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Theater

Theater/garcia/39inches/dp1st/mike2nd By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter Michael Holmes has operated Chandler Studios for 10 years, putting on about five productions a year at the 33-seat playhouse. Sometimes, if the play gets critical mention, he can fill the house, but there have also been times when no one shows up at all. Holmes rents out his studio when he can, and finances a lot of his productions by teaching. Each of his 30-member company chips in to run lights, manage the house and clean the bathroom. “Everyone has to contribute something,” he said. “That’s the way theaters have to exist.” Chandler Studios is one of about 40 performance spaces in the NoHo Arts District that runs along Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. Just 10 minutes from some of the major film studios in Burbank, the tiny playhouses and their Hollywood brethren remain worlds apart. While the Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. and Universal Studios Inc. hatch $50 million film projects, the NoHo theater community begs, borrows and steals to scrape together its four-figure production budget. NoHo’s players typically receive $5 a performance, if they belong to an Associated Actors and Artists of America union. Some are working film and television actors whose bit parts in Hollywood offer little creative satisfaction. Many more support themselves teaching or with other day jobs, hoping to break into Hollywood one day. But whatever the motive, they all must come to terms with the bottom line of a career in theater in L.A. “No one should ever get into theater to try and get rich,” said Edmund Gaynes, president of the NoHo Theatre League and a producer whose Whitmore-Lindley Theater Center just opened. Since its founding about six years ago, the league has brought considerably more attention to the community. Last year, 35,000 people attended the NoHo Theater and Arts Festival, a weekend of free theater, up from about 10,000 the year before. But the arithmetic of running a theater remains stacked against these companies. Many of the theaters only have 35 or 40 seats, performances are generally limited to Friday and Saturday nights, and a typical production costs $6,000 to mount. With ticket prices averaging $15, it would take 10 performances with a sell-out crowd just to break even. That’s five weeks with a full house, and the typical production runs four to six weeks. “It’s nearly impossible to recoup the kind of funding we put into a production unless we extend (the run of the production),” said Taylor Gilbert, artistic director at the Road Theater Co., a group that performs at the Lankershim Arts Center. “So we rely on contributions, as well as the money we can make on rentals, donations and classes.” The Road Theater Co. is one of the lucky ones. Operating as a non-profit organization called The Other Side of the Hill Productions Inc., the company has been able to secure a number of grants, including one from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department that allows the company use of the Lankershim Arts Center rent-free. But many such grants are available only to companies that operate community outreach programs (Road Theater works with at-risk youth and seniors), and even so, there is not enough money to go around. Theater owners often augment their performance revenues by renting out their space for classes or to independent producers to do casting or rehearsals for television shows or movies. Dan Hirsch, owner of NoHo Actors Studio in North Hollywood and the White Fire Theater in Sherman Oaks, figures that about 75 percent of his revenue comes from rentals. “It’s a business for me as well as an artistic endeavor, but it’s much more of a business,” Hirsch said. “I realized a long time ago that the economics of running a theater and trying to produce theater, and make money at it and keep a roof over your head, was a difficult proposition in this town.” Hirsch produces about two plays a year, often financed by a partnership that could include friends and other entertainment companies. Under terms of a deal for a current production, Hirsch, who is writing and directing the play, will split box-office receipts with the production company, and they hope to share in television rights if they are successful in selling the production. That kind of business models is rare, however. Most companies finance their plays on a shoestring, cajoling friends to chip in time or supplies and often living in debt. Holmes, who recently incorporated his company, the Action/Reaction Theater, as a non-profit organization in hopes of getting grant financing, said he tries to produce plays that don’t require sets or costumes. When a production does require costumes, he said, “I have a wonderful costume designer, Don Nelson, who I owe money to, and I pay him when I can get the money.” Holmes figures his efforts currently have him in debt to the tune of about $10,000. David Cox, artistic director for the American Renegade Theatre Co., got a grant last year from the Burbank Church of Religious Science, of which Cox is a