To Be or Not to Be? : Pair Plans New Theater--If They Can Raise the Money


Some people might say that Jude Lucas and Conor O'Farrell are dreaming the impossible dream.

In the midst of a recession, the pair want to turn a gutted vaudeville theater into a performance hall and gathering place for poets, artists and actors.

"We want to support artists who feel they have something to say, who have a comment on society," said O'Farrell, an actor. "We don't want to be a showcase theater, where actors come so they can land parts in films and TV."

The only thing standing in the way of opening night at the theater, which Lucas and O'Farrell call the Arroyo Outback, is money. About $50,000.

The two concede that the recession makes it difficult to raise money for the arts. But they have a series of ambitious events planned for the next several months and, if all goes well, they hope to raise the curtain at the Arroyo Outback in July.

Lucas, a director who has a theater degree, and O'Farrell, who works extensively in television, said they took on the $2,000 monthly lease on the old Sunbeam Theater, 106 S. Avenue 58, last summer. The brick building was a vaudeville house early in the century, when the Highland Park-Mt. Washington area was the artists' colony of Los Angeles, said Diane Alexander, president of the Arroyo Arts Collective, a community support group for artists.

"This area has always been highly artistic," Alexander said. "It was the birthplace of the Arroyo Craftsman Movement in the 1920s." There has always existed a very vital arts community here."

The Sunbeam was also a silent movie theater until about 1927, when a competing theater in town purchased it and shut it down, O'Farrell said.

Since then, the building's historic facade has been removed and it has housed an art studio, a print shop and a thrift store, among other businesses.

Lucas and O'Farrell hope to transform the 4,000-square-foot area in the back of the building into a 1,000-square-foot coffeehouse, a small art gallery and a 99-seat equity-waiver theater that will present new plays, classics and seldom-seen American originals, along with performance art.

"This is going to be more difficult than doing the tried and true musicals and comedies," Lucas said. "With so many budget cuts in the schools--even at the college and university level--the survival of the arts will depend on the private sector more and more. Those of us who are artists have to make a commitment to bring (art) to the public and make it available to them."

She hopes the Arroyo Outback will be a place where writers can come to have their work critiqued and read aloud by groups of actors. She also hopes to stage Latino workshops and to showcase plays written by women.

Alexander, whose Arroyo group numbers more than 200 writers, actors, musicians and visual artists, said she is impressed that Lucas and O'Farrell are making a commitment to the community.

"They're not just here to get a reputation and move on to the Westside," Alexander said.

In fact, Lucas has lived in Highland Park for 20 years. She is the founder of an actors' ensemble called the Valley Repertory Company, which hopes to find a home at the Outback.

Her last theater venture, a dinner-theater in Monrovia, closed a few years back when overhead got too steep and the venue failed to attract a regular group of patrons.

But, despite that, Lucas and O'Farrell remain convinced that they will be able to make a success of the Outback.

During March and April, the group will put on one-act plays on Fridays and Saturdays.

A fund-raiser held last weekend was a dinner and one-act play called "Just Desserts," an amalgamation of famous Shakespearean death scenes done with a twist.

The group needs volunteers to help with the theater renovation, Lucas said.

Those wishing to volunteer or purchase tickets to the fund-raisers, which will be held at the Arroyo Outback, can call Lucas at (213) 254-2115.

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