Pasadena’s arts-friendly reputation is undeserved

The lead paragraph of The Times’ Feb. 7 article, “A shifting canvas in Pasadena,” states that the “city has carried out a tradition of giving back in the form of art.” As the founder and artistic director of the defunct Pasadena Shakespeare Company, which performed 37 critically acclaimed productions over nine seasons, my experience is not consistent with the oft-repeated claim that Pasadena is supportive of the arts (at least in any meaningful way). Indeed, it comes as no surprise to me that the artistic canvas to which The Times refers is shifting -- or in imminent danger of sinking beneath the waves.

One of the most frustrating things about the years that I struggled to keep the Pasadena Shakespeare Company afloat was the lack of interest or support from the city. Our productions drew audiences from all over Southern California, received great reviews and won numerous awards. But though I personally sent several opening-night invitations to the mayor, City Council members and other officials over the years, most never responded. A few council members attended our shows.

One day, when I was looking for a new home for the company, I was speaking with the head of the city’s cultural planning division. He called over the city’s director of planning and development, who happened to walk by, introduced me and explained our dilemma. This worthy said, “I wouldn’t even be talking to you except for him” -- and he didn’t ever again. Eventually we found a home at the Fremont Center Theatre in South Pasadena.


While the company was still in Pasadena, the city’s grant programs did not support productions or regular operations, only special projects. We received support from the county and state as well as private donors and foundations, but not from the city. It always frustrated me that the well-intentioned requirement that a percentage of the budget for new construction be spent on the arts always took the form of overpriced and frequently hideous sculptures or embellishments, when it could instead provide really useful operational support for Pasadena’s arts organizations.

Eventually it became too difficult to keep the company afloat. We ceased production in 2003, and since then I have turned my creative focus to writing. A few weeks ago, the city’s cultural affairs manager, responding to a press release about two novels I’ve written that will be published next year, invited me to speak to the city’s arts commission about the Pasadena Shakespeare Company, an invitation that was never forthcoming when the group was active.

When I explained that the company was not active and had no plans for future productions, but that I would be happy to speak about what we had accomplished over the nine years of our existence, or about suggestions for ways the city might better support its arts organizations, she responded that the commission’s calendar was very busy and maybe I could come when we were producing again.

I hope the Pasadena Playhouse lives to fight another day. If it doesn’t, I hope Furious Theatre survives the closure of the playhouse, under whose wing it has been operating. I’m glad A Noise Within, a company currently based in Glendale, has found Pasadena officials supportive and interested. But were I running an arts organization today, I would know better than to expect more than lip service from Pasadena, and I would seek out a home city that climbs out of its comfortable bed of complaisance to offer actual support.

Gillian Bagwell is the author of “The Darling Strumpet: The tumultuous life of Nell Gwynn, beloved 17th century actress and royal mistress,” and, “The Royal Miracle: The unbelievable true escapade that saved the English monarchy,” both of which will be published next year.