member. Funding, he says, “is very difficult. It’s all volunteers. And I put in 70 to 80 hours a week on my own.” Why does he do it? Creative fulfillment. The vast majority of L.A. actors even those who make their living in film or TV often end up with no more than a few lines in a movie. “You spend your whole life studying to be an actor and director,” Cox said. “When you’re doing five or 10 lines, you don’t get creatively fulfilled.” On stage, actors can find meatier roles, get closer to the audience and get immediate feedback they can’t get in film. And there is always the possibility of being discovered. Sean Penn was a member of a NoHo repertory company before he became a star. So was Jennifer Tilley. Some years back, Chazz Palminteri wrote and performed a one-man show in NoHo called “A Bronx Tale.” It became a major motion picture directed by Robert DeNiro, and Palminteri became a star. Stories like that fuel the imagination of the players in NoHo, but such tales of success are the exception. Lonny Chapman, artistic director and founder of one of the oldest companies in NoHo, Group Repertory Theatre, appeared in such movies as “East of Eden” with James Dean and in TV episodes of “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke,” among others. But he says it’s hard for a theater actor in L.A. to win recognition from Hollywood. “L.A. is a movie town,” he said. “It’s not really a theater town. When I was in New York, all these big producers would come to New York. Here, they send a low person on the totem pole to see something.” When a play does win critical acclaim and shows sufficient box-office potential, it might end up on tour, or better yet, in New York. “Grosses in New York can be anywhere from $15,000 to $60,000 a week, and maybe more,” said Gaynes, who co-produced “Chaim’s Love Song” with the show’s director David Cox. Gaynes, whose acting career began at age 7 on Broadway, said he has been able to use his contacts to help move productions back East. He currently has four productions playing off-Broadway. But he also points out that to successfully transport a play, it’s necessary to pick material that will appeal to New York audiences. “Most theaters aren’t doing plays with that in mind,” he said. “I just have a different focus.” Driven by love, not money, many artistic directors are content to mine subject matter that is not particularly commercial on either coast. Often the plays are offbeat comedies or dark dramas that are socially and politically relevant but have limited appeal. “New works and new voices are paramount,” Gilbert said of the work that drives her company. Sometimes, companies hope to attract theater parties with material that appeals to specific ethnic audiences or other groups. “Anytime we do a Jewish comedy we do well,” said Chapman. “The Jewish people are very good theatergoers. That doesn’t mean they don’t come to see other plays. But they like to get together as a party to see these shows.” Most theater companies rely on mailing lists and word of mouth. Drawing audiences has been especially difficult in the last few years since the Los Angeles Times revamped its content, relegating reviews of North Hollywood productions to its Valley edition. The NoHo theater community believes it can, and does, draw its audience from all over Los Angeles, but without the benefit of wider press coverage it has had trouble attracting the audiences it needs. “It really hurt us,” said Cox. If a play does win critical acclaim, it can extend the length of the production from an average of six weeks to 12 weeks or longer. That can mean the difference between red ink and black. “Infinite Cages,” currently at Chandler Studios, was named “Pick of the Week” in L.A. Weekly in December. Following the review, the show sold out, bringing the box-office take to $410 for the night. Now, Holmes is hoping to extend the play through mid-February. “The house is not big enough to warrant advertising costs,” he said, “so we’re pretty dependent on critical reviews.” Some artistic directors have tried to use what connections they do have in Hollywood to attract funding. But they say the industry has offered scant support, outside of donating old props and costumes. “Considering that they take the best of our writers, directors and actors, you’d think there’d be more interest in supporting us,” said Gaynes. Others say that with 40 theaters and a lot of bad work out there, it’s no wonder Hollywood stays away. “If you’re going to court Hollywood, you better pick material that is going to have worth in their eyes,” said Hirsch. “For the community of big-money Hollywood to sift through it all is a lot of work.” The typical networking contacts that NoHo players have in Hollywood often don’t lead to people with the ability to write big checks. Gilbert of the Road Theater Co. has launched a more focused effort to tap into Hollywood recruiting executives familiar with industry fund-raising for the company’s board. But even though NoHo and Hollywood share a common craft, that’s where the similarities often end. “It’s scary to approach these people,” Gilbert said.

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