BACK STAGE WEST
July 06, 2000
A Noise Within leaves Cal State L.A. theatre after less than a year, citing conflicts with staff.
by Rob Kendt
When members of the classical theatre troupe A Noise Within piled into a chartered bus in May 1999 for a mysterious company "meeting," and were shuttled to the Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles, northeast of Downtown L.A., they were elated: This 1,150-seat proscenium theatre, complete with fly space, rehearsal studios, a costume shop, a scene shop, and other amenities, would be their new home, their artistic directors told them. It must have seemed too good to be true.
Unfortunately for both Cal State L.A. and A Noise Within, that's exactly what this marriage turned out to be. The relationship between the two organizations, which began unravelling as early as last fall, was finally severed last week with ANW's final performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. ANW now plans to return to its original home base in Glendale, where it had rapidly built a sturdy reputation and an enthusiastic following for its classical and contemporary repertory work, produced in a former Masonic temple building starting in 1991. ANW is unlikely to return to that building, however; the Glendale City Council has approved $50,000 for a tentative plan that would allow ANW to produce its shows in a "stressed membrane structure" (the polite industry term for a stage tent) on the corner of Harvard and Brand.
And while some of its longtime patrons are reportedly relieved to see the company return to Glendale, the collapse of the uniquely promising Cal State L.A./A Noise Within relationship represents a major blow for Southland theatre. Here was a beautiful, practically brand new venue that would seem to have been perfectly situated to capitalize on the theatrical and educational value of a first-class theatre company, which for its part was craving a permanent, fully operating theatre facility after years in a charming but dilapidated historic structure. At its best, this joining of forces promised to create a local version of the best theatre/university partnerships (La Jolla Playhouse and UC San Diego, for example, or American Repertory Theatre and Harvard).
So what went wrong at the Luckman? According to Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez Elliott, co-artistic directors with Art Manke, it was an ongoing conflict with the Luckman's executive director, Clifford Harper, and Harper's staff.
"It seemed like the perfect marriage," said Geoff Elliott last week. "The opportunity was so vast. But we almost immediately began to run into problems, principally with the leadership and staff of the theatre."
The relationship initially soured over conflicting school outreach programs: Cal State L.A.'s COLTA program (Creative Opportunities for Learning Through the Arts), which brings in Southland students for special performances at $3 a head, and A Noise Within's own similar student outreach program, in place for years at its Glendale location, which charged schools $10 a head.
"We were specifically told that COLTA was targeting a group of underprivileged children at $3 per ticket," said Julia Rodriguez Elliott. So ANW worked out a deal with Actors Equity that allowed the $3 students to sit in the balcony at the same special student matinees to which participants in ANW's own student outreach were invited. "But we came to find out that a broad mailing would be sent out to all schools" regardless of income or privilege, even private schools like Marlboro, said Julia. This mailing reached many of the nearly 100 schools with which ANW had an outreach program in place at the higher $10 rate, and, according to Julia, this price disparity undermined ANW's program and threatened the deal with Equity.
"After some discussion, what we agreed we'd do would be an hour-long lecture and demonstration, with some scenes acted out for the COLTA students," said Julia. "And this agreement was memorialized in a brochure that was sent out." But after the first such series of lecture/demos with ANW's The Taming of the Shrew, Cal State L.A.'s outreach director expressed disappointment with ANW's program and, according to Julia, "relieved us of our COLTA obligation and said they wanted to do their own Christmas Carol on our set." ANW refused, for reasons of liability and artistic integrity-and that, said the Elliotts, was the beginning of the end.
Cal State L.A. hired Will and Company, a troupe specializing in classics for the school market, to do its own Christmas Carol for the COLTA students and staged it at the university's smaller State Theatre, at the same time ANW's A Christmas Carol was up at the Luckman. And when ANW's Carol was over, according to Geoff Elliott, executive director Harper had his staff remove the company's property-set pieces, costumes, wigs-to an outdoor area near the Luckman. And then the rains came.
"They took our new Christmas Carol set piece and set it beside the dumpster," said Geoff. "It was destroyed."
Harper, who referred calls from Back Stage West to Cal State L.A.'s public affairs office, had reportedly issued a "transition schedule," which Geoff said was "basically an edict that they expected us to remove all of our property from Luckman after Christmas Carol. But as a resident company at the Luckman, we thought we had a right to leave certain things there, like sewing machines, costumes, equipment in scene shop, larger set pieces-things that are very difficult to move."
The problems escalated in the winter and spring, said Geoff, when ANW was informed that "although we had exclusive contractual rights to use the scene shop, they informed us we would not be allowed to construct in the scene shop, because we generated too much sawdust. And that we could not construct costumes in the costume shop, as it had now become strictly a repair shop."
The last straw, said Geoff, came when Cal State L.A. informed ANW that the rental fee the troupe had paid for its first year at the Luckman, around $50,000, would be raised to $250,000 next year. This new price would shoot nearly a quarter of ANW's annual budget of $800,000, Elliott explained. So the company decided to get out.
The initial union had happened because one of A Noise Within's board members, Charles Redman, also served on an advisory board for the Luckman, and was acquainted with the president of Cal State L.A., Dr. James Rosser. Aware of the Luckman's need for programming and ANW's need for a home, Redman put the two parties together and sealed the deal in a matter of months-record time for a partnership involving a public educational facility and a nonprofit theatre.
"When we signed the contract, Jim [Rosser] had told me, "If anything goes wrong, give me a call, and I'll handle it,' " Redman recalled. And with an initial parking problem, Rosser, good for his word, resolved it, said Redman. When later controversies erupted, though, Redman was told, in effect, that "problems with the Luckman would have to be resolved between the Luckman and A Noise Within."
Another member of Luckman's advisory board, a nearby resident named Herik Venegas, told Back Stage West the board has become "very frustrated" with the Luckman's leadership.
"The students were benefiting from A Noise Within being here," said Venegas. "Another board member told me that half the audience at the performances she went to were students. A Noise Within was also good about getting interns from the student community, who got the chance to work with a professional theatre company." This was in contrast to the Luckman's relationship with Cal State L.A., said Venegas: "The Luckman does not have any interns from the student community. In fact, there's minimal participation of students at all in that complex, which is a travesty."
The board's other ongoing frustration was with the Luckman's lack of bookings. According to Venegas, the venue is booked an average of 10 nights a year, which he said doesn't square with its reported annual $1.2 million budget.
ANW and Cal State L.A. are about to enter arbitration over contractual disagreements, and presumably the related costs each side may claim to have to have incurred in this contentious past year. The upcoming arbitration is the reason given by Carol Selkin of Cal State L.A.'s public affairs office for declining to comment on the controversy, except to say of A Noise Within, "They made some demands and we believe we accommodated them. There's really no comment until the legal process is complete."
As heartbroken as members of A Noise Within must be, it's clear they will continue making theatre for an appreciative audience, and may even meet their stated goals of one day being a major regional repertory theatre. The real tragedy here is the opportunity seemingly squandered by Cal State L.A. to create a theatrical/educational powerhouse of national stature.
"The potential was so vast," said Geoff Elliott. "To have an entire campus full of students hungry for what we have to offer, and a community, East L.A., that is underserved culturally. This is a great disappointment to us and, I believe, to a majority of that university."
Board member Venegas broadened the disappointment: "The fact that A Noise Within was bringing different audiences in here, and students, was great. [Their leaving] is a huge disservice to the community at large."