This week's THEATER FEATURE On Bobrauschenbergamerica and Orpheus Descending

Check here on Monday afternoon for the 2009 L.A. Weekly Theater Awards nominees!

YES, YOU CAN DO SOMETHING. The local blogosphere has been generating a number of letters like this one that came in from About Productions yesterday:

“Greetings Friends and Supporters of About Productions, The arts in Los Angeles are in crisis and we need your help. On Friday, 1/29/10, the City's Budget and Finance Committee proposed eliminating funding for the City's Department of Cultural Affairs, the only dedicated source of revenue for neighborhood art and culture in the city.The City Council will meet from 10 am – 1pm on Wednesday morning, 2/3/10, at City Hall, 200 N. Spring Street, LA, CA 90012, in the John Ferraro Council Chamber, Room 340. This item is #13 on the Agenda. If the city chooses to eliminate this funding, it will be an enormous blow to the entire arts community in Los Angeles. Please take a moment to send your council member an email through the Arts for LA website, voicing your support for the arts and for the continued funding of the Department of Cultural Affairs.”

Note: The Budget and Finance Committee's proposal was not to eliminate the Department of Cultural Affairs, but to eliminate a dedicated revenue stream from the hotel tax that subsidizes 30 positions, or 48% of the staff. Arts for L.A. is now reporting that the city's Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana is calling for the elimination of all arts grants. For theaters that work in schools, and given the LAUSD's proposal to cut all elementary school arts teachers by 2012, the implications are dire for future generations of artists and audiences. Please, write to your city councilmember quickly. Again, the Arts for L.A. website is here.

For more on the fallout of Pasadena Playhouse closing, press the Continue Reading tab directly below.

Flickering Flame
The Pasadena Playhouse bows out for a while, again

Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, at last year's L.A. Weekly Theater Awards
Photo by Tim Norris

Because of financial woes, the Pasadena Playhouse, one of area's most esteemed mid-size non-profit theaters, is closing its doors on February 7, after the final performance of Camelot. 37 employees will be laid off.

This closure of the local theater beacon not only sends a shudder across Southern California arts institutions, it betrays the trust of season subscribers who have paid for the remaining five plays of the 2010 season, which now won't be produced. This would appear to be a death knell to the idea of season subscriptions. Trusting patrons paid their rent in advance and got evicted anyway. Word will spread, reinforcing the trend towards single-tickets sales at other theaters.

Artistic Director Sheldon Epps said on Saturday that he and his board of directors will be receiving legal advice on the advantages and disadvantages of declaring bankruptcy.

“I believe that a fiscal structure will be put back in place, at a point to be determined,” Epps says, determined to a point.

A $2 million debt that Epps inherited when he took over the theater in 1997 got whittled down to approximately $1.5 million this year, but it was a boulder that Epps was trying, like Sisyphus, to push up Mount Wilson.   

Under Epps' helm, the quality of the programming rose significantly with new musicals capable of adding non-white audiences to the theater's patrons, and box office receipts also rose.  (Sharleen Cooper Cohen's bio-musical about Lena Horne, Stormy Weather, broke the theater's  box office records in 2007.)  Nonetheless, it wasn't enough: Epps was struggling with a drop in donor revenue from the 2008 recession, in conjunction with the debt burden.

He says that funding organizations wanted to give grant monies to the Pasadena Playhouse, but the theater's debt violated the funders' guidelines. Epps adds that the recession was used as an excuse by arts donors to curtain their giving, sending the theater into a tailspin.  

The world of 2010 is one of crisis for the non-profit sector, nation-wide. According to last Sunday's The Wall Street Journal, “The once-booming non-profit sector is in the midst of a shakeout, leaving many Americans without services and culling weak groups from the strong. Hit by a drop in donations and government funding in the wake of a deep recession, non-profits — from arts councils to food banks — are undergoing a painful restructuring, including mergers, acquisitions, collaborations, cutbacks and closings.”

