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In L.A., 99-Seat Theatres Facing Real Estate Crises

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Skyrocketing commercial real estate prices are among the financial challenges that are still taking a toll on the L.A. area's veteran 99-Seat theatre companies. Several groups are homeless, functioning in temporary quarters, or frantically trying to hold on to rented facilities. Thankfully, there's hope — in the Community Redevelopment Agency's efforts to help rescue beleaguered groups under an initiative to preserve the city's cultural heritage. The project, funded by property tax dollars, supports parks and arts organizations in community enrichment programs. The agency is committing a sizable portion of its resources to help worthy theatre companies find suitable property within defined geographic areas in Hollywood and North Hollywood, and to aid the companies financially in efforts to refurbish existing facilities or perhaps build new ones.

It seems like musical chairs, as displaced theatres end up in locations vacated by others. Recently a lease-renewal impasse at Silverlake's Lyric Hyperion Theatre led to the 47-year-old Company of Angels' leaving the venue, while West Coast Ensemble — ousted from its Hollywood facility last year — will set up operation in the former Angels space for the next year. In Culver City, The Actors' Gang has comfortably settled into the historic Ivy Substation, while the Open Fist Theatre Company, which lost its longtime Hollywood home two years ago, is leasing The Actors' Gang's former Hollywood space — albeit temporarily, due to the rental cost. Open Fist is working with CRA to find a suitable space or build a new home.

Alan Becker, who has owned the Lyric Hyperion space for two years, said the Company of Angels negotiations failed just as he was upgrading the space into a cafĂŠ theatre and that he was not demanding a rent increase. However, according to Lee Sherman, Angels' associate artistic director, "We were unable to negotiate what we thought was an equitable lease. There are factors I won't go into because we have counsel on the matter. With the restructuring of the entire company that we have undertaken this year, we're actually looking at this as a good thing. We're pursuing a couple of options on new spaces, and we intend to resume productions as soon as possible."

West Coast Ensemble, also enlisting CRA's support, is scheduled to move into Becker's facility Dec. 1 and plans to announce a single season there, tentatively starting in February. Richard Israel, WCE's associate artistic director, said the Silverlake building is too small for the company's long-term needs. He said the crisis has forced members to re-examine goals and pull together as a team. Martha Demson, Open Fist's artistic director, praised CRA but admitted that its processes take time, requiring her and her colleagues to wait, focusing on current productions, while preparing for the challenges that lie ahead.

Among other chapters in this ongoing drama, the 11-year-old Evidence Room is still regrouping and rethinking, following eviction last May from its stylish performing venue on Beverly Boulevard. The eviction was primarily the result of artistic power struggles, in which founder and Artistic Director Bart DeLorenzo and veteran company members faced off against board member Alicia Adams, who owns the property. Said DeLorenzo, "We're now taking time to mull things over and see what our plan should be. We enjoy working together, and I know we will find ways to continue that. The distractions of these problems drained the company for a year. As bad as the outcome was, it was a relief when it was over."

Another Real Estate Casualty

Jeannie Hackett and John Apicella, co-artistic directors of the classics-focused Antaeus Company, likewise bemoaned dealing with such time-consuming headaches. Antaeus must vacate its North Hollywood space — home of its productions, classes, warehouse, and offices for almost a decade — by Oct. 23 because Antaeus' founder and the building's owner, Dakin Matthews, had to sell it. According to the discouraged but undefeated Hackett, "We didn't have time to make a study or decide whether we should try to find a way to purchase the property." She emphasized that even if productions are put on hold for a while, her group will find a location to keep certain activities going while the search for a home continues. Hackett's company, also working with CRA, is guardedly optimistic that this association will bear fruit. Apicella added, "The rent market is outrageous. Here in North Hollywood, which is an arts district, the CRA originally had a vision of small- and medium-sized theatres up and down Lankershim Boulevard. But the square-footage price [$3-5], now that this area is becoming more attractive, is prohibitive for small theatres." Hackett noted that Bill Mason, her CRA contact, has been extremely helpful. She added that the sympathetic developer of the property Antaeus is vacating has joined the company's board: "He's working hand in hand with us in dealing with the CRA." Israel and Demson likewise expressed determination that their companies will weather their storms.

DeLorenzo summed up the ongoing crises with his belief that funding organizations and government agencies still have the long-held perception of the L.A. arena as one of "vanity theatre." He said, "The success story that needs to be pointed out is Actors' Gang," referring to Culver City's support in subsidizing the Ivy Substation facility. "That area," he elaborated, "is exciting and wonderful, with lots of people on the streets: a place that's culturally and civically alive. So much civic support in L.A. is piecemeal, paying lip service but not doing enough. Culture has to be watered daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. When you have that, an artistic high happens, and people work at their best."

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