Alfresco Has Landed Again in Eagle Rock

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Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

One of the Southland’s most venerable alfresco theater institutions, Occidental Theater Festival, is rebounding this year after a dormant summer of 1997.

The festival is returning to Occidental College’s Remsen Bird Hillside Theatre in Eagle Rock, though its resources are somewhat reduced from its previous level of activity. The venue was dark last summer for the first time since the festival began in 1960. College cost-cutting eliminated most of last year’s festival subsidy.

This year, two productions are scheduled: “Our Town,” playing July 3-18, and “Hay Fever,” July 24-Aug. 8.


“We took a year to wash our glasses and sit back and look at the whole thing from a new angle,” said artistic director Alan Freeman. “Nobody wanted to see it go away. Rather than making cuts from our previous budgets, we said, ‘If we were starting from scratch, what would we do?’ We built a budget up from the bottom.” This year’s budget of about $150,000 will be about 40% of 1996’s.

The casts this year will use only two Actors’ Equity members (including Freeman himself), compared to as many as six in years past, and will present only two plays instead of the previous high of six. Interns, who received free room and board in 1996, no longer will get the freebies, but the reduced number of shows allows rehearsals to be scheduled only on weekday evenings and weekends, which frees the interns to work daytime jobs on weekdays.

In addition to paying staff salaries and providing facilities and in-kind services, the college is raising $50,000 to help support the season, with $36,000 already pledged, Freeman said. “I feel very supported” by the college administration, he added. “Last summer I wasn’t quite so sure.”

Last year, before the festival was canceled, Freeman had been planning to cut costs by using only the indoor Keck Theatre instead of the large Remsen Bird amphitheater. But both of this year’s shows will be staged outdoors.

“Surveys and box-office returns show our audience prefers to sit outside,” Freeman said. “On that issue, we’re not starting from scratch. It’s more difficult to produce there, but the return is higher if you have a popular show.”

In another couple of years, Freeman hopes to add a third show--either an original script or a West Coast premiere, and then maybe return to musicals after that. Musicals can be cash cows, Freeman noted, “but they also can be money pits. And the musical [performance] standard has elevated so much around here over the past 30 years that we might need to use a separate company if we were to do a musical.”


The festival’s children’s theater component, which continued last summer even when the adult programming was dark, will go on this summer with 10 a.m. performances thrice weekly, July 9-Aug. 22.

THEATER TALK: The Skirball Cultural Center’s new series of live interviews, “Spotlight, Theatre Today With Barbara Isenberg,” kicks off Saturday at 2 p.m. with Isenberg interviewing Stephen Schwartz, composer of “Godspell” and “Pippin” and lyricist for the movies “Pocahontas” and the forthcoming “Prince of Egypt.”

Other featured artists include “Heidi Chronicles” and “The Sisters Rosensweig” playwright Wendy Wasserstein (July 25, 2 p.m.), director and Falcon Theatre proprietor Garry Marshall (Aug. 29, 2 p.m.) and actor and director John Rubinstein, most recently seen in “Ragtime” and also known in L.A. for his work with Interact Theatre (Sept. 26, 2 p.m.).

Admission to the “Spotlight” events is separate from admission to the exhibits at the Skirball Cultural Center. Ticket information: (213) 660-8587.