Whatever else it might entail, making live theater begins with real estate — a plot of land and a building to accommodate both a stage and an audience. And as any veteran of the cramped, repurposed storefronts with doubtful plumbing and the converted, tumble-down warehouses on dead-end streets that comprise the bulk of this city's small theaters can attest, more often than not that real estate tends to be on the wrong side of the tracks.
So when Road Theatre Company Founder and Artistic Director Taylor Gilbert accepted the keys this week for Road's spanking-new, purpose-built, state-of-the-art, $800,000 78-seat theater in NoHo, she might well have felt like Cinderella on her way to the ball.
And while no magic wands were employed in the construction of Road's new and as-yet-unnamed main stage (the company's current home in the Lankershim Arts Center will continue as Road's experimental second stage), its story does contain more than a few fairy godmothers.
That new main space is the centerpiece of Magnolia Boulevard's NoHo Senior Arts Colony, a $32-million, 126-unit complex of affordable senior housing that could revolutionize how Americans think about retirement by offering an arts-enriched environment for creatively-inclined, active seniors, age 62 and up. It is the brainchild of developer John Huskey, the CEO of affordable-housing specialists Meta Housing, and, in a sense, it is the fruition of a lifelong dream by aging-advocate Tim Carpenter.
L.A. Weekly recently spoke by phone to Carpenter, who was at the offices of EngAge, the nonprofit he founded in 1997 to realize his vision of transforming affordable senior apartment communities into “vibrant centers of creativity.”
Carpenter's vision of what senior housing could be came directly out of what it was. “When I first walked into one of these places,” he remembers, “it was all Bingo and donuts. … I mean, I don't know about you, but I don't want to grow old playing Bingo and eating donuts. And so part of it was starting to ask the right questions. I think that the wrong question has been asked for too long, which is, 'Would I put my mother or father into one of these places?'”
The more farsighted consideration, Carpenter asserts, should be what would I want for myself? In his case, the answer seemed simple: “I want to get older around arts and lifelong learning and learning to cook and moving forward, not staying put.”
Then fortune intervened in the form of Huskey, who Carpenter met in the mid-'90s. “I was working in senior health care,” Carpenter explains, “and had been bashing my head against the brick wall that is our health care system for quite some time trying to make change. And I met John when I really wanted to try something new around making getting older structurally better.”
For his part, Huskey was having trouble with a senior housing project in Orange County with a stubbornly high vacancy rate. Then Carpenter proposed something unheard of in real estate — he would create and run arts-related classes and programming for the building's tenants.
“At the time it seemed to me pretty logical that we should do this better,' Carpenter recalls. “So the idea of creating a housing complex that could be directed towards arts and lifelong learning and wellness, and trying to get people who are still independent and getting older to … stay independent longer and to have a higher quality of life and avoid higher levels of care seemed to make a lot of sense. But no one was really doing it.”
Huskey rolled the dice. The residents not only responded, their enthusiasm and word of mouth brought their friends onboard and the building quickly leased up. Emboldened, Huskey unleashed Carpenter on another Meta Housing project in North Hollywood, the Piedmont, with similar results.
That success soon caught the attention of the City of Burbank, which invited Meta Housing to form a partnership and build the first true senior arts complex with fully dedicated arts-programming space. The result was the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, which included facilities like a digital film editing suite, art gallery spaces, an outdoor performance area and art and sculpture studios. Almost as an afterthought, Huskey included a small black box theater to accommodate acting and writing classes as well as amateur productions. The project not only landed Meta and the Colony on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, but also was dubbed a “model for creative aging” by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Like the Burbank complex, the new NoHo Senior Arts Colony began as a public-private partnership between Meta and the now-defunct California Redevelopment Agency, which, according to Carpenter, was looking for a way to expand the NoHo Arts District streetscape eastward along Magnolia.
Carpenter recalls that the idea of incorporating a professional resident theater company like Road came in part from the success of the Burbank black box space and the identity of NoHo itself. “A lot of it is really looking at what this community is about and how do they want to serve the people that live there,” he says. “So I think we were mostly thinking aloud and saying, 'Wouldn't it be really cool to just have a theater in it?' You know, is there a way that we could partner with a theater company like the Road that could run the lights and run the sound and be able to put on professional productions? And then in the off time they could provide both the internal programming to the seniors that live there and then potentially other types of programming to the people in the neighborhood.”
According to Gilbert, the head of Road, the idea of a second stage had always been part of the company's long-term plan. But nobody from the theater expected it to come quite so fast or to be handed to them in such a wholesale fashion. “It was really fortuitous for us,” she concurs. “We didn't know where that [second stage] was going to be, or when that was going to happen. But the CRA came to us and said, 'We have this idea: You're on our short list of organizations that we believe have a good sustainability record, and we would like to possibly have you put in a proposal to Meta and see if they would accept that.'” So Road suddenly found themselves on a shortlist with several other organizations and waded into the proposal process.
In addition to offering professional stagings for the public — Road will be inaugurating the space with Lori Jarislaw's original musical The Baby Project in a “soft opening” on Feb. 26 — the company will work with EngAge to create special programming with the residents themselves. “One of the first things that we want to do over here,” she says, “is a pilot program titled My Life Through Your Eyes. And what we want to try and do is bring the youth in the area together with the seniors from this building and work on their lives, and tell stories about their lives and produce that as possibly first a staged reading and then something different.”
And while Carpenter is proud of the pioneering aspects of the senior arts colony concept, his true achievement is what they represent. “I think the thing that has happened since I started in this business,” he reflects, “is that the expectations in senior housing are on the rise, thankfully. … And that has changed drastically, because people know what the alternative to it is. [Seniors now] know that there can be something different and they should demand it.”
Tim Carpenter's radio program, Experience Talks can be heard Saturdays at 8 a.m. on KPFK.