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Culver City Causes Conflicts

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For most aspiring actors, being called to a meeting by the associate artistic director of the theatre ensemble The Actors' Gang would have been a dream come true. But for Tim Wright, actor and artistic director of the Hollywood-based Circle X Theatre Company, that meeting last week was his worst nightmare. Instead of sharing tales from the trenches or exchanging creative ideas with his peer, Wright found himself being asked to find an alternative venue for Circle X's production of The Brothers Karamazov, scheduled to open in just eight weeks at Culver City's newly renovated performance space, the Ivy Substation.

"I was very disturbed," said Wright, who has already spent approximately $7,000 of the company's savings on auditions, publicity, rehearsal space, and printed materials. Earlier this year, Circle X and NoHo's Road Theatre Company were awarded Performing Arts Grants by Culver City, including a fee waiver for the 99-Seat house over the course of a production. For theatre companies such as Circle X and the Road, which rely on grants and donations, as well as box office receipts, for their operating budgets, free access to the space meant the company members could focus all their energy on the creative elements of the production rather than on fundraising.

For Circle X, which typically produces twice each year, losing the venue at this point means at least a delay for its upcoming production, as well as damage to the long-term health of the company. Since learning of the scheduling conflict with the Ivy Substation's newly appointed resident theatre group, The Actors' Gang, Wright has spent most of his time crunching numbers and checking the availability of performance spaces across Los Angeles.

As part of an effort to stimulate the economy of Culver City and restore its rich entertainment heritage, in the mid-1990s the city's redevelopment agency sponsored an initiative to foster cultural events by funding different arts groups and supporting artists who already served the city. In addition to a weekly chamber music series, the Summer Sunset music festival, and free public concerts, the agency also set its sights on creating a theatre row in Culver City's historic downtown that would be anchored by the Kirk Douglas Theatre on one end and the Ivy Substation on the other.

Originally built in 1907 by the Los Angeles Pacific Railway as a substation for the red cars that ran from downtown Los Angeles to the ocean, the Ivy Substation sat empty between 1954 and 1987. In 1987 the redevelopment agency invested $2.5 million in restoring the building. In 2001 an additional $500,000 was spent on redesigning the interior and converting the building into a state-of-the-art theatre facility, which includes 99 seats donated by the Shubert Theatre. For the last two years, the Ivy Substation has been a satellite of the Center Theater Group, which recently opened the Kirk Douglas a few blocks west, leaving the Substation open territory for another resident theatre group.

"We didn't know who would apply," said Linda Simmons, events supervisor for Culver City's Community Affairs Department, of the notice for funding-availability for a resident theatre group, which was issued by the city in September. In addition to Zoo District and Circle X, the socially conscious Actors' Gang, headed by actor and activist Tim Robbins, whose rent at its Hollywood space had more than doubled, submitted applications for the Ivy Substation residency. Early in 2005 the Road and Circle X were awarded small cash grants and use of the Substation for limited engagements. While the Road reserved fall dates on the Ivy Substation calendar, Circle X was scheduled for mid-July, on the heels of the L.A. Women's Shakespeare Company's early-summer production of The Merchant of Venice.

According to Simmons, who led a walk-through of the Ivy Substation in late February, all three theatre companies were made aware that they might lose the space, depending on the needs of the resident theatre company that remained to be selected.

"I knew we'd have to be flexible with our dates," said Wright. "I never thought they wouldn't be available at all." At the time of the vote, on May 9, which selected The Actors' Gang, Culver City Councilwoman Carol Gross said she was not aware of the Gang's request to bring its current production of Tartuffe to the Ivy Substation on July 1 or that this decision would displace the two smaller theatre companies who had already booked the dates. But Taylor Gilbert, one of the founding members and artistic director of the Road Theater Company, regarded the Ivy Substation as a secondary home for her NoHo–based company and was excited to have her company's production of Bunbury performed for a new audience in Culver City. "I totally understand the Actors' Gang's perspective," said Gilbert. "If I were in their position, I would want to hit the ground running, too. It's a fabulous venue, and it's very exciting that Actors' Gang is going to be working there."

While Simmons said Culver City is committed to helping the two theatre groups find equivalent space under the same financial terms or assisting them rent an available theatre, the cost of putting up just one of the shows is comparable to the entire $25,000 budget of the fund that furnishes the city's performing arts grants. Under Actors' Equity Association's 99-Seat Plan, the companies cannot begin rehearsals without having a venue secured. If Wright and Circle X, who were scheduled to begin rehearsals June 6, cannot find a resolution by Friday, they will be confronted with indefinitely postponing their performances.

In hindsight, Simmons says her department's decision--not to simply cease use of the Ivy Substation until the resident theatre company was chosen--was a bad judgment call. Though she contends negotiations with The Actors' Gang is still only in preliminary stages and that the ensemble is working with the city to find a solution, whena queried, Rebecca Gilchrist, publicist for the Actors' Gang, said she had no knowledge of the situation. Otherwise, the Actors' Gang did not return Back Stage West's call requesting comment on the situation by press time.

Christine Byers, coordinator for Culver City's department of Public Art and Historic Preservation, who had only peripheral awareness of the matter, is not concerned that the scheduling conflict will send the wrong message to future Performing Arts Grant applicants. She believes the situation is an anomaly, the product of the Ivy Substation's transitional year.

"It's dumb luck," said one actor involved, who asked not to be identified. "Still, it's all adding up to being the best show you never saw."

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