L.A. theater undergoes $30 million renovation

Michael Ritchie elicited a rare belly laugh at the unveiling of the refurbished Mark Taper Forum. After speeches praising politicos and donors, artistic director Ritchie commented on free speech, government and benefactors before poking fun at a few missteps at Center Theater Group, Los Angeles’ largest theater presenters.

“The government has created a tax code that tells wealthy people who don’t know what to do with their money to donate it to the arts,” he started. “And then we stage ‘The Black Rider’ and ‘Lewis & Clark,’ proving that we don’t know what to do with it, either.”

Rim shot, please.

In a more serious moment, Ritchie talked about the effort to raise $20 million in addition to a gift of $5 million and an L.A. County expenditure of $4.9 million to create, as he puts it, “act two” for the building.

“The money was raised privately and quietly,” Ritchie says. “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 a platform for the next 40 years.”

Key for casts and crew in the $30 million makeover are 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.

The Taper stage, where Tony winners “The Kentucky Cycle” and “Angels in America” premiered, has long been problematic in situations that require trapdoors. Formerly limited to a crawl space, there is now up to five feet of space under the stage to place actors or set pieces.

Built in 1967, the circular building was the most futuristic of the three venues in the Music Center, which also included the Ahmanson and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and now features the Disney Concert Hall. 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.

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. At that time, the renovations visible to patrons will include a subterranean lounge with bathrooms that dwarf the old ones plus new, wider seats.

The theater reopens to the public Aug. 30, when previews begin for John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves.” Final play in the Taper’s 2007-08 season, Peter Whelan’s “The School of Night,” will run Oct. 30-Dec. 17.

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.

“It creates breathing room for the staff,” Ritchie says, “and will take some of the burden off scheduling of openings.”

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