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Church and State

A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; (818) 240-0910; www.anoisewithin.org. Co-artistic directors Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott. Formed in 1991, the midsize outfit is L.A.’s premiere classics repertory company, currently staging four shows a season. Except for a one-year residence at Cal State L.A.’s Luckman Theater, ANW has always called Glendale’s old Masonic Hall home. The theater has five full-time employees and about 100 volunteers. The company’s first, one-play season cost $3,000; today ANW runs an annual $800,000 budget, 65 percent of which comes from ticket sales, and the rest through 1,500 subscriptions, donations, fund-raisers, workshops, and county-paid theater courses taught in the public schools.

Eighteen months ago, the Elliotts — Julia Rodriguez and Geoff, who are married and run the company — decided it was time to bring in a full-time managing director, Todd Dellinger.

“Fifty percent of my time is spent fund-raising,” says Dellinger. “Since I’ve come on, we have added a full-time staffer to help with our outreach program. It’s like a teaching-hospital situation.”

“Sometimes,” interrupts Geoff, “it’s just a hospital.”

“With a lot of heavily medicated people walking around,” laughs Julia.

Dellinger notes that while ANW took a 23 percent drop in ticket sales last year, 2004’s box office could reach a five-year high for the company. He says ANW’s major sources of grants include the Parsons, Weingart and Ahmanson foundations, but municipal support does not add up to very much — especially now that arts funding from the city of Glendale is frozen. Likewise, L.A. County support, which traditionally has helped ANW with its infrastructure needs and its outreach education programs, has noticeably decreased since the budget crunch.

Also in this issue:

Company Town: How did sprawling Los Angeles become a mecca for small theater? Nearly 100 self-sustaining companies, many with distinguished reputations, are at work in the city. STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS addresses the question of why L.A. is such fertile ground for ensembles, and profiles some of the best, along with ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN and STEVEN MIKULAN. Plus, MORRIS on Gordon Davidson, who will be designated this year’s Queen of the Angels at the 25th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards.

“At one point,” Julia says, “the state gave us $30,000, but now, with that gone, our Artists in Residence programs are charged to the schools that can afford them, usually private ones.”

“Some of the public-school teachers,” says Geoff, “pay out of their own pockets so the kids can come here. It’s tragic.”

Julia notes that even when teachers pay for students to attend shows or workshops, the school districts consider the visits “frills.”

“The districts think preparing for tests and getting high test scores are the most important things for kids and that their coming here only takes away from studying.”

Julia says the economic downturn has most cut into ANW donors who write checks in the $500 to $1,000 range. She also says that the company, realizing the potential of snack sales, has upgraded its concession stocks. Still, there will always be the problem of plays without intermissions, as “People tend not to buy snacks before a show.” Current membership 19. New members by referral/audition. No dues.

 

Meadows Basement, c/o Theatre/Theater, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., Fourth Floor; (323) 782-6218; www.meadowsbasement.org. Co-artistic directors Wade McIntyre and Aaron Ginsburg. Founded in 2001 by a group of former students from Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, M.B. epitomizes the best of the city’s seat-of-the-pants theatermaking. After showcasing their talents at the Lex and Complex theaters, its members struck a friendship — and a deal — with Jeff Murray and his wife, Nicolette Jaffe, who run Hollywood’s Theatre/Theater. In exchange for monthly rent, Meadows Basement has an office and access to T/T’s two stages, plus rehearsal time.

“Our box-office sales take care of the rent — the rest is gravy,” says McIntyre. Working under the 99-seat contract, M.B., which charges $15 per ticket, has garnered critical raves for offbeat comedies like Hors d’Oeuvres and Isabella’s Fortune. Still, says McIntyre, “We’re eager to make the transition from Best Kept Secret to a known company.”

M.B. only recently received its 501 (3) (c) nonprofit IRS status, which Ginsburg says has had an immediate positive effect on its tax payments; coincidentally, perhaps, the company has been able this year to announce its first structured season, a move that other companies interviewed by the Weekly point to as a necessity for establishing a reliable audience base.

M.B. presents three “mainstage” shows and three late-night comedy performances on an annual budget of $22,000. Ticket sales account for $4,000 to $5,000. About its only resemblances to a midsize house like A Noise Within are that its first show cost $3,000, and it has two annual fund-raisers. It also offers theatergoers a unique money-back guarantee, says Ginsburg: “If people don’t like what they’ve seen, they can get their money returned during intermission.”

Isabella’s Fortune is the first show whose program features paid ads (for Amoeba Music and “someone’s independent film”). McIntyre says the company hasn’t noticed any downtick in sales equated with the economy, although a few company actors are personally struggling to find any kind of work.

While M.B. hasn’t yet reached the point where it’s selling donor nametags on seats, it has adopted the tradition of creating levels of Meadows Basement donors.

