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Theater in Exile 

What does it mean when we send our theater companies packing?

Thursday, Apr 21 2005
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Photos by Ali Farboud
On La Brea Avenue between Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, after 15 years of theatrical productions and countless awards, Open Fist Theater was stunned to receive a 30-day notice to quit from landlords Steven “Corky” Ullman Jr. and his brother, George Ullman. The Ullman brothers sold the property, valued at $16 million, to developer John Laing Homes, which intends to raze the theater for construction of a 180-unit condominium complex plus 14,000 square feet of restaurant and other retail space. (The theater was built by Troopers in the early 1940s and used as a vaudeville house.)

Since the beginning of this year, four of Hollywood’s best and most established small-theaters companies — Open Fist, the Actors’ Gang, West Coast Ensemble and Theatre/Theater — have either been evicted or are considering leaving the Hollywood area due to redevelopment and rising property values. All have resided in Hollywood for years, establishing themselves in marginal neighborhoods. Their very existence and the patrons they attracted lured restaurants and/or other businesses to the area, contributing to the rise in property values that is now pushing them out. All have delivered on their promises to be good neighbors, three of the four working with schoolchildren and engaging in community-outreach programs, in exchange for city grants. Most tellingly, all have been leaseholders rather than property owners, making them vulnerable for relocation.

Before demolition on Open Fist Theater begins, the project needs to pass an environmental review by the city, which the company’s artistic director, Martha Demson, suggests should present a challenge, given the number of cars that 180 new homes and businesses would add to that already chronically traffic-congested corner of Hollywood.

John Laing Homes’ Urban Division president, Philip Simmons, disagrees, saying that the complex conforms to a city plan of easing car flow by adding homes (in a housing-shortage region) to transit corridors (the site is walking distance from the Hollywood/Highland subway station), so that fewer people would need to enter the city. But for Simmons’ logic to hold, the vast majority of approximately 270 new occupants, each with their own cars, must find work either in Hollywood, North Hollywood, downtown or along a narrow strip of real estate extending from Staples Center to Long Beach, in order to utilize Metro’s subway and light-rail system. That logic simply defies the odds, and it’s inconceivable that people would pay half a million dollars for a condo in order to take the MTA’s crowded, unreliable buses to and from work, when they’ve got a car or two in their garages.

Demson says that her landlords have always been very supportive and are working with the theater on a transition plan that’s not too painful. Nonetheless, all parties are now speaking to each other only through lawyers.

“Lip service is paid to the importance of theater and the theater community and yet there’s so little public support and certainly no public assistance,” Demson says. “I don’t want to be overly critical, as the [City Council] districts become aware of all these [theater] companies that are losing their homes, but you’d think there would be some kind of outreach. I think what may happen is that a number of these companies that are being forced to relocate will meet and discuss the issues collectively and speak a little more with one voice.”

Demson feels that her councilman has been of no help. “I tried to talk with Tom La Bonge’s office, I’ve been trying since December and haven’t gotten past his assistant.”

The Weekly also didn’t get past La Bonge’s Field Deputy for Hollywood and the Hollywood Hills, Erik Sanjuro, who remarked, without much sympathy for the theater, that where there’s no eminent domain, the city has no requirement to assist any evicted tenant.

“The theater is on a parcel of attractive land,” Sanjuro explained. “The Community Redevelopment Agency is trying to help this theater to relocate. As Hollywood undergoes a renaissance, a lot of small theaters are being forced out. They have to move to a lower-rent district.” Referring to the building’s historical significance, Sanjuro said, “You can’t use the historical preservation argument for everything. The CRA tries at least to put up a plaque as recognition of local history.”

How thoughtful.

The plight of L.A.’s small theaters raises a larger question about the purpose of performing arts — often a money-losing proposition — in a culture increasingly driven by market forces. Legislators talk about the virtues of family and education before cutting funds for school lunches, child care and afterschool programs. They blather about neighborhoods and community before sending community magnets, like small theaters, to the other side of town at best, or worse, into oblivion, when the developers move in.

Citywide, John Laing Homes has five projects at various stages of predevelopment. After pointing out the developer’s reputation for community service (the company contributed $1 million to a 21-bed shelter in Santa Ana for homeless children with AIDS), Simmons says that the company would like to build Open Fist a theater but can’t, for reasons having to do with ceiling requirements, parking and economics.

“It’s always difficult when you have a fair-market economy, Simmons remarks. “The perception is of developers making money hand over fist. It may exist somewhere, but not in my world. The truth is, there’s not that extra money for us to do what we want. It would be possible to help Open Fist if they were to get subsidy for the rent.”

Whether or not the La Brea Avenue project will include an affordable-housing component “still hasn’t been determined,” Simmons added.

Late last year, Jack Khorsandi, the new owner of the building housing Actors’ Gang two-theater complex (on the northwest corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and El Centro Avenue), mentioned to the Gang’s managing director?, Greg Reiner, that the theater was leasing the property at about half its market value, and that he intended to rectify the imbalance by doubling rent from $5,100 a month to somewhere between $10-$12 thousand. That’s when the Gang started dusting off its suitcases.

