Final Act Looms for Santa Ana ART Troupe

Times Staff Writer

A fledgling theater company in Santa Ana that had come to symbolize the fitful grass-roots growth of the arts in Orange County over the past 2 years is on the verge of disbanding because of a financial crisis resulting from poor attendance.

The founding members of the Alternative Repertory Theatre, which has produced seven plays at its tiny theater-in-the-round since opening in the fall of 1987, say they will call it quits in mid-June unless they can raise $7,000 by then.

"If we can't raise the money, it's over," artistic director Patricia Terry said Wednesday, following a crisis meeting with ART enthusiasts.

"Except for a little seed money at the beginning, we have lived on ticket sales alone," Terry said of the troupe, which was founded by six partners who raised $13,000 and converted a storefront in an industrial mini-mall into a 61-seat theater at 1636 S. Grand Ave.

"We made just enough on each show to pay for the next one," she said. "But our attendance hasn't been very good lately. Now we don't have enough cash in the bank to see us through the summer and get our first show up next season.

The theater, which spends roughly $6,000 to produce each show, needs to fill only half of its seats on average to break even financially, said David Palmer, the lighting and scenic designer who doubles as business manager. But attendance has averaged less than that for three of the four shows this season.

Palmer said the audience decline began in December at Arthur Kopit's "End of the World," which drew just under 50% of capacity, and plummeted to 29% in February at Jean Cocteau's "The Eagle With Two Heads."

The audience decline culminated Sunday in the cancellation of a performance of William Hanley's "Slow Dance on the Killing Ground," when "nobody came," said Palmer. "Slow Dance" is scheduled to continue through June 3.

On Tuesday night, about 20 ART enthusiasts met at the theater to "brainstorm" a solution to the immediate cash crisis, Terry said. "Basically, we decided on a two-pronged attack. One is an extensive marketing campaign. The other is to hold a fund-raiser in early June."

The amateur marketing campaign will consist of having volunteers phone each of the 1,723 people on the theater's mailing list to ask for a subscription and to remind them of the current show. Terry said new subscribers would get their money back if the theater eventually folds. ART now has 110 season ticket holders who have paid between $30 and $60 for four shows.

No details for the fund-raiser have been decided.

Producer Kathleen Bryson said the troupe is also doing "a lot of soul searching" about its programming, which has been devoted to serious plays that are infrequently staged and are even obscure.

ART's first season opened with Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit," followed by Harold Pinter's "Betrayal." The season ended with Edward Albee's "Seascape." Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts" launched the second season in November.

"Maybe there just aren't enough people interested in the kind of work we do," Bryson lamented.

Her feeling represents a striking turnaround from the troupe's optimism last year, when a mix of Bohemian college students and well-heeled sophisticates were said to be flocking to the theater.

At one point, the troupe noticed " 'No Exit' groupies" making repeat visits, said actress Amy Larson, a founding partner who doubles as ART's promotion director. So many playgoers turned up for the show on closing night that the theater had to put on a second, impromptu performance.

"I think it's 50-50 odds that we'll be here in September," Larson said. "Only a month ago I would have said we'd be here by hook or crook."

Palmer said negative notices for each of this season's four shows haven't helped at the box office. But he believes that the theater's "biggest failing has been the lack of a business strategy." Moreover, a 22% raise in the monthly rent last September (to $700) also hurt ART's bank balance.

The theater uses professional and amateur actors. It pays them a nominal fee to cover transportation costs.

ART recently began investigating the possibility of becoming a nonprofit corporation. That would allow it to accept government and foundation grants and would provide tax breaks for corporate or individual donors.

But while a nonprofit status would be beneficial in the long run, Terry said, it does not represent a solution to the immediate crisis.

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