Barbara Beckley, pencil thin and fiercely emphatic, sits in an armchair in the living room-style lobby of the Colony Theatre in Burbank. Sounds from the stage indicate that rehearsals are underway for the second show of the Colony's 38th season: the West Coast premiere of John Morogiello's backstage comedy, “Blame It on Beckett.”
The Colony's artistic director and longtime leader is looking back, tracing her company's trajectory from an actor-driven, 99-seat venture in Silver Lake to its transformation into a 276-seat, full Equity theater. Founded in 1975 by a group of Los Angeles actors, the Colony Studio Theatre, as it was called then, earned considerable critical acclaim and audience loyalty during its first 25 years in “the land that time forgot,” as Beckley puts it.
“We called it Silver Lake because that was cool,” she said, “but actually we were in this hole between Silver Lake, Echo Park and Glassell Park. Our nearest competitors were the Dodgers.”
Beckley initially managed the theater for founding Artistic Director Terrence Shank while pursuing her own acting career. After the company's successful first year, she recalled, “people said, ‘What are you doing next season?' Terrence and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, guess we better figure that out.'”
The Colony quickly gained a reputation for sterling, award-winning, often original work — it was and is the recipient of numerous L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle and Ovation Awards. The audience grew. Regulars began trekking in from as far away as Orange County.
“They still do,” said Beckley.
When Shank moved on in 1984 for a theater career in Florida and South Africa, the leadership position “kind of landed in my lap,” Beckley said. In 1987, she spearheaded a canny marketing effort that would set the stage for the theater's evolution.
“That was the year that we discovered telemarketing. We decided to throw everything we had into a campaign to build our subscription base. It was a leap of faith.”
That strategic move coincided with a through-the-roof smash hit for the company: Jean Anouilh's “Ring Around the Moon,” headlined by Parker Stevenson.
“We grew because we were able to build an absolute killer subscriber base,” said Beckley. “We captured the name and phone number of every ticket buyer that walked through our doors. We followed up with phone calls within 48 hours and we sold subscriptions at intermission and after the show.”
Beckley's curtain pitches remain a Colony tradition.
“In that one campaign,” she said, “we went from 835 subscribers to 1,845.”
Over five years, the Colony's subscriber base grew to more than 3,000. “Our shows were virtually sold out before we even opened them,” Beckley observed.
The Colony was operating under an Actors' Equity Association plan allowing professional Los Angeles theaters of 99 seats or fewer to pay actors a minimal stipend.
In order to produce work under a full Equity contract and pay actors meaningful wages and benefits, the company would have to become a midsize theater, a risky step that small theaters rarely take. A few that made the leap are A Noise Within, now based in Pasadena; International City Theatre in Long Beach and East West Players in L.A.
Yet with the Colony's large subscriber base, said Beckley, who received the 1999 Ovation Award for Leadership in Los Angeles Theatre, “we had the capacity to do it.”
Looking for a city to partner with, the company eventually landed in the vacant satellite facility of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, a corner structure of the Burbank Town Center mall.
“We walked into the exhibit hall,” Beckley said, “and, oh, my gosh, it was dying to be a theater.” With high ceilings, no obstructive columns and an upstairs room “that ended up the exact width and depth of the stage” to use as rehearsal space, “it was perfect.”
The Burbank City Council approved the Colony's proposal in 1996. Four years of architectural planning, construction and delays later, the company moved in.
“I cannot say enough about the city of Burbank, how supportive they've been,” Beckley said. “They recognize the value of the arts in a way that I don't think they get enough credit for. Everybody thinks Santa Monica is so cool and Pasadena is so cool. Well, Burbank is very cool.”
During the first two years in its new digs, the Colony used only a fraction of the new theater's available seating under an Equity agreement temporarily continuing the company's small-theater status.
It opened in 2000 with the inaugural reprise of the Colony's 1981 musical adaptation of Ray Bradbury's, “Dandelion Wine.” Shank, the musical's original director, returned to helm the production.
The official launch of the Colony as a full Equity theater came two years later, with the acclaimed Los Angeles premiere of “The Laramie Project,” based on interviews with Wyoming citizens after the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.
