Irvine Theatre Hopes It Can Please Its Audience--and Performers

Douglas C. Rankin, general manager of the Irvine Theatre Operating Company, was the picture of confidence when he presented his case 6 weeks ago to the Irvine City Council, which was about to decide the fate of the planned $17.6-million theater.

He took the microphone in his hand and stood by the slide projector ready to make his pitch in the middle of the council chamber. His shoulders were squared, his suit pressed, his shoes polished, his blond hair swept back from his forehead.

Theater advocates, who had crowded in by the hundreds, waited. Council members, who had worried aloud about the theater’s feasibility, waited. Theater board officials, who had assured the council of their competency, waited. The video cameras, which were taping the council meeting for television, waited.

Then Rankin’s lips moved. But no sound came out. Groans went up. Nonplussed, Rankin looked at the cordless microphone. It had worked in rehearsal four times earlier that day. The experts offered their advice--all at the same time naturally: “Hit the button!” “Hit it on the top!” “Hit it on the bottom!” “Hit it on the side!” Such helpful advice.


Rankin’s lips moved again. Again no sound. He reddened. Was this an omen? Was some equally capricious fate in store for the long-deferred dream of an arts facility? Rankin switched microphones. The tension mounted. This time his words ricocheted beautifully through the council chamber:

“I can run a theater.”

It was just the right ad-lib--brisk, witty, disarming. Coming from a well-tailored, would-be impresario whose corporate manner gave no hint of humor, it sneaked up on you like one of David Letterman’s deadpan quips. The crowd laughed. Confidence was restored.

Several weeks later, sipping coffee out of a plastic foam cup, Rankin was explaining what had drawn him to the project. He sat in his office near the UC Irvine campus, where bulldozers recently began digging out the construction site for the theater.

Two years ago, he said, he was minding his own business as general manager of the 400-seat Woodstock Opera House, a century-old theater about 55 miles from Chicago. He had been there for a decade. “I was certainly very happy where I was,” he said. “I was not looking to make a change.”

Then the Irvine Theatre board contacted him, by way of a headhunter. The board was looking for someone to run a community-based arts facility much as Rankin already was doing. Would he care to chat?

Of course he would. Content or not, some people like drawing to an inside straight. The fact that the 750-seat Irvine Theatre had no guarantee of being built did not deter him. The fact that the project still was on the drawing boards even worked in its favor, Rankin said. It meant that he could have a greater influence in shaping the outcome.

The prospect of coming to California also represented something of a homecoming. Rankin, 39, the son of a retired Air Force officer, was born in San Antonio, Tex., but spent his high school years in San Jose. He also went to college at UC Berkeley and arts management grad school at UCLA.

What proved irresistible about the Irvine Theatre, however, was its “unique nature” as a joint venture between the city of Irvine and UC Irvine. “I was attracted by the many layers of the project,” he said. “I liked the variety of dimensions, the potential diversity of activities.

“Of course, the challenge is going to be to integrate the community and the professional activities into one stable, aggressive, satisfying product that meets as many needs as possible.”

Rankin sounded as if he meant it. On the other hand, he sounded equally sincere (and a lot less abstract) describing how unlikely the prospects are for UCI drama chairman Robert Cohen’s plan to base a professional repertory company at the theater.

The most-detailed university proposal made public so far--though not yet “officially” submitted to the theater’s programming committee--it calls for a regular season of “radically reconceived” classics to begin in the fall of 1991, a year after the theater is scheduled to open.

“Right now we are not looking to create a resident company,” Rankin flatly asserted. “We have so many other needs we have to satisfy first. Setting up a resident company is just not a priority.

“If a proposal like Robert Cohen’s gains weight and it’s the right thing to do, so be it. I don’t have it on my agenda, and I don’t think my programming committee has it on its agenda.” And if the university decides it should happen? “Then there’s a larger chance,” Rankin said. "(But) it’s not, and never will be, as straightforward as that.”

The Irvine Theatre simply cannot afford to give “an exclusive block of time” to a single activity, which is what a repertory company with an 8- to 10-week season would require, he said. Moreover, usage of the theater according to the contractual time-sharing formula--one-third by the university and two-thirds by the city--will not be decided by either partner.

“My view is that the operating company will administer on behalf of all,” Rankin said, emphasizing that it alone will be responsible for the programming.

Not that he is unfriendly to professional theater.

He said his greatest pleasure at the Woodstock Opera House, which was a member of the League of Chicago Theatres, was co-producing such Equity shows as “Ladies in Waiting,” “Strider” and “Painting Churches” in their Midwest premieres.

It’s just that “serving the community takes two forms,” Rankin explained. “One is serving the audience. The other is serving the local performer. We will do both, but in point of fact we have an obligation to serve the performer, and we will do so strongly.”

Won’t that make for a lot of heartwarming but lukewarm programming?

“It depends on who you ask,” Rankin said. “I’ve asked a lot of audiences in my life, and there’s a great diversity of opinion.”

The best answer he ever heard, he said, was: “The only difference between amateur and professional theater is that the professionals get paid.”