A Second L.A. Festival, at the Edge of the World

Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Suddenly Los Angeles is a city of theater festivals.

On the heels of last month's modest L.A. Theatre Festival, a loosely defined umbrella presentation of about 100 performances by more than 40 companies, comes news of the Edge of the World Festival, with 42 productions in mostly small venues planned for Nov. 7-14.

This one evolved out of the Big Cheap Theater Roundtable, an e-mail network among some of L.A.'s smaller theaters that focus on original or experimental work. Edge of the World will have a more "cutting edge" approach than the L.A. Theatre Festival, according to Katharine Noon, one of the organizers. "The work here is as groundbreaking as what's going on in Europe."

Edge of the World will be located primarily south of the Santa Monica Mountains. By contrast, much of last month's festival occurred in the San Fernando Valley. Edge of the World charges $40 for companies to participate (the deadline for applications has passed) but allows them to keep proceeds from sales of tickets, which will probably be priced around the $10 level. Last month's festival was free of charge to audiences as well as to the companies, so there were no box-office proceeds.

Despite their differences, the two festivals--both of which hope to become annual events--share many of the same aims. Organizers of both believe that the L.A. theater scene, though enormous, is too atomized. They say festivals garner attention for L.A. theater not only among the general public, but also among the theater practitioners. They may help achieve a greater sense of a theater community as well as attract "people who don't normally go to the theater," in Noon's words.

This doesn't mean that the festivals are concentrated in central locations; both cover relatively wide areas. "We want to embrace the city's geography rather than fight it," Noon said.

This year's Edge of the World is seen as a trial run for a larger festival that would include participants from elsewhere during the millennium celebrations of 2000.

Ed Gaynes, one of the organizers of last month's festival, sees nothing wrong with two festivals a year. "Theaters thrive when there are more, not less," he said. "If they want to emphasize more edgy work, that's terrific--but what is 'edgy'?" Noon acknowledged that there was no jury that kept non-edgy work out of the Edge of the World, but she believes the edge will be evident.

LA MIRADA EXIT: Today's performance of "My Fair Lady" is the final bow of Musical Theatre West at La Mirada Theatre after 22 years. "We got aced out, pushed aside," said the company's executive director/producer, Paul Garman.

The city of La Mirada, which owns the theater, favored the group that it funds, McCoy Rigby Entertainment, at the expense of the other groups that use the facility, Garman said. Musical Theatre West couldn't market its shows within the theater when other groups were using it, was told to pay deposits 18 months in advance and required to let the city veto any proposed shows that might be seen as competing with the McCoy Rigby franchise.

This last point became an issue when Musical Theatre West wanted to do "Blame It on the Movies." The company usually stages larger shows, while McCoy Rigby--which uses a much more costly Actors' Equity contract--uses mostly smaller casts. McCoy Rigby had adapted a previous small musical, "Radio Gals," from productions at the Pasadena Playhouse, where this production of "Blame It on the Movies" also originated, so "Blame It" was seen by the theater management as part of the McCoy Rigby turf. However, because Musical Theatre West had already launched its plans, the La Mirada City Council allowed the group to go forward but required a review of further programming plans.

The theater's executive producer, Jeff Brown, said that Musical Theatre West was not treated differently from other rental groups, but "they lost track that they were a rental group." He defended the veto power over programming decisions by suggesting that if Musical Theatre West had wanted to do its own "Peter Pan"--a production of which McCoy Rigby launched at La Mirada and took on tour and to Broadway--"we would have said no." He said Musical Theatre West made "bad business decisions," such as withdrawing from using the La Mirada box office in response to the prohibition of marketing inside the theater. The group could have posted bonds in lieu of 18-month deposits, he added.

Still, Brown wished Musical Theatre West "all the luck in the world" in their new home at the Carpenter Center on the Cal State Long Beach campus, where "My Fair Lady" continues next weekend. Garman hopes to rebuild the community base in Long Beach that formerly supported the defunct Long Beach Civic Light Opera, and he said that 40% of his group's subscribers have renewed at the new venue.

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