But the company's dream-come-true has had its challenges.
“Our move in 2000 coincided with tectonic shifts in the environment and the culture,” Beckley said. “Everything has changed in the last 10 years: 9/11, a series of cosmic natural disasters, the economy tanking and the explosion of entertainment options through new media.
“Our entire business plan was conservatively based on our growth pattern through the 1990s, which had been steady and solid. The difference in costs at the 99-seat level is enormous,” she said. “Our annual budget in the last years in Silver Lake was about $350,000. It's now a million.”
Ironically, that meant smaller casts and fewer opportunities for Colony members. As a full Equity theater, with a regulated scale of pay and benefits, the Colony couldn't do the kinds of large-cast shows that it had been able to do on a shoestring in Silver Lake.
“We did ‘The Laramie Project' with a cast of eight,” Beckley said. We did [the Jerry Herman musical] “The Grand Tour” with a cast of 12. We can't do that anymore. We've reworked the way we build our sets. We've cut our runs from five weeks to four to save the cost of that extra week of performance. We laid off some staff. That was very hard.”
Of the original 25 founding Colony members, only Beckley and her former husband, actor-director-videographer Michael David Wadler, who serves on the theater's board, remain. “We no longer maintain a resident company, although we have actors we love who often repeat,” Beckley said. “When there are only two to four actors on the stage, every one of them has to be exactly right for the role. There just isn't enough to do to keep an entire company occupied.”
And yes, she said, that has been very painful.
The Colony has also taken some criticism for productions that don't always match the adventurous spirit that defined the theater in its previous incarnation.
The need to fill a large theater can “sometimes result in rather predictable, bland titles,” said Don Shirley, theater critic and an editor for LA Stage Times. In particular, he expressed the hope that Beckley “would look for fresher, more demanding small musicals than the last three the Colony has presented: ‘Dames at Sea,' ‘The All Night Strut!' and ‘Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.'”
Still, the production level at the Colony “is quite consistently high,” said Shirley, who favorably reviewed the theater's current offering, “Blame It on Beckett.” He notes that such thought-provoking Colony plays as Charles Smith's “Free Man of Color” and Evan Smith's “The Savannah Disputation” “offer something different even as they appear to appeal to the traditional Colony audience.
“We don't pick a season saying everybody's going to like every single thing that we do, but there's certainly a balance,” said director David Rose, who joined the company in 1990. “I think that it starts with the choice of material and an aesthetic that is warm and not assaultive.”
Rose will direct his 25th Colony production, the West Coast premiere of Steven Tomlinson's “American Fiesta,” opening Sept. 29. Another West Coast premiere, Willy Holtzman's “The Morini Strad,” will finish out the year. The Colony's “Season of Premieres” winds up in 2013 with the Los Angeles premiere of Peter Colley's thriller, “I'll Be Back Before Midnight” and the Colony-developed world premiere of “Falling for Make Believe,” Mark Saltzman's musical based on the life of Lorenz Hart.
“Number one, I look for a good story,” Beckley said. “But above all, I look for plays and musicals that appeal to universal values. I will not preach to the choir or anger those who disagree.” Beckley holds up the Colony's acclaimed production of “The Savannah Disputation” as “a perfect example.”
It's about “staunch Catholics and a staunch evangelical who are battling it out,” she said, “but it could have been any religion, any political view. What it illuminated is that our views don't necessarily separate us.
“I guess we're succeeding,” she added, “because a 90% subscriber renewal rate is pretty darn good. It says we are pleasing people.”
Yet while the theater is more than 50% subscribed, and that subscriber base is holding steady at about 3,000, it isn't growing, and Beckley acknowledges that bringing in new and younger subscribers is a challenge. The Colony's indomitable standard-bearer, however, remains optimistic.
“There's something so primal about sitting with a group of people in the dark looking at life and being told a story,” Beckley said. “It takes us back to the caveman days. It's in our DNA as human beings.”
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about stage and culture for Marquee.
Where: 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank
More info: (818) 558-7000; www.colonytheatre.org