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Survival’s at the Heart of This Drama

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Drama appears to be in full bloom in Costa Mesa, where the municipal slogan is “City of the Arts.”

But cast your eyes down from the flowering upper reaches to the roots of the city’s theatrical tree, and drama is in jeopardy.

At the top, South Coast Repertory, with an $8-million annual budget, wins national respect for presenting important new dramatic works. In the middle, Orange Coast College is a hive of student drama, and the theater department at Vanguard University is committed to dramatic work in its four-play seasons.

But at the grass-roots, drama’s prospects range from bleak to uncertain. The Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, a 74-seat, $60,000-a-year operation dogged by money woes, is about to play what may be its final card in a bid for survival. After 35 years--the same tenure as SCR--the community theater’s directors reluctantly will abandon drama for a lineup of hit musicals.

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The January closing of the Theatre District was another blow to serious drama. The 66-seat house in a metal barn at the back of the Lab mall was admired for adventurous work on a shoestring budget.

A better-financed successor, the Trilogy Playhouse, has taken over the Theatre District’s site and has a $20,000 refurbishing project well underway to overcome the limitations that prompted Theatre District artistic director Mario Lescot to let his lease lapse after five years. Adult plays are part of a three-pronged Trilogy mix that includes family-oriented plays and children’s workshops.

“We tend to stay a little more mainstream” than the Theatre District, director Alicia Butler says. Eager to do serious drama--"A Streetcar Named Desire” and Maxwell Anderson’s “The Bad Seed” are upcoming shows--Butler says she nevertheless is ready to adjust if it doesn’t draw.

“I really want to play to our audience. If I have to go in [another] direction I will. If we just did adult theater I don’t think we would have a chance, but I think there is an audience for it.”

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The former Hollywood casting director says serious theater didn’t fly in Trilogy’s previous incarnation as the Laguna Niguel Playhouse.

During an eight-year run in an upscale shopping center there, Butler found that in order to draw, plays had to be suited for kids as well as adults. Even such tested, movie-familiar fare as “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “The Odd Couple” and “Harvey” flopped because it wasn’t for children.

“There are so many [young] families in south Orange County. I think there’s a mind-set of ‘If you can’t take your kids with you on a Friday or Saturday night, you might as well stay home.’ ”

Trilogy’s first adult play, the oft-staged Ira Levin mystery “Deathtrap,” broke even despite bad weather that dampened its prospects, Butler said.

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But Trilogy Playhouse can’t succeed without the kids and their parents. The nonprofit theater, which Butler said had a budget of about $100,000 in 1999, will pay for its adult productions with “our bread and butter"--income from children’s performance classes priced from $90 to $125. Trilogy also has been able to attract private donations that make up about a quarter of its budget, Butler said.

Given her druthers, she would stick to working with the kids and staging adult drama, forsaking entirely the Broadway musicals that were a staple of her seasons in Laguna Niguel.

Offbeat Choices No Longer an Option

For its opening season in Costa Mesa, the Trilogy is offering four dramas and three family-oriented musicals--a children’s version of “Into the Woods” (minus the dark second act), “Little Shop of Horrors” and “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail.”

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At the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, the good news is that the theater is having its most successful season in at least three years. The bad news is that it’s barely breaking even after having lost a chunk of money the previous years.

Lynn Reinert, the theater’s president since 1998, has kept it afloat with thousands of dollars from her own checkbook. But she and her fellow board members recently decided that the venerable community theater’s future depends on its becoming self-sustaining.

The solution: no more offbeat choices, such as this season’s productions of “The Gingerbred Lady,” a lesser-known Neil Simon play, and “Coastal Disturbances,” a Tina Howe drama that tanked at the box office.

Instead, after the upcoming scheduled run of “Driving Miss Daisy,” the playhouse goes into hit-musical mode: a season-ending “Gypsy,” followed by a 2000-01 “Season of the Musical” featuring “Bye Bye Birdie,” “The Sound of Music,” (tentative), “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Into the Woods.”

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“I want to do things that are interesting and different and intelligent,” said Reinert, who came to the playhouse as an actress about four years ago and subsequently assumed leadership. "[But] I’ve come to learn an important lesson about the difference between art and business, and to stay in business, you have to give the people what they want. Our indication is they want to see musicals. If doing four standard, warhorse musicals does it, that’s what I’ll do. I just don’t want to see another theater close.”

Community theater matters, she said, because it gives talented nonprofessionals an outlet and a chance to grow creatively.

