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L.A.'s Advanced Stages

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Los Angeles theatres have their landmark events--opening night galas, fundraisers, expansions and relocations, extensions. But apart from the obligatory awards-show rituals, the Los Angeles theatre community as a whole has fewer such benchmarks.

Last week's Theatre LA conference, "S.R.O.: Strategically Revitalizing Your Organization for a Bigger Box Office and Bolder Bottom Line," must rank as the most encouraging, enlightening gathering of citywide theatre professionals in nearly a decade--the last such comparable event being the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre Project-sponsored "Inventing the Future" conference of summer 1994.

But whereas that days-long event was a moveable feast of stimulating discussions--a town hall, essentially--Theatre LA's S.R.O. event was more like a brass-tacks trade conference with working seminars on strategic planning, budgeting, marketing, and audience development. Even the keynote lunch speeches, by stage-and-screen actors Alfred Molina and Don Cheadle, were refreshingly down to earth, unpretentious, and as practical-minded about the challenges of doing what Cheadle called "grass-roots" theatre in L.A. as were the conference speakers and attendees (who numbered a robust 175).

"I've been doing this for 30 years, and I've never seen anything like this," said Tom Ormeny, co-founder and co-artistic director of the Victory Theatre in Burbank. While he admitted that much of the information presented--in a series of 14 nuts-and-bolts seminars, a handful of round-tables, and a number of speeches over two days, Sept. 20-21, on the idyllic campus of California Institute of the Arts--was familiar to veterans of nonprofit arts management like himself, what impressed him above all was that "everybody was in the same room, hearing the same thing."

Marilyn McIntyre, an actor/producer with the younger Interact Theatre Company of North Hollywood, echoed Ormeny's enthusiasm.

"It was fabulous just to see the whole theatre community there, experiencing it together," said McIntyre. "It allows different aspects of the theatre community, doing different kinds of theatre, to learn from and gain respect for each other. I missed the first day, but my managing director Rosie Taravella went, and she told me that night she was so energized by it she couldn't sleep."

Bill O'Brien, producing director of Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, considered the relationship-building of the event to be at least as important as any specific information shared.

"This was definitely something our theatre community in L.A. needed--it felt like just what the doctor ordered," said O'Brien. "One thing that kept coming up, no matter whether the topic was strategic planning, budgeting, audience, press--we kept talking about relationships. Relationships build what you are and where you're going. And that was the best thing about the conference--that theatres from all around town hopefully are beginning to have meaningful relationships with each other. And that's what other theatre towns have--D.C., Minneapolis, Chicago--a community that feeds each other."

Theatre LA president and CEO Lee Wochner opened the conference on a rousing note, applying the lessons of PBS' Frontier House series, in which a modern family learned how atomized and counter-productive frontier life really was, to arts organizations that tend too often to go it alone. "To struggle separately is to fail alone," he said. "Our theatres are not in competition. Our competition is the idea of staying home vs. going out. We're not in competition, we're in cooperation."

Arts organizations need to cooperate, he and others pointed out, to head off Gov. Gray Davis' proposal to slash the California Arts Budget by 57 percent. Assemblyman Richard Polanco, it was reported, has restored some of the proposed cutbacks--thanks in large part to an outcry from the arts community. Arts funding also emerged as a theme in Alfred Molina's speech; he pooh-poohed the notion that English theatre is superior to American theatre, saying, "The only advantage we do have is public funding for theatre, which means we can do more of it."

Reached after the conference, Wochner said he was encouraged by the response--not least because the evaluations and comments he'd seen, whether criticizing or praising, took it for granted that there will be another one in 2003.

"We already have three potential hosts for next year who approached us at the conference," said Wochner. The No. 1 requested topic theatres would like to see in the future is "more information about boards and board development. Theatre LA could do a half-day session on just board development."

Such a gathering would likely be as packed as were the seminars at this appropriately named S.R.O. conference, in which the 70-minute sessions zipped by all too fast. Jim Royce, marketing director of Center Theatre Group, barely got into his pitch for interactive Internet marketing when his seminar was over.

But it wasn't just a one-side exchange, as Royce explained: "When I go to conferences like these, I pick up on ideas," he said. "I love hearing stories about how small theatres are communicating with their audience. In this particular instance, I did want to speak to the woman from Sledgehammer."

He meant his co-panelist Elaine Gingery, managing director of San Diego's edgy theatre, which was recently chosen for a National Arts Marketing Program in Chicago and consequently has a lot of its ducks in a row for future growth. But Gingery, too, found that the idea-sharing at S.R.O. couldn't help but rub off.

"I was just writing a donor letter, and I remembered I'd heard something in one of the seminars about matching gifts programs, so I put that in," she recalled a few days after the conference. "Sometimes we're so busy trying to get everything done that some little things that work very well, you either don't know about them or don't see them until you attend one of these things."

Spencer Scott, producing director of L.A.-based African-American theatre company Unity Players Ensemble, walked away not just inspired but validated.

"Not to say that misery loves company, but it's nice to know that we're not alone--to find out there are people experiencing the same dilemmas as we are," said Scott. "But it's also good to find out you are doing some things correctly. Sometimes the rewards are few and far between when you're not super-established; a lot of things that were recommended, we're already doing."

Among the most inspired ideas of the event's planners was to close the conference with a round-table discussion with five admitted theatre "fanatics"--actual paying audience members who seek out theatre, large and small, safe and cutting-edge, in Los Angeles, and do so frequently through WebTix, Theatre LA's half-price online ticket service. After they shared their likes and dislikes, their tastes and gripes, Bob Barnett of Yale Cabaret Blue got up and quipped: "I think we'd all like to clone you."

Amid the conference's atmosphere of fun, frankness, and what Spencer Scott called "harmony in the air," it might have been easy to miss S.R.O.'s real significance: that it convincingly demonstrated, and raised the bar for, the seriousness of L.A. theatre makers.

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