“We start with Weeds, go up to Burning Bush, and for $1,000 It’s Your Meadow, We’re Just Playing in It.” Core ensemble of six members, plus six auxiliary actors. The no-dues company is not currently seeking new members.

 

Company of Angels, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; (323) 883-1717; www.coangels.org. Board president Christian Arroyo. With 44 seasons under its belt, Company of Angels is L.A.’s oldest continuously performing repertory company, although its membership of mostly 20- and 30-somethings places it among the city’s youngest. Nine elected directors make decisions for the theater and act as its office staff.

Fire gutted the Angels’ original Hollywood home in 1988, and since then the company has leased its current Silver Lake theater — although the building’s owner is about to sell it. According to Arroyo, who is serving a two-year term as the Angels’ board president, actors who have trouble paying monthly dues can make up their financial obligation by stage managing. Like other companies, Company of Angels has embarked upon its first organized season, which consists of five mainstage plays and about half a dozen “members projects.”

Arroyo says last year Angels operated on a $58,000 annual budget, with about 55 percent of that derived from box-office receipts, 16 percent from dues, 22 percent coming from two or three fund-raisers, which often take the form of theme parties, and the rest from miscellaneous sources. It also runs paid ads in its program — some of which are bartered for product from neighborhood businesses like Baller Hardware.

“Sometimes we exist paycheck to paycheck,” Arroyo says. “It’s frustrating, because no one likes to ask for money.” Angels doesn’t even charge for its concession snacks, although that may be because, as Arroyo admits, theatergoers tend to pay more for a Coke if it is offered for a donation than if it had a price tag. He says the company is about to look into creating a subscription base, using the theater’s mailing list. A nonprofit theater, Company of Angels receives no public money, because, according to Arroyo, funding agencies prefer to deal with the same people serving long terms on theater boards.

“The problem with grants,” he says, “is our board of directors, which rotates every two years.”

Shows at the 99-seat-contract Company of Angels cost between $900 and $2,000 to mount, Arroyo says. Besides rent, he counts production costs and advertising as his theater’s biggest expenditures, with royalties also figuring prominently. Membership of 60. New members by referral/audition. Dues $30 monthly.

 

Actors Co-op, c/o First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, 1760 N. Gower St.; (323) 462-8460; www.actorsco-op.org. Producing director Marianne Savell, artistic director Gary Lee Reed. Although the economic downturn of 2001 caused Actors Co-op to shrink its budget, the Christian-based company can count its blessings — including the tax-exempt protection of a 501 (3) (c) nonprofit status provided by its sponsor, the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Still, Savell says that the group is considering leaving “Mom and Dad” and getting its own 501 (3) (c), which would allow it, as a secular theater company, to open up federal and county grant money. Besides, she says, “We might want to do a play that has language. We’ve never used the F-word onstage, or G.D.”

Actors Co-op was formed 15 years ago and is now celebrating its 12th season at its two church-supplied, 99-seat-contract Crossley Theaters on the church campus. This year’s budget is $368,000, which supports a four-show season, a large company of Christian actors (though not necessarily Presbyterian, while outside directors and technical designers do not have to be Christian), four full-time staff and one part-time worker. Savell shares control of the co-op with Gary Lee Reed, yet, as A Noise Within discovered, increasingly needs a managing director to handle fund-raising.

The theater receives several private grants. As an official ministry of Hollywood Presbyterian, the co-op has to pay only its phone bill, since it receives free rent and utilities for its theater and nearby offices, with the church handling its finances and check-writing.

Actors Co-op also has a supportive subscription base, drawn mostly from Hollywood Presbyterian — aging parishioners, Savell says, who may not know any other source of theater.

“A lot of our subscribers are dying,” she also says, pointing to the need to look beyond the embrace of the church, and the desire to be a larger Equity (union) theater.

Savell estimates that grants provide 27 percent of the co-op’s funding, with subscriptions covering another 18 percent, ticket sales 17 percent, and dues accounting for only 4 percent, with the remainder provided by fund-raising activity and concession sales. (“We sell coffee for 50 cents, but we’ve got to go up.”)

The co-op operates as a democracy with a constitution and bylaws, with a seven-member committee elected to three-year terms overseeing the company’s financial and artistic direction. Savell has found it’s often the small things that make a difference in audience cultivation.

“This season’s theme is ‘Piercing the Darkness,’ and our brochure pictures a lighthouse during a stormy night. Suddenly subscriptions dropped. People didn’t subscribe, because they said the brochure looked scary and dark.”

Savell says she’s learned her lesson:

“Next year’s theme is ‘On the Cliff’s Edge’ — but not close enough to fall off.” Membership of 70. New members by referral/audition. Dues $20.