Why the Mid-Sized Theater Vacuum?

Where are L.A.'s mid-sized shows going?

Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre, L.A.'s theatrical research and development outfit, is examining the mid-sized gap in the theatrical landscape. The organization recently sent 1,200 questionnaires to L.A. theater mavens soliciting thoughts on the subject and held caucuses with union representatives and producers. The study will culminate in a conference that will be open to the public next June. Questionnaires are available by calling (310) 284-8965.

There are a few mid-sized venues out there, but not many are consistently busy. The collapse of the Los Angeles Theatre Center company in 1991 frightened most producers away from the Spring Street complex. The Las Palmas and Mayfair theaters are dark.

The mid-sized theaters that do see traffic seldom present challenging new work. The Canon concentrates on long-running, lighthearted musicals. The Coronet is occupied primarily by the children's theater company Serendipity Theatre. The Richard Pryor Theatre and a handful of other venues are used primarily by non-union productions.

The Westwood Playhouse, though hardly the home of one provocative play after another, does manage to stage them now and then, such as the current "Jeffrey." And now that UCLA has closed escrow on the Westwood, thanks to a hefty donation to the UCLA arts program from Hollywood entrepreneur Jerry Perenchio, that theater may be on the verge of a more adventurous era. UCLA hopes to begin professional programming there next fall.

Likewise, the Inner City Cultural Center has brought a few brief but stimulating productions to the Ivar, though the theater still needs renovation (the opening of "Metro Rail: The Musical Revue" there on Saturday will benefit that cause).

Generally, though, L.A. offers few mid-sized options for new plays or serious musicals from out of town. Nor is it easy for shows to move up from the city's many sub-100-seat theaters. If your show can't find a foothold at the Mark Taper Forum, the Pasadena Playhouse, or even larger theaters, you're left with the seldom lucrative sub-100-seaters.

So a number of prominent plays are introduced to Los Angeles in less than prominent venues. Coming up soon at the 99-seat Coast Playhouse will be the "The End of the Day," Jon Robin Baitz's latest--his plays usually go to the Taper. Larry Kramer's "The Destiny of Me" will appear next May in Long Beach, at the 99-seat International City Theatre. By contrast, his ground-breaking AIDS play "The Normal Heart" ran at the Las Palmas, back when that mid-sized theater was active in 1985-86. David Mamet's "Oleanna," recently dropped by the Taper in a casting dispute, will wind up in the 99-seat Tiffany Theatre.

Two English imports by celebrated writers have found their first Los Angeles home in student productions at UCLA. Caryl Churchill's "Mad Forest," directed by David Schweizer, and Alan Ayckbourn's "A Small Family Business," directed by Mel Shapiro, are currently in repertory at UCLA's Little Theater, in Macgowan Hall on the campus. A decade ago, Churchill's "Cloud 9" was a big hit at the mid-sized Canon.

Smaller venues don't necessarily diminish the play for the audience; they might even enhance it. But the lack of potential financial return prevents some productions from ever getting off the ground.

CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN: "The Sound of Music," the first home-grown production in the new Broadway at the Pasadena Civic series, opens Thursday.

The series' first offering, a touring company of "Cats," set a record for the highest-grossing week in the history of the theater last October, taking in more than $800,000 during a five-day run, according to Pasadena Center Executive Director Bob Holden.

That'll be a tough act to follow, commercially speaking. But at least the theater's advertisers have finally figured out how to spell the name of Richard Rodgers, the composer of "The Sound of Music." Earlier this month, it was spelled Roger. The next week introduced Rogers. Finally, in last week's ad, it was spelled correctly.

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