Laguna Playhouse gives up its expansion dream

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The latest casualty of the economic downturn is the Laguna Playhouse’s 25-year dream of opening a smaller second stage to complement its 420-seat Moulton Theatre.

Playhouse officials say they’ve abandoned plans to carve a 250-seat theater out of an adjoining 18,000-square-foot office complex bought for about $3.1 million in 1998. Instead, they will sell the three-building complex, listing it at $7.25 million, while stepping up fundraising to renovate the existing 40-year-old theater and create a cash reserve to help cover its operating expenses.

The reversal isn’t a ‘knee-jerk’ emergency action, said Karen Wood, playhouse managing director, but something the board has been considering for a while given the soured economy and cost estimates for a new theater, which ranged from $20 million to $40 million. The vote to end expansion took place last month but was not announced until Friday afternoon; Wood said it reflected a decision to place top priority on ‘sustainability in a volatile time.’

The playhouse first began exploring ...

... various expansion options in the mid-1980s, including the 1993 purchase of a former bank building in South Laguna, several miles from the downtown mainstage. The playhouse resold that property as it acquired the adjoining offices. Since then, Wood said, it had spent about $1 million for architectural studies and other planning expenses. The offices have generated about $100,000 a year in rental income, she said, with about 20% of their space occupied by the playhouse’s offices and the rest leased to other businesses.


Wood said there was no money left in the expansion fund and that those who have pledged donations to the project would be asked to give instead to what’s being called the Advancement Campaign to secure the theater’s ongoing financial stability and upgrade the existing facilities.

Wood said the lead donors for the expansion, board members Suzanne and James Mellor (who in 2005 gave $5 million, including $4 million in pledges), ‘have been actively involved and are totally supportive’ of the decision to reverse course.

The theater, with an annual budget of $5.8 million, has frozen hiring but has not had to lay off workers, Wood said. But its recently announced 2009-10 season is scaled back to cut costs: The five plays will run about four weeks each, compared with six plays this season with five-week runs.

The Laguna Playhouse website hasn’t yet caught up with harsher reality: Its history of the theater, which was founded in 1920, still proclaims that, with plans proceeding for ‘the company’s long-awaited and much-needed expansion, the Laguna Playhouse stands poised on the brink of a new era in its exciting evolution.’

-- Mike Boehm

Photo (top): The office complex that the Laguna Playhouse had hoped to turn into a second stage.

Photo (bottom): The Laguna Playhouse’s Moulton Theater opened in 1969.