A 'Tempest' by the Pacific

The Bixby Park Bandshell in Long Beach was renovated more than a year ago to serve as a venue for concerts, celebrations and picnics, but it's mostly been used as a makeshift homeless shelter and a skateboarding haven for teens.

The next two weekends, however, will see it transformed into a free children's theater, part of the Long Beach Sea Festival, a summer series of beach events.

On Saturday, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company will perform a condensed version of William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" for kids of all ages at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

The 45-minute story revolves around magical sorcerers and sea monsters on a deserted island. A narrator will help clarify the play's Shakespearean English.

Overlooking the Pacific and surrounded by mansions and older apartments, Bixby Park caters to a melting pot of ethnicities, cultures and economic backgrounds. It also sports the 86-year-old band shell, which has been idle since its renovation last year after a storm severely damaged it in 2005.

"There was a need in our community, and this park is the epitome of the beauty of the multicultural and multiethnicity of Southern California, so we wanted to create this free public theater to provide for everyone at this park," said Claudia Schou, who initiated the Shakespeare event.

It wasn't easy, though. Schou had to provide financing for marketing, get the program to qualify as a Sea Festival event to get city permits and insurance fees waived and find a theater group to volunteer. It took almost four months of legwork, with Schou personally paying for the fliers, meeting with city officials and getting local shops to donate money and (for the actors) food.

Events at the band shell have been limited because Long Beach, as with other cities across the country, has been tightening its belt due to the recession, says Craig Watson, the community's arts council director. The cost of mounting a public theater program would be difficult for the city to justify when other programs are being shut down, he said.

Schou, who lives in Long Beach, made it her mission to put the band shell to use for her 4-year-old son and other children.

"I'm just a mom who would love to see this theater in a local park and know other families would love to see it used in the same way," she said.

But she doesn't take all the credit.

"It takes a village to pull this together, but I think it speaks volumes about people's passion for theater and their commitment to the community and [exhibiting a] sense of civic pride," she said.

The Long Beach Shakespeare Company, a nonprofit organization, was happy to get involved.

"When you can engage children and really capture their imagination, they are just so willing, when you say those words 'Once upon a time,' to go where you take them," said Denis McCourt, co-artistic director of the company.

On Aug. 29, the Culver City Children's Popcorn Theatre will perform an original production called "Aunt Fondeen and the Lost Dutchman Goldmine," also at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., at the band shell.

Although there are no plans beyond that, Schou and Watson hope support will grow and lead to future festivities at the band shell.

"If you can activate a facility with arts and culture, you have a potential of doing a series of new things," Watson said. "It's a way to turn the image of a park into something much more attractive and thereby really work to the benefit of the whole community."



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