L.A. stage gets $30 million makeover

After a year of renovation, Center Theater Group unveiled the refurbished Mark Taper Forum with an emphasis on increased comfort for patrons and improved working conditions for casts and crews.

The $30 million makeover included the lowering of the stage level by nearly three feet, improved loading dock entrances, stage-level dressing rooms, a hair-and-makeup studio and costume workroom, a new electrical system and an elevator. Those elements will not be visible to patrons, who will see larger seats, a lower-level lounge with expanded bathrooms and an entryway that is double the size of the former foyer.

Renovation resulted in the loss of fewer than 10 seats; it is believed the capacity will be 739, though that won’t be confirmed until the next production is staged.

“The money was raised privately and quietly,” said Center Theater Group artistic director Michael Ritchie, noting the effort began with a $5 million gift from Brindell and the late Milton Gottlieb plus $4.9 million from Los Angeles County. “We made the case that the focus was on the upgrade of the stage, improving our ability to move scenery, bring in new lighting, new sound and then audience amenities. It’s act two of the Taper, a platform for the next 40 years.

“While we always work to our limitations, the long-term benefit will be our ability to do things less expensively.”

The stage, for example, previously had a tight crawl space underneath that severely limited the use of trap doors. That space, with the stage raised to its highest point, will now hit 5 feet. The load-in area, too, was not only cramped, but also had two sets of steps and a turn to navigate that often required the dismantling of sets just to get them in the door. Load-in is now a straight shot from the dock to the stage.

Built in 1967, the circular building was the most futuristic of the three venues in the Music Center. Designers have played off the ’70s feel of the building, using a combination of earth tones, steel meshing and mirror ball effects in the seating and lounge areas.

The theater reopens to the public Aug. 30 when previews begin for John Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves.” It officially opens Sept. 14 and will close Oct. 19. Final play in the Taper’s 2007-08 season, Peter Whelan’s “The School of Night,” will run Oct. 30-Dec. 17 with an opening night of Nov. 9.

Taper will then switch to a season based on the calendar year. CTG’s two other venues, the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas Theater, will continue to operate on a September-to-summer schedule. The challenge will be attracting a theater crowd downtown at a time of year when the Music Center is generally desolate.

“It creates breathing room for the staff,” Ritchie told Daily Variety, “and will take some of the burden off scheduling of openings. It will require some balancing artistically, and if a formula existed we would have found it by now. The focus is on the quality of a show, and people will go through anything to see a quality show.”

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