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Norris Theatre’s Program Expansion Packs the House

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year after increasing its professional programming and launching a marketing effort to expand its audience, the Norris Theatre for the Performing Arts in Rolling Hills Estates is toting up the pluses and minuses.

On the positive side, the 450-seat theater has seen a boom in subscribers, attracted theatergoers from far and wide and consistently packed the house with a new series of children’s attractions.

But the theater failed to attract a substantial minority audience--a high priority among theater directors. Despite international and ethnic programming, the Norris audience has remained 80% Anglo.

“We had difficulty reaching a multicultural audience, which was the goal,” said marketing director Kathy Fleming. “The philosophy was, if we include some more Asian and Hispanic programming, the audience would immediately follow. It takes more than just offering the programs. It takes a while to educate people. The Norris has a reputation for being a white theater.”

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While other theaters struggled, the elegant Norris, built eight years ago with private funds, experienced an 80% rise in subscriptions, according to the theater’s management.

Subscribers grew last season from 1,050 to 1,800. With advance sales so far for the 1991-92 season, it has jumped to 2,300 and is expected to increase further.

The Norris also began building an audience off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which managing director Peter Lesnik said has generated 95% of the audience in the past.

According to the theater mailing list of ticket purchasers, 65% of the audience is from the peninsula, 10% from Torrance, 9% from Redondo Beach, 8% from San Pedro and 2% from Long Beach. The remainder are from other areas.

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The hit of the season proved to be the new Children’s Series, which packed the theater and has been doubled from four to eight attractions for the 1991-92 season, which is scheduled to begin in October with 39 performances of 19 shows.

“We expected it to be successful, but we didn’t realize how great a need for children’s programming there was here,” Fleming said.

The children’s series also brought new people to the theater. “Children don’t come by themselves; they come with their parents,” Lesnik said, adding that one purpose of the series is to build tomorrow’s theater audience. “If we don’t do it, we won’t have an audience in 20 years,” he said.

But theater officials were disappointed that the international and ethnic programming failed to significantly increase the minority audience.

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Although the Norris received some encouragement through the formation of a Japanese-American support group, which will hold a Japan Festival of local talent Nov. 10, the theater’s mostly Anglo audience did not respond to the international series.

“Their tastes are more traditional,” Fleming said. “The Norris has established a reputation as an entertainment center, and those particular events were more cultural in nature than entertainment oriented.”

Despite the disappointing turnout, Lesnik said that ethnically-based shows will continue to be a part of the line-up. “We live in an ethnic world,” he said. “The ethnic population of Southern California is really expanding, and we have to do that kind of work.”

This season’s Norris offerings include Asian storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki and Mahlethini and the Mahotella Queens, a South African group that melds traditional tribal rhythms and pop music.

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The year also saw the foundering--at least temporarily--of New Place Theatre Company, the Norris’ 5-year-old resident professional theater group that has continually struggled to build an audience and achieve financial stability.

Robert Wright, a co-producing director of the company, said it is taking a year off “to regroup and plan” for next year. He said New Place also is talking to the Norris about sharing production costs and marketing efforts to ease the financial strain on the company.

New Place presented a repertory festival of three A. R. Gurney plays last season, losing $50,000 because of poor attendance, despite good reviews. A larger blow was cancellation of its popular, moneymaking July “Shakespeare on the Meadow” performances at the South Coast Botanic Garden, which could not handle the outdoor theater and picnicking event because of the drought.

In a move to broaden its audiences and make more tickets available to non-subscribers, the Norris last season increased the type of entertainment offered, upped the number of performances per event from one to two, and lowered ticket prices for all but the celebrity series.

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It also mailed twice the number of season brochures to an area encompassing the peninsula, Torrance, San Pedro and the beach cities.

Although its offerings had been 90% subscribed in past seasons, the expansion of performances freed almost half of the tickets for individual purchase.

“Anyone who wanted to see a show was able to do that,” Lesnik said. “A couple of celebrity events were sold out, but there were not the huge, long waiting lists as there had been.”

As it has increased its audience, the Norris also has gained in corporate sponsorship. Next season, three out of the five series of events are sponsored, with corporations providing $30,000 toward staging costs that total $213,000 for the professional productions.

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Looking back on the year, Lesnik said, “programmatically, we really sort of came out of hibernation in a way. The programming was very exciting and accessible to a large number of people.”

Trish Lange, president of the theater management board, said the expansion stemmed from a concern that the Norris wasn’t reaching a large enough segment of the community.

“We’ve felt a lot of excitement with this expansion, especially in times that have been difficult for some theaters,” she said.


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