Actors’ Gang Board President Colette Brooks says that negotiations with Khorsandi are ongoing. Meanwhile, she says, “New challenges present new opportunities.” The theater is being courted by the cities of Santa Monica and Culver City. And though the theater must jump through hoops to meet administrative and community-relations requirements to secure either of those cities’ support, Brooks was flattered by the welcoming attitude of L.A’s neighboring burgs. She pointed out that Councilman Eric Garcetti’s office, with an appreciation of the Gang’s rich history and reputation, was “quite concerned” about finding ways to keep the Gang in the neighborhood. She also mentioned that artistic director Tim Robbins, in an inspiring speech to the troupe, said: “‘The company is not these four walls, it’s the people within these four walls. So if we become a roving band of actors, we’re still the Actors’ Gang.’”

Yes, but we would prefer that Garcetti’s office deliver.



After two five-year leases and having accrued a base of 500 subscribers to its theater on La Brea Avenue near Second Street, West Coast Ensemble, like Open Fist, was handed an eviction notice when the landlord decided to sell the building.

“We do want to stay in that area,” says artistic director Les Hanson. “But we’ll look closer to downtown, maybe go south to Culver City, west to Westwood. It’s difficult now. Prices are much steeper than when we looked 10 years ago. We’ve been looking for months, but it really has to be decided by August.”

In 1995, West Coast Ensemble was forced out of its two-theater complex on Hollywood and Argyle, which is now a parking lot. “The building [owned by the Nederlander Corporation] was pretty much destroyed by the [1994] earthquake, and Metro Rail was building inches from the front door, so we got out of there,” Hanson explains.

Theatre/Theater’s Jeff Murray is comparatively upbeat about being booted from his fourth-floor Hollywood Boulevard venue. No stranger to eviction, he was recently kicked out of a Cahuenga Boulevard location that had housed Theatre/Theater since 1984.

Murray says that on Hollywood Boulevard, the parking situation almost killed the theater. “You’re competing now with clubs [that are] happy to raise rents on the parking lots, so if the customers can’t get to you, it’s really a pointless exercise.”

In addition, he says, his landlords were using some strong-arm tactics to get him to move his theater. “They were threatening us with a massive rent increase and a bill that was backdated for 2003 and 2004.”

Murray says that his landlords didn’t really want him to pay the money. They just wanted the theater to leave because of rising property values and rising costs. The landlords declined to comment.

Murray and his wife/co–artistic director, Nicolette Chaffey, are moving Theatre/Theater to a facility on Pico Boulevard and Orange Drive, with frontage and 16-foot ceilings — an artistic director’s fantasy. “Can you imagine looking at the stage and seeing lighting instruments actually in the sky, rather than at eye level?”

Pico Boulevard’s industrial look reminds Murray of Melrose Avenue when he first arrived. “It has the feel of a neighborhood that’s going to turn,” Murray says. “In these areas, it’s always the artists who make the area hip and trendy, then in come the investors. Developers are sitting on a ton of dead space in Hollywood with no intention of letting in arts organizations. They’re all waiting to turn it into condos, and quite cynically.”

What’s happening in Hollywood (and North Hollywood — Antaeus Theater Company is looking for a home after the sale of its new theater by owner Dakin Matthews) is a mirror of what happened in Seattle during the dot-com boom. During the building boom of the ’90s, larger arts organizations were handed impressive new buildings, as has happened with Disney Hall and the Kirk Douglas Theater in L.A., explains Misha Berson, theater critic of The Seattle Times.

“So we have a new symphony hall, a new opera house, a new Seattle Children’s Theater.”

But for the smaller theaters, with skyrocketing property values, a lot of spaces have been lost. Berson says that gentrified Seattle districts such as Belltown went from having half a dozen fringe spaces to having none, and more companies are now roaming or trying to connect with other theaters to replace a space they lost.

“So we have the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ ” Berson says. “These theaters are very important to the health of our scene, since the larger theaters have to sustain box office, these folks can take more risks. One of the questions and concerns we all have: How long can some of these younger artists stay in Seattle before they flee for New York or L.A.?”

In San Francisco, there’s a distinction between home prices, which have been off the meter for decades, and the price of industrial properties, says Brad Erickson, executive director of Theater Bay Area, a membership support organization representing 370 theaters across nine Northern California counties.

“Yes, we had a real crisis during the dot-com boom, during the late ’90s,” Erickson explains. “The rental spaces began to go through the roof, even in the Mission District, which is where all the smaller, nonprofit companies are housed. Dance Mission lost its home, which ignited street demonstrations. Out of that came a proposition that went on the ballot in 1999 that would change the zoning laws to arrest this problem. It failed. At least six companies lost their venues. There was a task force that was formed to stop the bleeding. The groups were organizing and then the crash happened, and the industrial property values plummeted. So you could say that the market corrected the problem. We learned how it underscored the fact that the Bay Area is a real boom and bust economy. This will happen again. We’ve just formed an arts task force to deal with issues of space. Right now we’re in a breather.”

