A Timely Entrance : Irvine Barclay Theatre Debuts on Schedule, on Budget and on Solid Ground

Jan Herman covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

When the $17.6-million Irvine Barclay Theatre is unveiled on Sunday, Sept. 30, the public may be surprised to discover what it houses. Pleasantly surprised.

The huge, fortress-like building that has sprung up over the past 18 months on the edge of the UC Irvine campus guards a 756-seat theater with the seductive ambience of a beautiful jewel box.

The interior walls, which embody a community dream nearly two decades old, are painted deep rose and evoke a pleasurable warmth. Though sleekly modern, they suggest with their many vertical moldings a stripped-down rococo elegance whose feminine intimacy could never be guessed from the building's cool, masculine exterior of concrete and glass.

But perhaps best of all, no seat in the house--whether in the orchestra or the balcony--is more than 60 feet from the stage. The expression "nosebleed seats," which so aptly describes the stratospheric third tier at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, will never be heard here.

Standing the other day in Cheng Hall, as the Irvine Barclay auditorium was dubbed recently to honor a benefactor, Douglas Rankin surveyed the rows of amethyst-colored velvet seats with a certain pride. He couldn't help noting that the theater's unveiling will come exactly four years to the day that he took the job of shepherding the building into existence.

His pride is understandable. When Rankin arrived from the Midwest, where for a decade he had headed the century-old Woodstock Opera House 55 miles outside of Chicago, construction was still a long way off. Final architectural plans had yet to be drawn. Engineering contracts had yet to be put out for bid. Eleventh-hour political skirmishes had yet to be won.

Moreover, large sums of money still needed to be raised in addition to the larger sums already invested by the venture's three partners--the city of Irvine, which appropriated a total of $11.3 million; UC Irvine, which provided $1.8 million as well as the 2.3-acre site; and the nonprofit Irvine Barclay Theatre Operating Co., which has solicited $4.8 million from corporate and individual contributors.

But all of that is history, especially now that the facility is about to open "on time and on budget"--a record "for almost every new theater we've ever heard of," said Rankin, 41, who is the Irvine Barclay's president and chief operating officer.

If there were any surprises, it was that there were so few of them. "You always expect the unexpected with a construction project as complex as this one," he noted. "But once we worked around the foundation, it was business as usual."

In fact, the little-known story of how that foundation was laid illustrates both the determination to erect the building on schedule and the ability to improvise. Basically a mammoth slab of concrete as much as 12 feet thick in places, it anchors the 55,000-square-foot building to a rocky underground ledge. Nothing short of an apocalypse could budge that slab, Rankin said, but it wasn't in the original plans.

What happened was that bulldozers preparing the site for construction unexpectedly ran into the ledge, which was not supposed to be there, forcing the engineers to rethink their blueprints in a hurry. They could blast away the ledge with dynamite--a risky, time-consuming option--and sink concrete pylons as planned, or they could change strategy and pour a slab as deep and wide as the hole they'd been able to dig.

So they poured. And poured. And poured. Until Rankin began to wonder whether all other construction in the county had been halted because of the seemingly endless procession of concrete-mixing trucks that had been called to the site from miles around. He also found himself wondering how to pay for the added concrete, a major unanticipated expense of about $500,000.

"The exact amount is still being negotiated," Rankin said. To help compensate for that cost, the builders (Los Angeles-based Swinterton & Walberg) achieved savings in other aspects of construction. In the meantime, Rankin added, he more or less had to empty a contingency fund that he had hoped to hold in reserve for start-up expenses.

The irony in all of this is that Rankin's real job--the one that will decide the cultural fate of the theater--has just begun. Although he is the ultimate arbiter of the programming, Rankin must run the theater according to an agreement that allocates a third of the performance schedule to UCI offerings, a third to local organizations' performances and a third to the operating company's own presentations.

Just how Rankin executes that mandate will determine whether the Irvine Barclay Theatre will become a model institution fulfilling artistic goals at all levels of participation or whether it will become a glorified community arts center that might just as well have been built at a fraction of the cost.

Nobody is more cognizant of this than he is. Rankin even points to the "conscious design statement" of the glassed-in lobby--it fronts the grayish-mauve concrete building like the prow of a ship--as a visible reminder of the audience he must serve.

"One side of the lobby faces the city and the wider general public," Rankin explained. "The other side faces the university. People say I made that design statement up. Not true. It comes from the architects (San Francisco-based Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons)."

With a total of about 100,000 seats to fill during the 1990-91 season (commencing Oct. 7 with the South Coast Symphony and pianist Leonard Pennario as guest artist), Rankin presumes that 80% of the audience will be drawn from the public at large and only 20% from the UCI campus.

Therefore, he must provide the kind of programming that will appeal beyond special groups whose interests range from ethnic entertainment to children's fare. At the same time, he must cultivate a broad audience without pandering to it.

"Physically, we are capable of producing anything except grand opera or the largest symphony," Rankin said. "The designers have placed a great deal of emphasis on the hall's ability to handle music. You can see that in the orchestra shell. If you were designing a theater strictly for drama, a lot of things would be different.

"Keep in mind that from the time this project began, two important dynamics have occurred. One is that music organizations have grown up in the community or are growing up. And two is that the (UCI) dean of fine arts (Robert Hickok) is a musician. Throw both of those dynamics together, and the current emphasis, as I perceive it, is a mandate for music."