The Pasadena Playhouse established its reputation and influence early, under the watch of actor-director-manager Gilmore Brown.  It was wealthy citizens of Pasadena, who, in the early 1920s, were largely responsible for funding construction of a swanky new legit theater, now called the Pasadena Playhouse, designed by Elmer Grey (who also designed Cal Tech) on El Molino Avenue. It was then known as the Pasadena Community Playhouse, and Brown was invited to run the place in 1924. He launched  his first season in 1925.

In 1928 Brown also created an on-site acting conservatory, The Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts.  The acting school became known as “the star machine,” with students including Jamie Farr, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, William Holden, Rue McClanahan and Sally Struthers. In a recent interview, Leonard Nimoy told the L.A. Weekly that the reputation of the Pasadena Playhouse' actor training program is what drew him to California from Boston, in 1949.  

Under Brown's helm, by March of 1937, the Pasadena Playhouse had produced Shakespeare's entire canon, plus 500 news plays. It was because of the Pasadena Playhouse that George Bernard Shaw dubbed Los Angeles “Athens of the west.” (Shaw must have regarded it as trifling that Pasadena and Los Angeles are actually different cities.)  In March of 1937, the California State legislature named the Pasadena Playhouse the State Theater of California. Had the designation come with a designated revenue stream, the theater's doors might still be open..

In a moment of introspection, Epps says that he and his board could have been more aggressively demanding for support “of a theater that had come to deserve support.” He rightly points out that the caliber of productions underwent a major turnaround five years ago, returning the Playhouse to its legacy as “a first class theater,” earning the respect of Broadway and West End  producers, and sending productions to New York (Vanities the Musical in 2009) and London (Sister Act: The Musical, currently playing at the London Palladium).

“We should have made more noise,” Epps reflects on his reticence to badger donors and publicize the depths of the theater's fiscal crisis. Living on day-to-day income and contributions rather than being able to rely or cash reserves or an endowment is a dangerous situation for any mid-size arts organization, he adds. “Because if you have a bad six month period at the box office or a bad period bringing in donations, you're in trouble.”

And this is why the theater is closing  – at least until such an endowment or cash reserve comes in. Epps says that he remains confident that this will happen, but he also alludes to the paradox of the economic divides among our small, mid-size, and large theaters.  

“A much smaller institution that's thriving on imagination, hope and passion won't have these troubles,” he points out. “And a much larger organization is likely to have cash reserves.”  

Yes, exactly. Except for Los Angeles Opera, of course.

Given that we don't live in the city of Berlin, which gives more money to the arts than the entire U.S. federal government, and given that our pall of un- and underemployment doesn't look as though it's going to lift any time soon, the closure of the Pasadena Playhouse sends out an alarm that raises three interconnected questions.

1) Can an art form with average ticket prices starting at $35, not including parking (add $8 – $10), be expected to thrive in the middle of a recession that came for the weekend and isn't leaving any time soon?

2) Can an art form that is forced, out of financial necessity, to scale back on its spectacle (cast size, production design) be expected to thrive, when spectacle lies at the heart of the art form?  (The Slavic word for a theater production is specktacle.) Add to this question the reality that by the time they emerge from their teens, 90% of American youth who have been exposed to any professional live theater have only experienced Broadway-style spectacles. Pasadena Playhouse's production of Camelot was sliced and diced to be performed on a barebones set by a mere eight actors (and that's now a large cast for a mid-size theater). The theater insists this was an “aesthetic decision,” but honestly now . . .

3) And finally: Who do we think we're kidding?

This is not the first time the Pasadena Playhouse has been shuttered. It was closed in 1969 for similar reasons (the theater's acting school followed in 1970). The building was saved from the wrecking ball thanks to a vigorous and successful community effort to have it added to the National Registry of Historical Landmarks in 1975. Four years later, in 1979, the building was purchased by the city of Pasadena, which obtained an Economic Development Agency grant to pay for its restoration. It re-opened with great fanfare in 1985.

We love our beautiful buildings, always have. But theater is what happens inside them. When that activity becomes something greater than an afterthought, something to be slotted in, that's when we'll have institutions that can sustain an art form that matters. Until then, the smaller the institution, the safer the home for the art. The safer the home, the more dangerous the art can be. And that may well be the key to the longevity, relevance and vitality of this art form.  

And if that isn't the key, just a couple of very generous donors would sure help.

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