October 07, 1999


Theatre 40's Offstage Drama

Safety issues at high school space may be resolved after week of lockout and confusion.


by Rob Kendt


For 26 years, Theatre 40 has had what seems a sweet deal with Beverly Hills High School: Its members teach one of the school's adult education classes on theatre, and in return they get the use of a small 99-seat black box on the campus, where they've mounted many seasons of award-winning and popular theatre for a devoted subscriber audience.


Last week, though, the relationship between Theatre 40 and the Beverly Hills School Board--which is in the midst of a $28 million modernization of the historic school--foundered over a series of "life safety" issues. As reported last week in The Hollywood Reporter, these included the presence of three toy guns, empty liquor bottles, and half-smoked cigars--props for Theatre 40's ambitious production of Nicholas Nickleby, which was in rehearsal at the time.


This unfortunate prop seizure may have made the school board look silly, but according to Barry Brucker, the board's president, the board believed there were more serious safety issues in the space, part of an older building that was closed for the summer for asbestos removal. Which is why, Brucker told Back Stage West, when the school board was presented last Monday with a 17-point list of safety issues by a lawyer hired specifically to handle legal issues around the construction, the board quickly decided to bar the theatre group from the space. Locks were changed the next day.


"It's a great facility that has been run down over the years," explained Brucker. While there was no single safety issue that seemed especially egregious, he said, the list of problems--which included the absence of proper exit lights and exit railing, as well as concerns about wheelchairs in the space--represented "minor issues that collectively became something more. Also, at the time we shut them down, we had no certificate of insurance from them. We've since gotten a copy, but our lawyer had asked for it from them and hadn't received it. [Shutting the theatre] was a common-sense decision; when we read the report, it took us a few minutes to decide."


The response of Theatre 40 and its supporters has been swift and vehement, with allegations that the list of violations and subsequent lockout are part a conspiracy to get the theatre group out of the space for good. But on Monday, artistic director Artur Cybulski led the district superintendent, members of the board and of the high school facilities staff, and the board's lawyer through the space to contest the violations or show how easily they could be fixed.


"We went though the list of "life safety' dangers, all 17 points, and I basically blew them out of the water," boasted Cybulski. "We're down to one plug in the wall that's not working." Though Cybulski speculates that there's some malign intent behind the lockout, he couldn't name that person, and neither Brucker nor Cybulski could point to any history of bad blood or resentment between the school and the theatre.


Indeed, Brucker said he'd made some efforts to locate a space for Nicholas Nickleby, originally announced to open Oct. 27, in one of the district's other auditoria. And as Cybulski spoke to Back Stage West, he fielded a call from another local rental space, reporting that Nickleby's cast and director, Tom Quaintance, had voted to continue "if they had to do it in a parking lot in jeans and T-shirts. It's The Cradle Will Rock story."


But Brucker concluded by saying, "I have a feeling it's all going to work out. I'm extremely optimistic that Theatre 40 will be up and running and back in that space by the time your paper is printed this week."