in Gang activity is partly the result of an upswing in Robbins’ film career — not many theater directors can plug their play in an Oscar acceptance speech, as Robbins did this year — and partly due to Reiner’s aggressive wooing of national presenters.

In a small-theater version of brand marketing, Actors’ Gang has become synonymous with work that’s “innovative, scrappy and relevant,” as Gang tour booking agent David Lieberman put it. “And that’s what’s selling,” he says, more than Robbins’ name.

Presenter interest in the Gang, in fact, began with its 2002 L.A. production of the death penalty-themed “Exonerated.” That show won’t go out on tour until next spring because the rights were tied up during a long Off Broadway run.

In the meantime, the Gang’s 2002 production of Anne Nelson’s 9/11-inspired two-hander “The Guys” has caught on as an inexpensive touring attraction that’s penciling in dates as far ahead as fall 2005.

The Gang’s issue-driven shows, according to L.A.-based performing arts booker Lieberman, play especially well at colleges, and for reasons beyond entertainment value.

“It’s essentially an educational as much as an entertainment mission,” Lieberman says. Classroom discussion forums are de rigueur on the road, and the October tour stop of “Embedded” — which addresses, among other things, press coverage of the Iraq war — will include sessions with the U. of Maryland’s school of journalism. Law schools, Lieberman says, have expressed interest in “Exonerated.”

For now the Gang has this niche market mostly to itself. Indeed, the troupe is the only theater group on Lieberman’s roster, which includes Merce Cunningham and the Joe Goode Performing Co.

“There’s great thirst among university presenters for good touring theater,” says Lieberman, whose success with the Gang has him trolling for new legit clients.

Apart from raising the troupe’s profile, road work represents a significant raise in salary for Gang members. The Hollywood theater where the Gang has resided since 1994 operates under L.A.’s Equity 99-Seat Plan, which pays $7-$15 per performance. Tours run on an Equity contract, which pays close to $1,000 a week plus expenses.

More than half of the Gang’s $526,000 annual budget comes from earned income and individual contributions. Reiner says the company will launch an ambitious capital campaign this fall to raise money for a new space.

Meanwhile, “Embedded,” “Exonerated” and “The Guys” are proving that Gang theater has auds beyond the blue states.

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