Long Beach Rep's Strategy for Success; New Yorkers Seek Westwood Playhouse Lease

Can the Long Beach Repertory Theatre succeed where its predecessors failed?

The new professional troupe, announced earlier this week, won't be the first professional theater company to appear in the 864-seat Center Theatre at the Long Beach Convention Center.

Shortly after the building went up, producers Herb Rogers and Norman Twain each presented a season of six star-studded shows. Rogers' opening production was Shelley Winters in "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" in February, 1978; Twain's final production, in August, 1979, was Stockard Channing in "As You Like It," directed by Tony Richardson. Twain's project reportedly lost a bundle. As he departed, Twain was quoted that "maybe what Long Beach wants is a glorified community theater."

Since then, conventions and the Long Beach Opera have used the facility. Long Beach Civic Light Opera did a summer season there. But hardly anyone has ventured into the hall with a play.

Community support will make a big difference between then and now, said Shashin Desai, the new theater's director. The earlier efforts were "imported companies. They were not resident theaters."

Desai, who has taught at Long Beach City College for 22 years, plans to use a resident company for the entire season. "Ours will be a continuing theater, not a series of individual plays," he said.

The city's Regional Arts Foundation has begun a campaign to raise $400,000 for the Long Beach Rep's first season (which will be limited to nine performances each of four productions), and it will provide other funds for marketing and administration. Desai is confident that "the leading members of the community have joined hands, and they can make it happen."

Furthermore, the market has changed in the last decade, according to the foundation's development director, Elise Swanson. "From my research," she said, "there seems to be more of a--I hate this word--yuppie market (in Long Beach), and a lot of these people are no longer willing to travel (to Los Angeles or Orange County for theater)."

"Long Beach is totally different than it was 20 years ago," added Desai. "Artists are moving here. In the next 10 years, Long Beach will be known internationally."

Since January, 1986, Desai has run the 99-seat International City Theatre in Long Beach. The Long Beach Rep may bring some of the smaller theater's productions to larger audiences; Desai has already announced that "Distant Fires," staged by ICT in 1988, will play the big house in February.

This is the kind of development that Actors' Equity hoped to encourage when it ended the old Equity Waiver system last year. During the history of the Waiver, only one theater (the Los Angeles Theatre Center) made the leap from Waiver status to a permanent Equity contract. Arguing for the new 99-Seat Theater Plan last year, Equity officials claimed that the Waiver provided no incentive for other theaters to do likewise.

Still, it's just a coincidence that Long Beach Rep will open in the wake of the Equity changes, said Desai: "When we started ICT (in 1985), our goal was to go to the Center Theatre within five years. We've been fortunate, and we'll simply arrive there a year early."

"The foundation has been testing the waters for three years," said Swanson. "After hitting the streets and talking to people, they just feel that now the timing is right."

In fact, International City Theatre will continue to operate under Equity's 99-Seat Plan in its space at Long Beach City College. At least on paper, the two theaters are separate, sharing only Desai and occasional productions.

How long is the commitment to the new theater? "We've contracted for one season only," said Swanson, "but we anticipate more."

AHMANSON WEST: "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," opening at the Shubert this fall (the first preview is scheduled for Oct. 29), will be part of the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson subscription package, joining the shows to be offered at the Doolittle Theatre (while the Ahmanson itself houses the "The Phantom of the Opera").

WESTWOOD WATCH: A partnership of two New York-based companies, the Promenade and Jujamycn Theatre Corps., is negotiating to take over the lease on the Westwood Playhouse, reports Westwood owner Kirsten Combs. The lease expires April 30.

Norman Maibaum, who has held the lease for 10 years (recently with partner Edward Davis), said: "If they make the deal, there isn't much I can do about it. I'm not in a position to compete with them."

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