Theater festival aims for greater influence

HOLLYWOOD — Ian McKellen was on a UCLA stage as King Lear last year when UCLA Live artistic and executive director David Sefton was shaping the next edition of the international theater festival that has become his signature event. McKellen’s appearance with the Royal Shakespeare Company completely sold out the nonsubscription tickets in a day, which might have given any number of presenters pause about their mission.

“I’m looking for work that blows me away,” says Sefton, who spends three months a year traveling to see performances that might be a good fit for UCLA Live’s various series devoted to theater, dance, music and spoken word. McKellen and the RSC, he says, was the rare no-brainer — a known work with a star and a company with a storied reputation — and when it “fell into my lap, I had to book it.”

However, despite the box office feeding frenzy for “King Lear,” star power remains of minimal importance to Sefton’s mission.

This fall, the theater fest — which usually stages six productions — will enter its seventh season, and Sefton believes the time is right to go beyond presenting works that have premiered elsewhere. This year, UCLA Live is co-commissioning with Canadian director Robert Lepage the remounting of “Blue Dragon” with his company Ex Machina; and with Berlin’s fabrik Potsdam, the U.S. exclusives of “Quatre Mains” and “Space Panorama,” starring Andrew Dawson.

The next step for UCLA Live, which operates on a budget of $8.5 million, is to invest in co-productions or solo inhouse productions, which Sefton figures could begin in the 2009-10 season.

“I have started to feel we can have more of an influence and take bigger risks,” notes Sefton, the former booker of London’s Southbank Center who launched UCLA Live’s international theater fest in the 2002-03 season. “There was a huge (audience) spike last fall. We’re more on the map.”

Under the umbrella of the international theater festival, Sefton has presented a number of successes, among them Gregory Burke’s “Black Watch,” Buchner’s “Woyzeck” and the Italian troupe Societas Raffaello Sanzio, led by Romeo Castellucci.

Last year’s six productions were responsible for 22,500 admissions, as the season ran near capacity, 13,000 of those tickets sold for the two RSC productions (“King Lear” played in rep with “The Seagull”).

This year’s edition will take place between Oct. 1 and Dec. 18 in UCLA’s 1,800-seat Royce Hall, 562-seat Freud Playhouse and 198-capacity MacGowan Little Theater.

The slate includes the U.S. debut of Australian writer-director Barrie Kosky’s adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” featuring a solo performance by Martin Niedermair and original live music by Kosky; Berlin’s Volksbuhne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz performing the U.S. exclusive of Chekhov’s “Ivanov”; and Ireland’s Druid Theater Company presentation of John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” and “The Shadow of the Glen.”

The Volksbuhne piece required two years of planning. “You have to reroute the air-conditioning system. There’s only smoke onstage,” Sefton says of the set, which could vanish into thin air if not done properly.

Part of what makes that production an option this year is a $100,000 contribution from the Goethe Institute.

“Thank God there is some sense of subsidy in Europe,” Sefton notes. “We take losses on everything. No one else is fighting to do this, and we’re raising a quarter of a million dollars to stage these productions.

“When I got here, many people told me there was no audience,” he continues. “And we have grown every year. I never want someone to attend all six (productions) and like them all. I would be amazed if somebody liked everything we booked and, frankly, I see it as a mark of success when opinions vary. We’re trying to push things out. It’s very consciously done.”

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