Culture Clash is proposed to help spur a theater’s revival

A historic MacArthur Park theater could become the permanent new home of the performance trio Culture Clash under an ambitious city plan to bring more cultural amenities to the heavily Latino urban neighborhood.

Under a proposal spearheaded by the Community Redevelopment Agency of the city of Los Angeles (CRA/LA), the Westlake Theatre, which was built in 1926 and currently is used for a swap meet, would be converted into a multi-use entertainment space for live theater, film screenings, musical performances and community and social events. The project also would include the creation of 49 units of affordable housing and a 300-space parking garage.

According to CRA officials, the Music Box@Fonda, which runs the Music Box theater in Hollywood, would operate and program the revamped Westlake Theatre, and Culture Clash, the popular and respected Latino performance ensemble that is marking its 25th anniversary this year, would become the facility’s resident theater company. In addition to performing at the theater for a minimum of 30 days per year, Culture Clash would provide youth-oriented programming and instruction in writing and acting, said Leslie Lambert, the CRA’s administrator for its Hollywood and Central region.

“They’re very popular; they attract a big audience,” said Lambert in explaining the selection of Culture Clash, known for its mix of antic comedy and biting social commentary. “Ethnically, they fit perfectly with that community. They’re very much in touch with that community. [And] they’ll bring in audiences from elsewhere.”

Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, who with colleagues Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas has operated as a gypsy ensemble since the group moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, praised the Westlake Theatre as “a grand old faded lady” and said the trio was excited about finally acquiring a “bricks and mortar” home of its own.

“Thank God there’s angels in bureaucracy -- there are -- that have said, ‘You guys deserve a home,’ ” Montoya said in a recent interview. “We’re, like, two Salvadorans, one Chicano, there’s a need in the area.”

However, he emphasized, MacArthur Park is “not an area devoid of culture. No, it’s a very, actually, sophisticated place.”

Indeed, the new facility is intended to enhance the revitalization of one of the city’s most culturally rich neighborhoods, following a long period in which soaring crime rates and economic decline marred the area’s image. The 633-acre Westlake Recovery Redevelopment Project Area was conceived in 1999 with the aims of stimulating economic development, rehabilitating existing housing and businesses, creating new housing, and improving public infrastructure and services. Other neighborhood projects include buffing up building facades.

Last week, the CRA’s board of commissioners voted to begin negotiations with the project’s developers, Millennium Partners, which will have up to 15 months to produce a formal plan to convert the 18,000-square-foot structure and the 1.2-acre site, which is bounded by Wilshire Boulevard, 6th and Alvarado streets and Westlake Avenue.

Plans call for the facility’s ground floor to be used for retail; and there has been discussion of adding a central courtyard and a rooftop restaurant. The city will help the swap meet vendors operating in the building to find new quarters.

Lambert estimated that the total cost of the project would be between $20 million and $25 million. She said it is likely that a not-for-profit entity would be formed to assume ownership of the building or else lease it from CRA, which purchased the structure in 2008.

The project would be funded by “largely if not entirely public money,” she said, and historic tax credits could be applied, given the building’s landmark stature.

Millennium -- which, Lambert said, was chosen as the project’s overall developer after a lengthy process of competitive application and soliciting community input -- has developed mixed-use properties, including apartment complexes, hotels and office space.

Neither Music Box nor Millennium representatives could be reached for comment.

Lambert said the theater’s old proscenium stage will have to be rebuilt, and retractable seats will be installed. Reduced ticket prices for Culture Clash performances will be offered to area residents, she added.

Montoya said that having a permanent space would enable Culture Clash to extend its creative endeavors and share its resources and knowledge with emerging artists.

“At least turn the keys over to some young people and say, ‘We’re done, we’re just over here if you need us, but here’s the keys to the asylum.’ ”