THEATER / Herman Wong : Laguna Playhouse Raises the Curtain on Plans for a Second Stage

At 67 years old, the Laguna Playhouse is surely the county's most venerable stage organization. But its backers aren't sitting back, contemplating past glories.

At least one glory from the recent past has been well worth contemplating--and celebrating: In June, Laguna's production of the frontier musical-drama "Quilters" took first place in national finals held by the American Assn. of Community Theatres in Norman, Okla. Next May, the "Quilters" troupe will represent the United States at an international theater festival in Dundalk, Ireland.

A post-Ireland tour of "Quilters," through Western Europe and the Soviet Union, now looks iffy, according to Laguna Playhouse artistic director Douglas Rowe. "We wouldn't have time to raise the necessary money," he said, "and reactions from appropriate agencies are taking longer than we expected."

But the backers aren't fretting over that any more than they're resting on their laurels. Instead, administrative and fiscal energies are focusing on expansion of the Laguna facilities.

The organization, now housed in the 19-year-old, 418-seat Moulton Theatre off Laguna Canyon Road, has long wanted a "second-stage" facility, not just for additional productions but for rehearsals, conservatory programs and storage.

Last October, playhouse officials announced that they had shelved 3-year-old plans for such a structure--a $1-million, 5,000-square-foot annex to be built next to the 18,750-square-foot Moulton Theatre.

Instead, the officials said, they were going after a more likely prospect--a three-level, 17,000-square-foot building at 408 Mermaid St. in downtown Laguna Beach, to be vacated by General Telephone Co. and leased by the playhouse.

Laguna Playhouse general manager Jody Johnston Davidson said she could not discuss the proposed lease costs. And the costs of converting the building (and creating a 250-seat theater on the top floor) are still being determined, she said.

She did say, though, that "we're hoping we can move in by mid-1988. Negotations are in the advanced phase."

If the Laguna Playhouse does move into the General Telephone building, it will become the third theater company in Orange County with two performing facilities. In Costa Mesa, the South Coast Repertory, the only all-professional company in the county, has the 507-seat Mainstage and 161-seat Second Stage. In Garden Grove, the Grove Theatre Company operates the 178-seat Gem and 550-seat Festival Amphitheatre.

Under expansion plans, popular, mainstream, commercially solid plays would continue at the Moulton, where the 1987-88 schedule includes "1776," "The Foreigner," "Tribute" and "The Lion in Winter."

On the second stage, emphasis would be on "more off-beat, issue-oriented works that are riskier commercially," Rowe said.

The proposed smaller theater also would allow the Laguna group to expand its affiliation with Equity Actors' Assn., the professional actors' union, while retaining its community theater status. For years, like other community theaters in the county, the Laguna occasionally has brought in an Equity actor as a "guest artist." With the new union arrangement, according to playhouse and Equity officials, at least half the cast members could be Equity actors. This quasi-professional status would give the company greater access to "hot-off-the-press" plays, Rowe said.

"When it comes to play rights, community theaters are at the end of the line--only after the professional companies, including the dinner theaters, get the first cracks," Rowe said. The new Equity arrangement, he said, grants the playhouse an "earlier call" on plays. It would mean access to such relatively new works as "I'm Not Rappaport," Herb Gardner's Broadway hit comedy about two octogenarians. "That kind--and scale--of play would be ideal for our second stage," Rowe said.

Rowe also hopes to stage more original works by local playwrights, something the Moulton Theatre does only sporadically. Previous local originals have included "The Failure to Zigzag" by John Ferzacca and "Match Point" by Mary Jane Roberts.

Altogether, Rowe said, 10 productions, including four from the playhouse's Youth Theatre arm, would be offered the first year at the second facility.

All this expansion, naturally, is going to take a lot of money.

The Moulton's box office has always been strong, the officials say, citing a 95% attendance rate and a roster of 6,932 subscribers for the Moulton's regular five-show season. Meanwhile, officials added, the newly extended Youth Theatre program, now 2 years old, has reached 87% attendance and 743 subscribers for a four-show schedule.

And in its first full-scale drive to tap private donors for facility and program expansions, the playhouse has raised $710,000 (though some of this amount will be used to pay off the costs of expanding the Moulton by 2,000 square feet in 1985, when a 68-seat balcony and new second-floor offices were added).

Still, Rowe said, "we've been around so long that people started to take us for granted. It took something like the 'Quilters' prize to make people realize that we're as good as any community theater in America."

For those who missed "Quilters" when it first played the Moulton nearly a year ago, there's going to be an encore run, May 11-15. The run will serve a dual purpose: it will be a warm-up for the festival in Ireland and a benefit.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World