Until 1991, the playhouse enjoyed municipal largess: Grants and subsidies from the city totaled $55,000 a year. But those days are long gone. A furor over a 1990 production of “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” which protesters deemed ant-Catholic, called city funding into question; the early ‘90s recession sealed its fate. The playhouse issued a formal appeal for city funding in 1996 and made an informal approach in 1998, Reinert said, but was refused.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District gives the playhouse rent-free use of the theater, a hidden but nicely appointed venue whose amenities include a garden-like lobby complete with goldfish pond. It shares a wing of the Rea Elementary School complex with the West Side Boys and Girls Club.

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“It’s a good partnership,” Principal Ken Killian said, citing educational and mentoring opportunities for his students.

Reinert questions whether Costa Mesa officialdom cares about a theater in a predominantly Latino neighborhood where the student body is 97% nonwhite. The commitment of the “City of the Arts,” in her view, does not extend beyond the shopping district of the arts, the South Coast Plaza area that is home to Costa Mesa’s artistic crown jewels, South Coast Repertory and the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

“Costa Mesa wants to pretend the area where our theater is doesn’t exist,” Reinert said. She thinks city officials feel that “If [visitors] come anywhere near it, it looks too much like Santa Ana,” Reinert said.

At the very least, Reinert said, the city should consider underwriting the playhouse’s $3,000 summer theater program for neighborhood kids. Last year, she said, 35 children went through the program, which ended in a student production of “Annie.”

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Councilwoman Linda Dixon, who chairs the city’s newly constituted Cultural Arts and Historic Preservation Committee, disputed as “very unfair” Reinert’s sense that Costa Mesa ignores arts on the West Side.

The city offers no cash grants for any arts institutions, Dixon said, instead preferring to help organizations publicize themselves and reach out to private funding sources. The playhouse’s summer program for children could be an exception, she said, possibly qualifying for some assistance.

Dixon, who pushed a recent council resolution establishing the heretofore informal “City of the Arts” moniker as Costa Mesa’s official slogan, said that somebody from the playhouse called her while she was running for office in 1998, seeking support for city funding for the theater. She said she offered leads on private donors.

“You have to reach out,” Dixon said. “A lot of people don’t even know that place exists.”

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Reinert and Damien Lorton, the playhouse’s musical director, acknowledge that for its long-term survival, the playhouse needs to attract board members outside the circle of thespians that now predominates on the eight-member board. With business and professional people on board, the playhouse could attempt more systematic fund-raising than has been possible with a leadership enmeshed in a struggle to mount the next show.

The playhouse is counting on raising about $5,000 with a benefit musical revue at the theater May 5-6, money, Lorton said, that is needed to finance the potentially make-or-break production of “Gypsy.”

While the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse struggles to stay alive, Mario Lescot is learning how it feels to be a theatrical refugee.

“It’s very sad,” he said of his decision to close the Theatre District after five years. “Costa Mesa is where I feel at home.”

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Attendance always was good, he said, but he abandoned the site because he no longer could justify paying more than $2,000 a month--and possibly more with his lease up--for a flawed building. It could be damp or steamy, depending on the weather, he said, and rain drumming loudly on the metal roof could make it impossible to rehearse or perform. (Trilogy Playhouse’s refurbishing program aims to eliminate those shortcomings).

Looking Outside of Costa Mesa

Lescot and his associates are searching for a new venue. “I thought it would be in Costa Mesa, but nothing has come up yet. I’m forced to look elsewhere.”

Prospects in Santa Ana’s Artists Village have not panned out due to high rents or flawed configurations, he said. Some sites in Tustin could be promising. In any event, Lescot said, it is unlikely he could open a new theater any sooner than late this year. Meanwhile, he is thinking about doing gypsy productions in Los Angeles while looking for a permanent home in Orange County.

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The Theatre District programmed plays by the likes of Sam Shepard and William Inge and had no trouble drawing audiences for serious drama and works that weren’t name-brand productions, said Lescot, who owns a hair salon in Costa Mesa.

He said the small theaters that remain should not underestimate the sophistication of the local audience.

“People in this community are interested [in serious drama] if it’s well done. My advice would be to do everything out of passion. Make every choice out of passion and love and it will work, and people will respond.”

But the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse has learned differently, Lorton said.

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“You really have to go with what the audience wants. When we tell them [we’re planning] a season of musicals, they get excited and they applaud. People love to see singing and dancing, and we can’t get them in the doors with our [straight] plays, though we try very hard.”

* “Into the Woods, Jr.,” a family adaptation of the Arthur Laurent / Stephen Sondheim musical, March 31-April 9 at Trilogy Playhouse in the Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. $10-$12. (714) 957-3347.

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* “Driving Miss Daisy,” by Alfred Uhry, April 6-30 at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St. $10-$12. (949) 650-5269.

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