Peering into the Darkness

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The city council has come around to realizing that Downey 2018 is at a critical juncture in its history, as it has been for some time. And once again they’re looking across the civic center to try and figure out why such weak signals are emanating from the city’s largest public building, the Downey Theater, as if its lack of identity is a kind of metaphor for the city at large. The question is, what to do about it.

All this has come into focus within the past few weeks, when on November 13 the city renewed VenueTech’s contract to manage the theater for three more years; and when Mayor Pro Tem Rick Rodriguez saw a production at the Mark Taper Forum in the Los Angeles Music Center and came home to wonder why the Downey Theater isn’t packing ‘em in.

“Our theater is a beautiful theater…” he was quoted as saying in the November 12th edition of The Downey Patriot. “I think it’s just undermarketed. It’s used quite a bit; it’s just [that] the story isn’t told enough.”

“It’s a small 300 seat theater,” he said of the Taper, “but…every seat was taken. You wonder how a little theater like that—with terrible parking, with downtown traffic, that’s hard to get to—how do they draw people from the Valley…from Downey? From Long Beach, from Whittier…it’s all because of the sales efforts.”

This is not quite true. The Taper, which opened in 1967, is a major award-winning American theater that has presented classics, musical originals and new plays by some of the world’s leading playwrights, as well as previous unknowns who’ve gone on to notable careers. It draws top directors, actors and designers, both from the international theater world and Hollywood. It has a board of directors, a hefty roster of management and administrative personnel, a literary department, casting directors, a press and communications department, a set and costume shop, a development department, and a finance and human resource department. It seats 739 (not 300), one more than the Downey Theater.

VenueTech supplies one full time employee to manage the Downey Theater, Amber Vogel, who got her start running a hospitality suite in Las Vegas.

Do we begin to see a problem here?

I’m not going to re-hash some of the headaches VenueTech has caused, most notably its role in the demise of the popular Downey Civic Light Opera; and the unreported cost to the city, which indemnifies the company, from the pricey lawsuit (rumored to be $1 million) filed by Los Lonely Boys after VenueTech’s negligence led to the serious injury of one of LLB’s performers. And I’m not going to challenge the numbers in costs and fees that VenueTech gives the city, which appears to accept them without question. VenueTech has professionalized the box office and its basic function as a booking agency has relieved the city from having to think about the $470,000 a year operating cost it bore in 2010, when VenueTech was hired.

Still, any marketing scheme is doomed once people discover that there’s nothing, or little, to market. Over the course of a year, the Downey Symphony orchestra gives three performances, not enough to grow an audience base (though it’s been doing well lately). The amount of other professional bookings, including holiday shows, dance troupes, rock groups, comedians, singers, Latin-flavored entertainment, maxes out at five a month (sometimes there’s as little as one). At most, this amounts to sixty performances a year.

Somebody at the November 13th meeting put out the number of two hundred performances a year, another unchallenged statement. Even if true, the other one hundred and forty bookings consist of local amateur dance recitals, high school events, and various ceremonial functions that play to parents and friends cheering whoever is up onstage. The question is: does this use of the theater justify a yearly operating cost of $686,233, which is the estimated amount the city is covering now?

The city is looking around at the La Mirada Civic, the Cerritos Center and the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, which regularly score A-list talent, and realizing that Downey, our vaunted step-up city, is the runt of the litter—though, to be fair, VenueTech has brought in the likes of Arturo Sandoval and the late Al Jarrreau and done its best to adapt to what has become mainly a Latin-American working class city. But now, Downey’s civic leadership is asking, is this the best we can do?

The answer is of course, no.

One of the dilemmas Downey faces is that its theater is only mid-sized, where the surrounding facilities (La Mirada, etc.) seat 1200 or more. Larger audiences mean larger paydays for the artists they see and hear and more sustaining revenues for the theaters that present them (even in Hollywood, home of countless actors, directors and writers, mid-size theaters like the Las Palmas and the Ivar are forever struggling).

Also, there’s a general contractual agreement among these theaters that an act booked in one place can’t play within a fifty mile radius of another, and thereby cut into artists’ and theaters’ earnings. This means that Lily Tomlin can play Cerritos, but she can’t, and won’t, play Downey, which just might turn out a good audience for her. The city has made quiet overtures about sharing productions with other nearby cities and been firmly rebuffed. Even the Taper, as crucial as it’s been in making Los Angeles a world-class cultural capital, is folded into the umbrella of the Center Theatre Group, which also runs the 1200-seat Ahmanson.

In a way, this is a blessing. It’s leading the city council to try and think up some kind of creative plan that would make the Downey Theater a source of achievement that not only would draw enthusiastic, or at least interested, audiences, but to lend the city a sense of civic pride. And both Mayor Sean Ashton and Councilman Alex Saab were right to ask for something that would be a regional draw, “a cultural epicenter,” as Saab put it, that would merit regular coverage in the Los Angeles Times and other Southern California media.

What they need to do is professionalize the theater. Now that they have a computerized box office, they need to install a theater company—even if it means creating a new one—that would stage theatrical productions and reintroduce, or introduce for the first time, audiences to Shakespeare and Chekhov and other great playwrights from around the world, including Latin America, as well as American works. They would have to make use of professional actors, designers, musicians where necessary, and backstage staff. And, yes, a marketing and publicity department.

Or they might want to diversify, by spelling straight plays and comedies with the Reprise strategy, i.e., downsized staging of great American musicals featuring accomplished singers, dancers and choreographers, that played UCLA a decade or so ago. Or they might find a kind of theatrical auteur like Great Britain’s Peter Brook, who has the talent, vision and genius to create compelling avant-garde theater that can’t be seen anywhere else. Or they might try and install a company headed by someone like David Sefton, who currently heads the Adelaide Festival in Australia, to run a top-flight operation that would include world-class performance in theater, dance and music and play them throughout the city, including outdoor spaces.

To even begin to tackle such ambitions, the city needs to appoint a knowledgeable theater council, consisting of people with a track record of solid accomplishment, to consider the various options of making the Downey Theater a real theater. This might include theater critics, artistic directors from a few Southland theaters, and academics like the USC roster of professors who still work as professional actors and directors in the theater community.

Alas, this advisory group would have to come, at least in part, from outside Downey. Local talent could be included, both in its advisory and artistic role. The difficulty here is that Downey has no tradition of a serious resident theater, and no young theater troupe busting at the seams to make local theater in any space they can find.

In a milieu uniquely attractive to fabulists, narcissists, hustlers and the delusional, the city would have to be careful to find people it could trust, because Downey’s inexperience and absence of virtually any competency in the theater world puts it at great risk in what would amount to a huge leap of faith.

Ashton and Saab were right to assert that this would have to be, at the least, a regional effort. It would be expensive. It would require fundraising. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if people who regularly took in the Taper would just as regularly be able to say, “Let’s see what they’re doing at the Downey Theater,” and consider going to either one a tossup.

If you saw the hope and earnestness in Ashton and Saab’s faces at that meeting, your heart had to go out to them. They were contemplating something grand and historic for a city that has lost its luster in the national purpose. I hope they come up with something good. But their work is cut out for them.

Features, NewsLawrence Christon