The Colony sets the stage for another act

For many months, local theater-goers have been in a state of suspense in regards to one local institution: the financially troubled Colony Theatre in Burbank. Despite a hit show in the form of “Falling for Make Believe,” a musical about the life of lyricist Lorenz Hart, the 38-year-old theater was unable to announce a new 2013-2014 season because the future was so uncertain.

That all changed last month with the announcement of a new season and a grant from the Marilyn P. & Wayne H. Kohl Memorial Fund. The amount of the gift was undisclosed, but it was enough to not only make a new season possible, but to allow the Colony to begin rebuilding its infrastructure, including new staff positions.

The season will include a production of the venerable medieval drama “The Lion In Winter,” opening April 19 with Mariette Hartley, returning again to the Colony after starring in last fall’s “The Morini Strad.” Up first is the musical “Breath and Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes,” by Daniel Beaty, opening Sept. 14.

With a mixture of excitement and relief, Colony artistic director Barbara Beckley spoke with Marquee about the theater’s comeback from the financial brink and what made it possible.

Marquee: You recently announced a new season, which is news by itself.

Barbara Beckley: We’re very excited about it. We’ve announced the season and now we’re pulling together all the promotional stuff and the cast and everything for the first show. We’re also going to be hiring a marketing person and a development person, and take a real hard look at our business model so we don’t get into that situation again.

So it’s not just a matter of putting on more shows, but rebuilding.

That was always what we knew we had to do, and when we first announced last October that we were in trouble and put the figure at $500,00 for what we needed to raise, that included restructuring of the organization so we could hire the people we need to get us on sound financial footing. We’re rethinking the way our organization works, looking at 21st century models as opposed to the professional regional theater model that has been around for 50 years.

Was that part of the problem?

In a way, but we are certainly not unique. Arts organizations nationwide are having to reinvent themselves and rethink their business models just because of the way things have changed in the environment in the last few years. It’s been breathtaking how quickly it’s all changed.

Where did your new funding come from?

The tremendous support we got from our subscribers and the theater community kept us going, then another backer stepped up to help us out — and then the grant we got finished it off. It was a combination of things. But the grant we got enabled us to announce the season and continue producing — the Marilyn P. & Wayne H. Kohl Memorial Fund.

Has the fund been a supporter of the theater in the past, or is this new?

It’s new. And it was pretty thrilling, as you can imagine.

How much suspense were you and the theater in these last few months?

We kept going with a great deal of hope, but we look back now and say, “You know, in the back of all our minds we were rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” We were certainly being very positive and hopeful, but that iceberg was looming.

How quickly did the lineup of productions come together?

That came together very quickly. Part of my job is reading plays continually, and when I see something I would like to produce, I set it aside. I had a list of plays I loved, but I wasn’t really serious about it.

What role did the success of “Falling for Make Believe” have in making this new season possible?

It certainly helped, just because it was so popular. It brought so many new people to the theater who we hope now will come back. That was huge and all those new people coming in are a tremendous investment in the future.

What was it about that play that connected with audiences?

Starting off, we had that glorious Rodgers and Hart music. Every once in a while everything comes together — we had a brand-new book by Mark Saltzman that told the untold story of Lorenz Hart. So many people walked out saying “I’ve been hearing these songs all my life, and this was as if I heard it for the first time.” We got really lucky in assembling a Broadway-caliber cast, and some great musicians. We had a terrific director in Jim Fall. All the pieces came together to produce one of those transformational experiences that we always yearn for in the theater that other entertainment media can’t really do.

The next show is “Breath and Imagination.”

Yes, “The Story of Roland Hayes.”I’ve been astonished to find out about this man. He was a huge celebrity in the first quarter of the 20th century, the toast of two continents. He was the son of former slaves and became a classical singer, and no black man had ever done that — singing opera, singing German, Italian, French art songs. In the year 1925, he earned $100,000. That’s millions today. He’s been completely forgotten, but he paved the way for Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, everybody who came after. I hit upon this story, and there is a ton of glorious music in it, both classical and Negro spirituals. I knew we just have to do this.

In some ways, it seems similar to the Lorenz Hart show.

Similar in that they’re both real people. They’re both true untold stories in very different ways. Lorenz Hart hasn’t been forgotten, but his personal life was very much a secret until recently — whereas Roland Hayes is totally forgotten. In both cases, what’s wonderful about it for us is the discovering something you didn’t know before.

What: “Breath and Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes.”

Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank.

When: Sept. 14 through Oct. 13.

Admission: $7 for adults; $5 for seniors and students; free for children under 12. Free the first Friday of the month; free the third Thursday of the month from 5 to 8 p.m.

More info: (818) 558-7000,


Follow Steve Appleford on Twitter: @SteveAppleford.

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