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Theater Drama Orange County Business Journal Monday, June 8, 2009 By SHERRI CRUZ It has all the makings

of a compelling bit of theater: Seaside playhouse, beloved by the town's business elite and arts patrons, struggles with an epic downturn and generational shift. That's the playbill for Laguna Playhouse, a nearly 90-year-old community theater at the foot of Laguna Beach's canyon. Bette Davis and Barbara Eden (of "I Dream of Jeannie") are among the actors who have performed there. Harrison Ford, then known as Harry Ford, starred in a Laguna Playhouse production in 1965. But these days Laguna Playhouse faces shrinking ticket sales and a drop in funding from donors and foundations. The recession is partly to blame. People have cut back on nonessentials such as going to plays, while the downturn has taken a bite out of giving to the arts. But it's not just the economy that's dampening the theater. Nonprofit playhouses, as opposed to larger commercial theater, are in the midst of their own hard-times drama. Federal and state grants have dried up for the arts in general, and the younger generation isn't showing any signs of wanting to catch a play after dinner.

Last year's closure of Costa Mesa's Opera Pacific, a blow to the performing arts community in Orange County, was a sign of the reality of the times. With all that said, Laguna Playhouse is on solid financial footing. "We're going to make it," said Henry Mayhew, president of the Laguna Playhouse's board and president of Irvine's Mayhew & Associates, a seller of food products to Trader Joe's Co., Whole Foods Market Inc. and other grocers. "We're planning for the viability of the theater for the next 30 years." Laguna Playhouse recently sold an adjacent building that had been intended for a second theater. It paid off all its debts with the proceeds and now has a small nest egg. And Laguna Playhouse is lucky to be in a city that's home to executives, financiers, comfortable retirees and other wealthy folks. Resident James Mellor, a retired chief executive of General Dynamics Corp., gave $5 million to the playhouse a few years ago, the theater's largest donation to date. Other key supporters include the Ueberroth family and the Aversanos. Rick Aversano, cofounder of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Qtera Corp., sold the company in 2000 to Nortel Networks Corp. for more than $3 billion. Laguna Playhouse has a small but enthusiastic crop of supporters who wouldn't let the theater fail, said Victoria Collins, a longtime supporter and principal of Keller Group Investment Management Inc. in Irvine.

"If you have a few people who are truly dedicated they will spread the word," she said. Collins said she likes the theater's intimacy, its small size and the group of people who go to the theater. "The nice part is we get to see our friends," Collins said. Fickle Audiences If the theater's artistic director Andrew Barnicle had his way, every play he put on at the 430-seat Moulton Theatre,Laguna Playhouse's venue,would be a thought provoking show, the kind that stirs conversation. But a tough economy isn't the time for such plays, Barnicle said. "The progressive plays aren't selling," he said. "Audiences aren't looking for an adventure. They're looking for a guarantee. They need to know they're going to have a really good time or they're not going to shell out." The theater has a $5.8 million budget for the 12 months through June. Next fiscal year, it's targeting around $5 million, managing director Karen Wood said. About 60% of the theater's revenue comes from ticket sales. Laguna Beach residents account for 15% of those. The theater draws audiences from as far away as Santa Barbara. The playhouse also gets money from the James Irvine Foundation,

started by the son of the founder of the Irvine Ranch. Laguna Beach businesses support the playhouse and other arts through a self-assessed tax that's not mandated by the city. The city's economy is largely based on the arts and the visitors they help draw. But when tourists don't show up in large numbers in the summer, everyone feels the pain. Laguna Playhouse employs 23 full-time workers, including longtimers. Production manager Jim Ryan has been working for the theater for 35 years. The next few years could be trying. Philanthropists give according to their financial portfolios, so even if the economy recovers, it's going to take time for investments to build back up, according to Wood. "The next two to three years we should be prepared for the fact that although there will be a recovery, it will be slow," she said. And the theater has to compete with other nonprofits. Collins said she's adjusted her donations so that she's giving more to human services groups. Collins also serves as president of the board of Irvine-based Human Options Inc., an emergency abuse shelter for women. "When the rubber meets the road that has to be the higher priority," she said. "Some friends I know can't afford to support anything anymore."

Next season, Laguna Playhouse plans to stage five shows, down from seven, and with smaller casts. It'll also produce fewer of the plays itself and work with others to stage productions. Co-producing plays saves on set costs and rehearsal time, said Jerry Stratton, resident technical director, who designs the sets. Each actor costs about $10,000 for the duration of the show, according to Barnicle. Laguna houses actors, mostly from Los Angeles, for the show's duration at condos in Lake Forest. Laguna Playhouse also will rent space to groups when the theater is not in use. Barnicle, with the theater for 19 years, will produce and in some cases direct lighter fare this coming season to draw the largest audience possible. Kicking off the 2009-10 season in July is "My Way: a Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra." Between summer and the holidays, Barnicle said he tries to find good plays that fit his budget. It's hit or miss. Laguna Playhouse projected the "Late Night Catechism," which wrapped up in early May, would sell 2,000 tickets. It ended up selling 5,000. Other shows that were projected to be hits missed, including a play

that starred Alan Alda on Broadway, called "Art." "The production was great. It got excellent reviews. Everybody who saw it loved it. We just couldn't get anyone to come see it," Barnicle said. Though audiences are shrinking, Barnicle said the value of the theater still is there: "Enjoying a purposeful dramatic action in a group of hundreds of strangers should be a profound experience."