Port Hueneme Awaits New Cost Strategy on Culture

Times Staff Writer

Ventura County theatergoers next month will see more than the first performance season at the Dorill B. Wright Cultural Center in nearly a year.

They will attend a dress rehearsal for a new, more cost-conscious approach to running the theater that is owned and operated by the city of Port Hueneme, center officials said.

Gone will be full sponsorship of performers that allowed three resident companies to flourish since the theater was established four years ago. Instead, musical and theatrical performers will be expected to split the costs, along with the profits, of mounting their productions.

"In the past, the city took all the risk," said Brady Cherry, the city's newly appointed director of recreation and community services, who oversees the theater. "What we want to do is share some of it."

Center officials said the approach is necessary because past productions could not pay for themselves. City officials recently appropriated $60,000 for the theater, with the understanding that ticket sales would increase its operating budget, said Denis Murrin, a former private theater operator who has been brought in to turn the center around.

Wider Selection Offered

The financial approach is not the only big change in store for the center. The coming three-month season includes a wider selection of well-known attractions, most of them from outside the county.

Groups scheduled this spring include the Mamas and the Papas, the Angeles Quartet, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Winds and Opera a la Carte. Center officials hope the acts will woo back audiences, including 180 season ticket holders lost when the center abruptly canceled the last performance of its 1988 spring season.

"The key word is audience development," Murrin said. "The audience has to be developed."

In exchange for big names, however, audiences will give up--at least temporarily--such custom-designed productions as "Waterside," a ballet choreographed specifically for the center, where it was performed in January, 1988, amid specially built aquariums.

The March 16 show by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra will mark the first performance at the center since its artistic director, Joseph P. Bertucci, resigned in May.

In the wake of Bertucci's departure, as Cherry said, "the wheels sort of fell off the cart."

The Gold Coast Repertory Theater, the Actors Equity theater that had earned a reputation for presenting new and experimental works by contemporary playwrights, disbanded. Plexus, the center's resident dance company, sought refuge at the Santa Paula Theater. And the Channel Islands Chamber Orchestra, a 35-member orchestra that had received a fee and a cut of the profits, has stopped performing until it can raise more money.

"We were hoping for the same" arrangement under the new management, said the orchestra's director, Robert Lawson. "When that didn't happen, along with some internal problems we had, it was impossible for us to continue."

Such support is not likely to be forthcoming, Cherry said. While both he and Murrin, the center's new artistic director, eventually hope to sign on resident companies, they are not sure when they will do so.

Murrin Driving Force

The driving force behind the change is Murrin, who came to the center in September from the Warner-Grand Variety Arts Theater in San Pedro. Now closed, the former movie palace attracted musical and theatrical performers with the same "co-production" approach.

In that cost-saving spirit, Murrin plans to shorten the run of each show to avoid the half-filled houses common under Bertucci's leadership. In the past, it was not unusual for the center's resident theater troupe to perform a single play eight times. The longest run this season is only three days for "Storm Reading," the critically acclaimed play written by and starring Neil Marcus, the victim of a rare neurological disorder.

The bottom-line approach has received mixed reviews from performance groups.

Such out-of-town companies as Santa Barbara-based Access, which is producing "Storm Reading," welcome the opportunity to reach Ventura County audiences in a setting other than the 1,600-seat Oxnard Civic Auditorium, which they criticize as too large for smaller theatrical productions, or the Ventura College Theater, which often is booked.

'Wanted Intimate Venue'

"We have long wanted an intimate venue to perform in the Ventura area," said Access director Robert Lathim, whose company will appear at the 563-seat Hueneme theater March 31 through April 2.

But such local artists as Denee Jordan, the director of Plexus, see in the center's spring schedule an alarming trend away from supporting local artists.

"In addition to bringing in outside professionals, they need to support local professional artists," she said.

Even Jordan, however, acknowledges that drastic steps are in order.

"I think they don't have any other choice at this point," she said.

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