One well-established organization eager to test the Irvine Barclay's potential as a supplementary venue to the Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa--and sometimes even as an alternative--is the Orange County Philharmonic Society, which is presenting noted orchestras and artists in nine separate subscription series at the Center this season.

"I am personally very excited about the hall in Irvine," said Erich Vollmer, executive director of the society. "I think it's going to be very user-friendly. It means we'll be able to present certain attractions that we would not otherwise be able to present at the Center due to its size and expense.

"I'm talking mainly about younger or emerging artists. For instance, Dawn Upshaw is one of the most sublime singers appearing today, but I would not put her in the Performing Arts Center. The Irvine theater, though, would be perfect for her."

Consequently, the society has booked a five-event "Festival Series" at the Irvine Barclay, beginning with the Empire Brass (Oct. 26) and continuing with soprano Dawn Upshaw (Nov. 15), the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (Feb. 4), the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (March 21) and the piano team of Markham and Broadway (April 6).

What appeals to Vollmer about the theater is a combination of economics and what he perceives to be a boost for artistic morale.

The 2,996-seat Center charges a daily rental fee of $2,500 or 10% of the gross ticket receipts, whichever is greater. By comparison, the Irvine Barclay charges $400 or 15% of the gross. While the potential profit is smaller at the theater, so is the potential loss.

Also, in terms of artist fees, "it's very cost-effective," Vollmer said. The fees for the entire "Festival Series" come to less than $30,000, "a fraction of what we sometimes pay for one event at the Center," he added. "We think we've also secured underwriting for the series. We could never get a single sponsorship for a series at the Center for that amount of money."

Finally, the Irvine Barclay will minimize the potential embarrassment of drawing a substantial crowd and yet playing to what looks like an empty house, as has happened to classical vocalists at the Center. Apart from major orchestras, Vollmer said, only the most famous individual artists--a Luciano Pavarotti or a Kiri te Kanawa--can hope to fill the Center.

But for all the emphasis on music, Rankin does not intend to snub the dramatic arts.

Among the earliest bookings are the National Theatre of the Deaf (Oct. 10); a Broadway-style fund-raising benefit for the theater called "On Such a Night as This" (Oct. 12) and starring Tony Award-winners Gene Barry, John Cullum, Donna McKechnie, Michael Maguire and Judy Kaye; and the U.S. premiere of Alan Plater's "Sweet Sorrow" in a production by Great Britain's Hull Truck Theatre Co. (Oct. 17 through 21).

Nor does Rankin intend to ignore the art of dance, which also happens to be his pet interest.

Laguna Beach's Ballet Pacifica makes its first appearance at the Irvine Barclay next month (Oct. 25). The Lewitzky Dance Company, a noted modern dance troupe based in Los Angeles, will make a UCI-sponsored appearance shortly afterward (Nov. 2 and 3). And the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Company, also UCI-sponsored, is due in the spring (April 25).

In fact, the theater's seating layout and stage size make it as well-suited for dance as for music. Sight lines are ideal from the 170-seat balcony and from the 586-seat orchestra, which also provides two convenient central aisles. The stage is not only large--40 feet deep from the curtain line and slightly more than 80 feet wide--but its flooring has been designed specifically for dance.

"We have a sprung floor, more appropriately called a resilient floor," said Christopher Burrill, the Irvine Barclay's operations director. "It's the same as the Center's, just a little less beefy. We have a thickness of 3 inches. The Center has 4 inches. But the net effect is about equal."

Meanwhile, the towering fly space hidden from view above the stage measures 2 1/2 times the height of the proscenium opening, which will enable the theater crew to accommodate virtually any scenic productions by touring companies.

The one backstage area that the all-purpose venue skimps on is the scene shop. The theater basically has none, a sacrifice to cost containment made long before construction began. Thus, the theater is dependent on the UCI scene shop for any sets to be built for UCI productions.

The lack of a shop also will force any local companies, such as the newly organized Irvine Civic Light Opera, to build their own sets and bring them to the theater. But that does not seem to faze Light Opera artistic director and founder Dan Trevino, who is to stage "Evita" for two weekends (Feb. 15 to 17, 22 and 23) and "Pacific Overtures" for another two (July 12 to 14, 19 and 20).

"We know it won't be easy, but we're looking forward to it," Trevino said. "If we did not have a new theater to move into, there probably would be no Civic Light Opera at all."

Both of his productions are expected to be large ones, requiring an overall budget of $350,000, he said. "Evita" alone will have a cast of at least three dozen players.

And what will it cost to administer the Irvine Barclay's entire season?

Rankin projects a $1.1-million operating budget, an additional $250,000 for start-up costs and an operating deficit of about $300,000 (to be shared equally by the city and the university).

But now that the building is on the map, he expects the reality of it to sink into the public consciousness rather more slowly than the concrete foundation slid into the earth.

"It's amazing how difficult it is to reach people," said Rankin. "I remind (the board of trustees) that even three years from now there will be people saying 'Gee, I didn't know this was a theater.' "


"The Curtain Rises," opening day of the Irvine Barclay Theatre.


Sunday, Sept. 30, 2 p.m. ribbon-cutting and speeches by local dignitaries, 2:30 to 6 p.m. open house with tours, entertainment and light refreshments.


4242 Campus Drive, Irvine.


UC Irvine campus across from the Marketplace mall.


Admission is free.

Where to call

(714) 854-4607.

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