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Oh Unlucky Luckman 

Why A Noise Within is without a venue

Wednesday, Aug 9 2000
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A Noise Within, Southern California’s premier classical-rep company, is returning to Glendale after what co--artistic director Julia Rodriguez Elliott calls ”the most difficult year of our existence“ -- its first and last ”in residence“ at the 1,150-seat Harriet and Charles Luckman Performing Arts Complex on the Cal State L.A. campus. The troupe has secured from the city of Glendale a parking lot at Brand Boulevard and Harvard Street, plus $50,000 to help offset the cost of a semipermanent structure, yet to be constructed there. Meanwhile, arbitration is under way for breach-of-contract complaints lodged by both ANW and Cal State L.A., which administers the Luckman, against each other.

A question running through many people‘s minds at this time last year was why ANW was so eager to move out of Glendale, where it had built a loyal subscriber following, was receiving enviable financial support from the city, had community-outreach programs firmly in place, and had already struck a deal with Actors’ Equity allowing the troupe, a tenant at the Masonic Temple since 1991, to expand from 99 to 144 seats.

Rodriguez Elliott explains that the company was nonetheless bursting at the seams, and that it wanted the unattainable: either to purchase the Masonic (which was not for sale) or, at least, to replace the company‘s year-to-year rental agreement with a 25-year lease -- ”the kinds of things foundations expect if they’re going to award grants to a theater,“ she says. ANW‘s current plight could serve as a cautionary tale -- particularly to the cluster of local professional companies eager to graduate from 99-seat to midsize venues -- on the wisdom of looking before leaping.

A year ago, Chuck Redmond, an ANW board member who also served on the Luckman Advisory Council, saw the move to Cal State -- where the Luckman was sitting mostly vacant -- as a ”win-win situation.“ Here was an opportunity for an established rep company, working around the Luckman’s sparse prior bookings, to stage three seasons of classics, bringing its audience in tow and attracting a new one, while creating campus liaisons with the university‘s English and theater departments. In six weeks, Redmond, working with ANW general counsel John McPherson, hammered out an agreement with the Luckman’s executive director, Cliff Harper, and Cal State L.A. counsel Jim Lynch. (Lynch did not return requests for comment from the Weekly.) Redmond points out that it initially appeared that Harper was aiming for a commercial rental agreement, while ANW was more interested in what co--artistic director Art Manke describes as ”a partnership based on the Yale Rep model.“

Redmond says that, early on, it seemed the deal was going to fall through, until university president James Rosser, responding to a plea for help from Redmond, made it clear he wanted ANW on the Cal State campus. But the underlying conflict between Harper and ANW was a smoldering ember waiting to erupt into flames. It was ignited, eventually, by a number of bureaucratic aggravations.

Manke speaks of rehearsal furniture arbitrarily a deemed off-limits to the actors; of champagne abruptly banned from an opening-night ”champagne reception“; of ANW patrons, already daunted by the Luckman‘s ghost-town nighttime atmosphere, returning to their cars to discover $25 parking tickets on their windshields. Though Rodriguez Elliott admits that the university acted in good faith to resolve the parking disputes, such annoyances don’t inspire subscriber loyalty. Says co--artistic director Geoff Elliott, ”Our goal for the first season was simply not to bleed.“

Though the ANW‘s contract with the Luckman explicitly authorizes the rep company’s use of the theater‘s scene and costume shops during its productions there, Manke says, Harper later specified that the costume shop was to be used only for repairs, not for construction, while asking that ANW curtail the amount of sawdust produced in the scene shop in the interest of keeping the place spotless for potential renters touring the facility -- an eccentric request, to say the least.

According to Manke, there was also a squabble over the institutions’ competing student-outreach programs, and after ANW‘s production of A Christmas Carol closed in mid-December, Harper demanded that the troupe remove its possessions from the facility until its next contracted production in February, even though the Luckman was barely being used in the intervening weeks. In late December, ANW discovered during a rainstorm that its sewing machines, sets and props had been stacked next to a garbage dumpster -- under a tarp, but at least partly exposed to the elements. After ANW sheltered its electrical equipment by returning it to the building, Manke learned that within hours it had again been deposited outside.

”There’s not a huge amount of space at the Luckman. It‘s not built for construction or storage of sets for long-term use,“ explains Carol Selkin, the university’s director of public information, speaking on behalf of both Harper and president Rosser. ”[ANW] knew very well that they didn‘t have actual residence space in the Luckman. There is no office space [at the Luckman], yet they were given [office] space [elsewhere on campus] that wasn’t contractually guaranteed. The contract doesn‘t say that they would be given permanent storage space at the Luckman.“

Selkin is correct. The contract holds ANW responsible for off-campus storage of its props, costumes and equipment -- at its own expense -- when ”not required for current productions.“ However, the contract also mandates that the ”needs and requirements“ of ANW, as the ”company in residence,“ receive ”special consideration by the university.“ If there were no other renters slated to use the facility, removing ANW’s property could hardly be said to constitute ”special consideration“; if there were other renters, ANW was contractually entitled to know who they were and when they would be using the Luckman. McPherson says that, despite repeated requests, the information was not forthcoming from Harper‘s office. The coup de grace came when, in the first annual renegotiation of terms (allowed for in the contract), Harper quintupled ANW’s rent from $50,000 per annum to $250,000, effectively rendering the troupe homeless.

Summing up the university‘s position, Selkin says, ”They notified us that they were bringing breach of contract against us. We felt that it was they who had breached the contract by [saying that they weren’t coming back next year in response to the rent hike]. We don‘t agree with what they’re saying. That‘s all we can say.“

All of which raises gnawing questions about the use and administration of the Luckman, a facility funded entirely by public money. Herik Venegas served on the Luckman Advisory Council for two and a half years before the council’s services were suspended after a fifth successive meeting had been postponed by Harper.

”What‘s the point of having an advisory council that never meets and never advises?“ Venegas asks.

”We find it upsetting that this has gone on, since [the Luckman] is the only facility of its kind in the area,“ he adds. ”Groups come in and get alienated by what goes on there. For the entire 1998-1999 calendar year, the Luckman booked 12 nights of programming, with a budget of $1.2 million. Of those 12 performances, half were 50 percent full. Some had 50 people. Cliff Harper is the one who micromanages the place, but he has no accountability.“

Both Venegas and Redmond point out that Harper and president Rosser are childhood friends from East St. Louis. ”It’s not a rumor,“ Venegas insists. ”They‘ve gone public about it. At every turn, the president protects Cliff.“

Meanwhile, as the parties assess their damages in preparation for arbitration, A Noise Within must retain the loyalty of subscribers weary of its pingpong relocations. The new season has yet to be chosen. ”When you’re dodging bullets,“ explains Manke, ”who has time to think about plays?“

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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