Theatre West is the longest running nonprofit membership theatre company in Los Angeles. As such, it has been the breeding ground for numerous stellar performers – people like Jack Nicholson, Sally Field, Richard Dreyfuss, and too many others to name. Helmed for the past two and one half years by Executive Director Spike Dolomite Ward, a specialist in arts nonprofit management, Theatre West is committed to growth and development. With that goal in mind, the membership voted to grow again and embarked on a three-year campaign, Then and Now, to celebrate the long Theatre West legacy and experiment with new works. Executive Director Ward was interviewed in April 2020 about Theatre West’s goals and the impact of COVID-19 on their plans.
WHEN DID YOUR THEATER FIRST BEGIN ITS LONG CAREER? WHAT LED TO ITS CREATION? WHAT’S YOUR MISSION? WERE YOU INVOLVED SINCE THE BEGINNING? HOW ABOUT SOME HISTORY OF YOUR THEATER. WHO/HOW/WHY/WHERE WAS IT FOUNDED? HOW ABOUT A BRIEF TIMELINE OF CHANGES AS THEY OCCURRED. WHEN DID YOU BECOME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR?
“Theatre West started in 1962 when 12 working actors got together to create an LA workshop theatre so they could all work in an atmosphere that would support each other’s individual growth as artists. They already had successful careers working in film and TV. They set about creating a safe place to experiment, work, fail, learn, and contribute.
“The original members started meeting for workshop in a member’s apartment. They created an artistic board and invited more members to join. The artistic board was designed to be voted in by the membership to guide the artistic integrity of the work. Since some of the founding members had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, they made sure that artists would always be safe at Theatre West by building a company that ran by democratic rule and was represented by an elected body that had the members’ best interests at heart. There came a point where the members asked themselves, “Do we want to be a workshop only company, or do we want to grow and produce our own shows?” The members voted to grow.
“On May 1, 1967, Theatre West moved into its permanent location, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. (across the 101 freeway from Universal Studios and over the hill from the Hollywood Bowl.) The theatre was once known as the Cahuenga Playhouse and had 240 seats. Robert Smith owned the building and was a huge supporter of theatre in Los Angeles. He had been to several Theatre West productions and knew some of the members and offered them his space. Theatre West took occupancy with a very supportive landlord who made sure that the theatre was ready to go on move-in day by restoring the building to a theater (Hanna Barbera across the street had been using it as a sound stage). He installed all lights, dimmer board, sound equipment, and intercom to backstage and light booth, stage, and seats. His vision was to make it “the most beautiful little theatre in town.”
“After the company moved to the Cahuenga site, it sought out technical members to build sets, etc., so the company could take it to the next level – producing its own original work. Public performances were frowned upon in the early days but that changed when members saw main stage productions as a natural evolution for artists to get feedback from audiences and their work. To date, Theatre West has produced over 300 shows, and two-thirds of the shows have been original works developed in workshop.
“Various plays got their start on Theatre West’s stage. SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY and A BRONX TALE went on to Broadway and LOVE OF A PIG became the first American production to play the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1992. Theatre West and its members have received countless awards over nearly six decades including the Drama-Logue, LA Critics, NAACP Image Awards, LA Drama Critics Circle, Ovation, and the Valley Theatre Awards and has made major contributions to American theatre with original plays such as MAN IS A BOY, AESOP IN CENTRAL PARK, and MAY DAY SERMON. Theatre West’s children’s theatre, Storybook Theatre, is one of the only children’s theatre companies in Los Angeles and has been introducing very young children to live theatre for two generations.
“Former member Carroll O’Connor received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. So did several other company members such as Sherwood Schwartz, Ray Bradbury, Beau Bridges, Martin Landau, Dick Van Patten, Bill Blinn and Betty Garrett.
“Betty Garrett was one of the original founding members and was active in the company until she died at the age of 91. Her autobiography, “Betty Garrett and Other Songs – A Life on Stage and Screen” includes Theatre West history. Her SHOW BY THE SAME NAME won the Drama Critics Award. Betty moderated the musical comedy workshop until her death; it is still going today.
“Other famous actors and writers have been members of Theatre West over the years including Lee Meriwether, Harry Dean Stanton, Chazz Palminteri, Joyce Van Patten, Tom Skerritt, Sol Saks, Hal Lynch, Marvin Kaplan, Milton Selzer, Barbara Rush, Paul Winfield, Marcia Wallace, Kim Hamilton, Elsa Lanchester, Brett Somers, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Bridget Hanley, and Jim Beaver.
“In addition to the Musical Comedy Workshop, we have a Shakespeare Workshop and a Writers Workshop which are moderated by members of the company. We’re trying something new with the Actors Workshop by bringing in guest moderators who add different textures and flavors. It has always been the board’s conviction that workshop be the heartbeat of Theatre West and must always continue.
“Since the theatre was already at an impasse where we needed to reinvent ourselves, we were already stretching way outside the box to try on new things, both artistically and operationally. This interruption by the pandemic is just serving as more encouragement to stretch a little farther. It’s a good thing we already began the stretch. Trying to figure out what to do next in the middle of a crisis would be a real challenge. We’ve already got a strategic plan that we’re following so we’ve got that advantage. If we didn’t have that we’d really be in survivor mode, which would be really stressful.
