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Laguna Playhouse to give up set-building workshop to shave annual expenses

March 18, 2010 |  4:27 pm

LagunaPlayhouse When its current season ends, the Laguna Playhouse aims to save money by giving up the large rented satellite facility where it has long conducted rehearsals and built sets and props for its shows.

It's another move in line with what the Playhouse's leaders said Wednesday is a new policy of abandoning a long-held "expansive vision," and repositioning the 420-seat theater as a community arts center that, in addition to mounting its own professional productions, aims to host shows by outside producers and community groups. 

Among them are concerts May 1 by Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, billed as "America's first all-female mariachi ensemble," and May 2 by the Laguna Community Concert Band.

The expansive dream focused on establishing a 250-seat second stage to complement the main theater, creating new possibilities for doing adventurous plays and developing new work. It ended about a year ago, when the Playhouse announced it was putting an adjacent office building it aimed to convert into a second stage on the market, listed at $7.25 million. The building, acquired for about $3.1 million in 1998, would have required at least $10 million to renovate as a theater. It wound up selling last May for $5.9 million, retiring a $1.6 million mortgage and generating an operating cushion for the company.

Closing the satellite production facility in Laguna Hills is expected to shave 5% off the Playhouse's annual expenses, officials said, including savings from the elimination of "a few positions." The Playhouse, which spent $6.7 million in 2007-08, according to its most recent available tax return -- but has since cut its main stage season from seven shows to five -- will now hire outside contractors to build its productions.

The planned closing of the production warehouse was first reported by the Orange County Register.

In a written statement, Playhouse artistic director Andrew Barnicle and managing director Karen Wood said Wednesday that closing the production annex is part of rethinking of the company's business approach, in line with the realization that the vision it had pursued since the 1990s no longer can be sustained.

Even before the recession, they said, the Playhouse was considering whether renting and staffing the 10,000-square-foot production facility was too rich for its blood. Tax records show rental expenses were about $250,000 a year.

"There are many examples of theaters that are larger and more complex than the Laguna Playhouse who have their production needs met in exactly the manner we are moving toward," the statement said.

Besides producing its own plays and youth theater shows as the "core components" of its mission, the 420-seat Playhouse will now try to host outside performances -- an approach Barnicle and Wood said will help it "be a sustainable community asset."

The Playhouse traces its origins to Oct. 22, 1920 -- the first meeting of the Laguna Beach Drama Club in a living room of what was then a small arts colony. For 70 years it was a respected nonprofessional community theater, but after 1991, when Barnicle arrived, he and then-executive director Richard Stein transformed it into a professional company that by 1998 had taken a place alongside South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Center Theatre Group and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and the Pasadena Playhouse as the L.A.-Orange County market's major nonprofit regional stages for contemporary and classic plays, sporting annual budgets of $4 million or more.

-- Mike Boehm


Laguna Playhouse gives up its expansion dream

Photo: Laguna Playhouse. Credit: Christopher Trela / Laguna Playhouse