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Thinking Outside the Black Box 

How Company of Angels found its angels

Wednesday, Apr 4 2007
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Company of Angels is the city’s longest-surviving small theater company — organized in 1959, its alumni include Richard Chamberlain and Leonard Nimoy. Longevity hasn’t made the company immune to the problems that confront most theaters, however. The group’s original Hollywood space on Waring Street burned to a shell in 1988 thanks to an arsonist, causing the Angels to move to a 45-seat black box in Silver Lake. Late last year, the company found itself getting burned again — this time by being on the wrong end of an eviction notice. The question became, Could the company rededicate itself to a new venue, or had it lost the dedication to pack up and move yet again?

The answer could be found in a new direction the company took shortly before the eviction crisis. Company of Angels has always been a membership-run company, but a year ago, Armando Molina, who had directed Lisa Loomer’s The Waiting Room at the Angels in 2005, persuaded its board to restructure itself on a traditional vertical model — that is, to move from being a collective to an organization with an artistic director, an executive director, and a board of directors empowered to make financial decisions.

“That old structure,” Molina says, “is the kind that elects a new board yearly, so that every year you’re reinventing the wheel. There’s no continuity.”

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Molina is a theater veteran who co-founded the Latins Anonymous comedy group and later became a member of the acclaimed community-based Cornerstone Theater Company. Last year, he was named Company of Angels’ artistic director, while Dolores Chavez, who’d had a track record with the Mark Taper Forum’s youth program and the Los Angeles Arts Festival, became the company’s executive producing director.

The Angels restructured between January and February of 2006, losing only two or three dissenting members out of roughly 30.

“I think the original intent,” Chavez says of membership companies, “was, ‘Let’s be a big group of people that puts on a show.’ But what I’d often hear is, ‘We don’t have enough staff, I do everything, I’m exhausted.’ We had the same people trying to make things happen and who were not able to really take time to think about the art as how to make rent.”

Before the overhaul, only a handful of the troupe was active in the day-to-day running of the company. As a result, business dealings had taken on an ad hoc flavor detrimental to the group, exemplified by the “triple net” rent agreement the Angels had with their building’s owner.

According to Molina and Chavez, Company of Angels was paying rent and partial taxes and insurance not only for the theater’s building, but also for an adjoining property the company had no connection with. On top of this, Company of Angels had access to the theater’s premises for only 12 hours daily, from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m.

“Rain was coming through the roof,” Molina remembers. “We were always having to pay for plumbing repairs. Every show, we had to repatch our electrical system — it was like sending a man to the moon.”

The final straw came when the landlord wanted to open a small coffee shop on the premises, effectively taking away the theater’s lobby.

“When you see that happen, you know you’re not going to stop the train,” Chavez says.

The company tried to salvage its space, however, and hired a real estate attorney, who contacted the landlord to renegotiate what its members felt was an unfair agreement. Before long, they received a counterproposal from the landlord — a 60-day eviction notice. Molina calls the notice “a punch in the gut,” one hardly softened by the discovery that the landlord had signed an agreement with West Coast Ensemble, which had lost its space on La Brea Avenue and was now poised to temporarily move into the Company of Angels’ Silver Lake address.

This was Company of Angels’ moment of truth. Molina believes such moments are opportunities for theater groups to pause and re-examine what they are doing.

“It’s a chance for a company to look inside itself,” he says, “and ask, ‘What do we do and how are we of service? Is this worth the fight?’ If you answer those questions, everything will follow. If you can’t answer those questions, maybe the dissolution of the company is best.”

With their mission redefined, though, and with a new five-year plan for the company, the group’s members felt a renewed sense of purpose and self-confidence. Now Company of Angels was prepared to join a list of theaters, including Actors’ Gang, Open Fist and Theatre/Theater, which in the past few years have found themselves searching for new homes.

After holding a big garage sale, followed by a Native American ceremony that closed the theater, the company strolled down the street to Casita del Campo for margaritas. Soon Chavez was picking up her phone to begin dialing to save the company’s future. The future picked up unexpectedly fast, it turned out, in the form of performance artist and former Highways artistic director Danielle Brazell.

“I had told Danielle we were looking for a place downtown to grow and expand,” Chavez explains. “And she said, ‘Oh, call my friend over at one of the galleries from the Downtown Art Walk.’ The gallery person said, ‘Call Brady Westwater.’ Brady picked up and said, ‘What are you doing tomorrow at 9:30? I think I know this developer.’ ”

The colorful Westwater is one of L.A.’s most tenacious contrarians, a downtown activist obsessed by the shape the city’s rapidly changing landscape is taking. He does not, however, normally come to theater people’s minds when they’re shopping for venues. However, he had a brand-new friend in developer Gary Warfel, who had a project on Grand Avenue near Olympic Boulevard. The president of Titan developers, Warfel recently rescued downtown’s participation in Fashion Week with a $20,000 check, and acquired the Grand Avenue property that had been home to Myron’s Ballroom. He plans to tear down the block to make way for two luxury residential skyscrapers but, in the meantime, was interested in letting Company of Angels use the ballroom for the next one to two years, prior to demolition.

Helping finesse the deal was Jodi Nelson, a singer-actress-artist, who is listed as Titan vice president. And this time, the Angels will not be working under a triple-net lease. In fact, Warfel is letting them stay for free.

“Gary and Jodi are our two angels,” says Chavez.

To those familiar with the company’s spartan Silver Lake digs, the thought of moving the Angels, known for their often intimate, often cerebral work, into the cavernous ballroom conjures images of Jonah living inside the whale. Besides the ballroom’s acoustically challenged maw, the company (which is sharing the space with a dance troupe) will also have use of a much smaller cabaret space. Soon after the deal with Titan, however, San Diego developer Ruben Islas offered Company of Angels use of a black-box space inside the Alexandria Hotel, which his Amerland Group is renovating.

Chavez points out that the venue’s challenges have pushed the company to thinking of ways of staging it hadn’t considered before, and she is excited about the prospect of partnering with the dance company and other groups downtown. The main thing for her group — besides the free rent — is that the Company of Angels has a home for at least one year and will use the breathing space to plan its next move.

“It’s almost like writing a haiku — we have only 17 syllables to work with,” Molina says of the new venue, which is being readied for opening this month. “The place has a cabaret space, and we’ve never done cabaret before. It’s a ballroom space, and the work will be informed by that space. We can do one-person shows and multiple-person shows. I don’t think we’re going to be doing Death of a Salesman.”

See the Company of Angels Web site at http://companyofangels.org.

Click here for more stories of L.A. Theater 2007

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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