“The mission of Theatre West is to nurture and develop theatre artists by giving them the opportunity to expand their talents and skills through workshops and public performances and to serve the community with invigorating educational programs.”
WHEN DID YOU CLOSE THE THEATER DUE TO COVID-19? WERE YOU IN THE MIDDLE OF A RUN?
“It’s the saddest thing! The opening of the world premiere of OUR MAN IN SANTIAGO was March 13. It was written by long time company member and two-time Emmy nominee and WGA award-winner Mark Wilding (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Good Girls, Charmed). The play is a comedy thriller about the botched U.S. attempt to overthrow Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected leader, in 1973. It’s really, really good. The news about the spread of the virus was changing by the hour, and the cast and crew were faced with making the heart-breaking decision to close the run after the opening weekend for the health and safety of everyone involved in the project. Four days later, Mayor Garcetti issued a stay at home order followed by the Governor’s state-wide order – proving that we did the right thing by closing the show when we did. We also had to close our run of Storybook Theatre’s new children’s musical, THE ADVENTURES OF PETER RABBIT because the schools closed and all of our field trips got cancelled. The cost to the company for both shows closing was $20,000. We’ll make part of it up when we re-open OUR MAN IN SANTIAGO, but our field trip income is lost.
“Aside from having to abruptly close two shows, the way we conduct workshops had to be rearranged. Our moderators have adjusted to facilitating nightly workshops via Zoom, and that has worked out well. Our Saturday morning Associates program had to be cancelled, as well as our professional development workshop with veteran casting director, multiple Emmy and Artios nominated Sheila Guthrie. We’ll start both up again when it’s safe to do so.”
ARE YOU DOING ANYTHING RIGHT NOW TO KEEP OUR LIVE THEATER GOING? STREAMING? HAVING VIRTUAL MEETINGS? PLANNING FOR YOUR NEXT SHOW WHEN YOU REOPEN? AUDITIONS? FUND RAISING?
“In keeping with our momentum in growing the company, we are redeveloping our Associates program with a grant from the Kaplan Loring Foundation to invigorate the membership with young, developing talent who, after completing the one year program, could qualify for full membership with the company. The moderators for this newly developed program will be veteran company members who will get paid with the grant – thus providing financial support to actors. We are changing the name of the Associates program to the Marvin Kaplan Associates program to honor long-time original member, Marvin Kaplan. The mission of his foundation is to support actors. Marvin spent his lifetime in show business, and his foundation was designed to give back to the industry by supporting educational workshops to assist individuals in show business.
“We don’t want to tap people out with fundraising requests since we’re all getting hit up with so many right now. Our goal right now is to grow the company. The dues help pay the bills but – more importantly – new members bring new life and new audiences. We’re looking for funding for scholarships for new members of color, too, so that we can bring new stories and perspectives to our stage. New members are the future. After the scholarship is over, the expectation will be that recipients become full dues-paying members. The existing membership is going to carry us through this tough time. If members are having a hard time financially right now because of the loss of work, other members are pitching in to cover their dues, etc. It’s inspiring. To keep busy and productive, members are working on a virtual storytelling project with the theme “Cancelled,” which should really amuse one another. We check in on each other to make sure everybody is healthy and to see if anyone needs help with errands, etc.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK WILL BE THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON LIVE THEATER IN GENERAL IN LOS ANGELES? DO YOU FORESEE ANY PERMANENT CHANGES?
“I am part of a new group of local theatre leaders who are meeting once a week via Zoom to share all sorts of information to help each other get through this crisis. I’m thrilled about this. As someone who has come into the theatre world with a grass roots organizing background, I was surprised to discover that there wasn’t more of a center community for small theaters like there is in the arts education community. Everybody is pretty much doing their own thing out of necessity. I needed good advice, so I used my organizing skills to put a few community building events together to not only get my questions answered but to help others get their questions answered also – panels with theatre critics, producers and publicists. I know from working in the arts education community that, when people are organized and united around a common goal, everybody succeeds. If we all work together to build and grow an audience for Los Angeles theater in general, we’ll all prosper.” #LATheatreLives
WHAT DO YOU NEED RIGHT NOW TO KEEP GOING FORWARD? WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE FROM THE THEATER PUBLIC?
“I’d like to call upon the theater public to get out there as soon as it’s safe to do so and patronize lots of theaters. Everybody is going to be itching to get out there, and theater will be the best place to go to be entertained and find escape. Help give the economy a boost by patronizing a local restaurant for dinner before the show. Organize groups of friends to go see shows together. It’s fun. Angelenos now realize how dependent they are on Netflix, music, and books to pass the time, proving how vital and essential the arts are to everyday life. Don’t forget about theater. Go see some shows when the coast is clear, and make it a habit to see live theater regularly! People come to LA from all over the country to seek out careers as actors and writers, etc., and many of them are keeping their chops up by doing live theater. We have the greatest talent pool in the country. Angelenos are lucky to have so much available to them – so please support us.”
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FUTURE PLANS?
Definitely to continue to grow our membership. It will expand and strengthen our output plus bring in new audiences. Membership dues will help pay the rent; and new members energize the company with new ideas, creating more possibilities for Theatre West.”