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Stage Plight : Troupe Wonders if Carson Can Support Theater

TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Goins admits he is an idealist about the theater.

Maybe he was a little concerned about opening his Renaissance musical “Way Back When” in Carson. But after all, this is a man whose dream is to open a network of theaters all over Los Angeles County--not just in places like Westwood and Santa Monica, but in Alhambra and on the Eastside.

After three weeks of performances in which about 10 of the 200 seats in the house were filled, however, Goins has come to a bitter realization--he would have been better off staging the show in Los Angeles, “where the theater community is.”

Then he catches himself.

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“That just gets me--'theater community,’ ” Goins said. He chews the phrase over and picks up speed. “Having worked with young brothers and sisters in the inner city, I get drama every day. Theater to me is everywhere! I hate to have it bounded by street names, by certain blocks and numbers!”

But the sparse attendance has taken its toll on the Laity Theater Company, the organization founded in 1988 by Goins and his wife, Delayna, and “Way Back When” may be on the verge of closing.

“It’s a good piece of work, and it’s disappointing that people are missing it,” said Phylliss Bailey, who plays Queen Aluis.

Goins and many cast members are mystified as to why people have not turned out for their musical, which is accompanied by a re-created Renaissance community, complete with vendors in period dress selling chain-mail jewelry and handmade cookie cutters.

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“I didn’t realize Carson had this stigma,” said Goins, 31, hypothesizing that Los Angeles residents may not want to venture south to see theater.

“I believe this thoroughly, that Carson is just not an artsy kind of town,” said Richard Crawford, who helped design the show’s lighting.

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Paul Schneider, executive director of Carson’s Chamber of Commerce, said there are artistic institutions in the city that are doing well, such as the community symphony. “We just need more of it,” he said, adding that attendance could have been better if the show was closer to the business district.

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The attendance problems were anticipated by veterans and rookies alike.

“I’m a little surprised, but I’m not shocked,” Bailey said.

She has been in Los Angeles productions of shows such as “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” but also played to empty houses in earlier community theater work. However, many cast members are Harbor College students making their professional debut with “Way Back When.”

“It’s hard without a big audience,” said Henry Dominguez III, a student at Harbor College who plays Sir Robert the Guard, as well as a god. “It’s always fun to play to a full house. When there isn’t a full house you have to work. It takes a lot more to keep your concentration.”

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But Dominguez, 27, said it is worth it. “Even if there was no one in the audience, I’m learning,” he said.

Another problem is that the Renaissance may seem a bit out of place in Carson , a city of 85,000 with a large number of middle-class blacks and Asian Americans.

“I do think a lot of the community couldn’t relate,” said Bailey, who is black. “I’m sure that a lot of people are very turned off to it. . . . When I first got involved with the project, I didn’t have a clue about that whole world. This (is) an educational opportunity for people to get hip to this, because it’s interesting.”

Bailey added that she relished playing an English queen, “a role that didn’t call for color. That was fun, particularly in this day and age, in this city.”

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Goins, who has worked as a dropout retrieval counselor patrolling the streets of the inner city and trying to encourage youths to get back in school, also emphasizes the educational aspect.

“Theater is history,” Goins said. In this production, “we’re bringing in young folks, or anybody who has never experienced that Renaissance era,” Goins said. “That’s education! We’re beginning to educate through art.”

To that end, Goins made a point of recruiting vendors from Renaissance fairs to entertain the audience before the show and at the intermission. Most of the vendors know members of the cast who visit the fairs, and are glad for the chance to work in the theater, even if their audience is minuscule.

“We’re not just vendors or part of the show--we’re also history,” said Saundra Barbuzza, who sells her handmade jewelry at the theater. She said children particularly enjoy the interactive Renaissance fair approach.

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Robert Kaufman, who works Renaissance fairs and also stars in “Way Back When” as the clown, said the Renaissance has a special significance in the modern world.

“It was very magical,” he said. “A time of change, and now we’re going through a contemporary renaissance.”


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