$17.5 mil revamp will add second stage

A dirt floor, stone walls and roof are all that remain of West L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse, as the former furniture store and lodge hall prepares for its extreme makeover.

The theater, operating for nearly a decade under the oversight of film and legit producer-director Gil Cates and UCLA, has entered the first stage of a remodeling and expansion that is expected to gain the venue greater national prominence.

With a building budget of $17.5 million — all but $3 million of it secured through a private drive — the Geffen will redo its entire mainstage from the ground up, with new dressing rooms, greatly increased wing space, bathrooms and seating for 510. The theater is adding a 120-seat second space for rehearsals and smaller productions and a restaurant space that could be used for cabaret acts.

Simultaneously, the Geffen has launched a campaign to raise $7.5 million to create an endowment to support commissions and special projects.

In the meantime, after considering shuttering during the remodel or moving to another location as far away as Santa Monica, they’ve moved to a new home, the freshly refurbished Brentwood Theater, for the 2004-05 season. (Ultimately, the refurbished Brentwood will be staging its own season, adding to the brisk competition for the Southern California legit dollar.)

“It’s like we’ve been wearing a suit that’s too tight,” says Cates, the Geffen’s producing director. “Now we’ll have one that fits.”

Cates and his artistic director Randall Arney, an alum of Chi’s Steppenwolf Theater who came to the Geffen with managing director Stephen Eich in 2000, lament productions that went up without sufficient rehearsal; the two-handers that would have been more effective in a space half the size of the Geffen; and the scripts that were lost due to inadequate facilities or the lack of an endowment.

With the planned physical and fiscal changes, the duo see the Geffen as a national force with a neighborhood feel. (Theater itself is nestled on the edge of the Westwood Village, across the street from the southern end of the UCLA campus.)

The physical changes mean actors will have permanent instead of temporary dressing rooms, plays won’t be limited to single sets and rehearsals can take place concurrent with a mounted production.

Cates has steadily developed the Geffen as a home for playwrights, commissioning and presenting world premieres in each season. He intends to strengthen this commitment with the presence of the new Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater next door to the mainstage. “We’ve been planting these seeds” with writers such as Donald Margulies, Jane Anderson and David Rambo, Cates says. “How we harvest them is up in the air.”

The new space is being built as a fully functional theater rather than a black box.

“The space has to have a personality,” Cates says. “We wanted a space that if Yo-Yo Ma walked in and wanted to play, it would have personality and be an inviting space.”

The Geffen’s rebuilding arrives as the Los Angeles theater scene is about to make several notable shifts.

Downtown’s Center Theater Group, which produces and presents at the 760-seat Mark Taper Forum and up-to-2,000-seat Ahmanson, this fall opens the 300-seat Kirk Douglas Theater, where its initial six-play season is loaded with commissions. CTG is entering its 38th and final season under the helm of Gordon Davidson, who will be replaced by Michael Ritchie of the Williamstown Fest.

Once the Geffen leaves the Brentwood Playhouse, which was renovated in a speedy 10 months for the theater’s June presentation of “Cookin’ at the Cookery,” in August 2005 the Brentwood will become the only 500-seater available for commercial runs in L.A.

Venue will be operated by Marty Markinson and Rich Willis, who run the Wadsworth, located a few blocks away from the Brentwood on the grounds of the Veterans Administration, as well as the Helen Hayes on Broadway and two theaters in Florida.

For the Geffen, the increased legit activity, says Arney, “raises all the bets. Get three or four theaters on the Westside and (to survive) we’ll need the perception of hot. Hopefully every show we do will have buzz through the artistic community. It’s very important for (people) to know how we treat artists.”

Cates and Arney shifted their thinking for their year in the Brentwood, presenting a season that Cates calls “interesting and marketable.” Cates says it kicks off a 10-year program of plays that deal with the question: What does it mean to be an American?

Rather than present their usual assortment of premieres, the Geffen has gone with Gotham imports and revivals: “Take Me Out,” “Paint Your Wagon,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “I Am My Own Wife” and another yet-to-be-determined play. The challenge, he says, “is getting the Westwood crowd to come to the VA grounds.”

“Cookin’ at the Cookery” got the season off to a strong start, with rave notices and an extension, but the theater was rarely at 100% capacity. To lock audiences into the new site, the Geffen has been making an extra push for subscription renewals.

“We’ve never worried about the audience coming back,” he notes. “We definitely have 16,000 people who will want to come back to comfortable seats.”

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