The San Francisco Examiner reports how in that breather, a plan for the mid-Market district — which superficially resembles the eastern end of Hollywood Boulevard — is now before the Planning Commission. It provides an innovative template on how to serve commercial and cultural interests at the same time.

Under the plan, developers can contribute to a city fund in exchange for permission to build more profitable, higher-density housing. The fund would then be used to subsidize the rents of nonprofit performance venues in the areas of the reconstruction. In theory, this would be the answer to Open Fist Theater’s woes, since Simmons has said that John Laing Homes could help the theater if it had some kind of rent subsidy.

Look north, L.A.

Erickson’s L.A. equivalent, Terence McFarland, executive director of theater support group L.A. Stage Alliance (representing 230 member performing-arts groups across four counties), admits that in Southern California, there’s little organizing at either the grassroots or government level. A fledgling attempt to start a conversation on the topic can be found at www.capwiz.org.

“It’s trickier down here,” McFarland says. “Last year, the state California Arts Council and L.A. city’s Cultural Affairs Department were both almost abolished. Culturally, the Bay Area is a much more activist community. It takes a celebrity to be involved with a local protest for it even to be covered here. I think that in terms of civic participation, there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

McFarland’s suggestion for endangered theaters: “Have a conversation with every single business and personal relationship that you have, find every single student that you’ve done educational outreach with, and let them know what’s going on. And then, as a group, go to the neighborhood council meetings, and have them just imagine what the climate will be without theater in their neighborhood, how the neighborhood will change, how the bottom line will change for all those businesses.”



“Neighborhood” and “community” have become buzzwords and buzz-ideas in this fledgling century. You’ll find those two words plastered throughout Web sites of the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council and L.A.’s Cultural Affairs Department. You’ll find their core ideas permeating books such as Robert E. Lane’s The Loss of Happiness in Market Economics, Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community, Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less and Peter C. Whybrow’s American Mania: When More Is Not Enough.

This literature suggests that however entertaining new Sony Portable Playstations, condos, shopping malls and the economies behind them may be, they’re infringing on the stability of marriages, families, friendships, courtships and communities, leading to a growing isolation — both liberating and potentially lethal — particularly among a younger generation that’s cast off community service and political engagement (the old bonding standbys) as quaintly irrelevant or grossly corrupt.

Spiritual comfort no longer comes from traditional churches, which struggle to hold parishes together when parishioners jump from city to city, from job to job. Rather, spiritual comfort now comes from evangelical churches (the only churches that are thriving financially), and of course from television, Palm Pilots, iPods and the Cheesecake Factory. And then there are the arts.

Fifty years ago in the theater, pre-eminent playwrights from William Inge to Tennessee Williams to Lillian Hellman to Eugene O’Neill, had built their reputations on the desperate loneliness of people in small towns. Getting away to the big city, to the delights of anonymity, independence and sexual freedom, represented the ultimate escape from the claustrophobia of family and neighbors knowing your every move. The idea of community and neighborhood didn’t have such a nostalgic glow in their plays as it does on, say, the Web site of L.A. city’s Cultural Affairs Department. This century’s plays, from Patrick Marber’s Closer to Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, show prosperous city folk grappling with their harrowing ineptitude at forming bonds in a culture almost defined by its sterility. The blaring common link between the literature of then and now is the characters’ underlying misery, as though they’ve time-traveled from one hideous extreme to its opposite, from the horrors of a community that won’t leave them in peace, to those of not having any community at all.

This is why community and neighborhood keep popping up on Web sites of government arts agencies that are at least vaguely aware that something is out of balance. Their job is to hand out whatever financial pittance they have to arts organizations that agree to work with schoolchildren and provide services generally defined as community-building.

Meanwhile, these same agencies present arguments, based on two reports commissioned by the CAC, about the benefits of the arts to local businesses.

Both of these arguments are falling on deaf ears, not because they’re untrue but because they’re beside the point — a case presented in an illuminating report (“Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts”) released by the RAND Corporation at the beginning of this year. The core purpose of the arts is neither to encourage business nor to promote social welfare, though it may certainly include those components. You can rent Chris Rock on video anywhere between Beijing and Timbuktu, and in both places it’s the same exportable, marketable product. A live performance, however, whether it be a concert, a dance recital, a standup-comedy routine or a play, occurs in a specific time and place for a specific time and place, providing what the Rand report calls “a distinctive type of pleasure and emotional stimulation” that serves cognitive development, expands the capacity for empathy and the creation of social bonds. This is admittedly an attempt to describe the indescribable, but the failure to describe the core significance of the arts has led to a perception of its irrelevance to the culture. To overstate the argument, the preservation of the arts for tomorrow may actually be as much a matter of life and death as funding a hospital today.

This is why the small story of four Hollywood theaters, at this particular moment in the evolution of our culture, is such a telling expression of what we think we need, and who we think we are.

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