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Jewish Journal

Premier theater complex blossoms on West Side

by Tom Teicholz

September 11, 2008 | 3:52 am

Located at the intersection of 11th St. and Santa Monica Blvd., a striking modern building designed by Santa Monica architect Renzo Zecchetto sits on the site of a former elementary school playground and looks to have risen out of the ground sui generis, almost as if the Starship Enterprise had decided to dock in the middle of a residential city block.

It didn't.

This is the remarkable new Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, comprised of the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage, a 499-seat state-of-the art theater, and the Edye Second Space, a 99-seat "black box" theater. The new center, generally known as, simply, the Broad Stage, will debut with a gala opening on Sept. 20 celebrating the life, career and music of Barbara Cook, the incomparable interpreter of the American Songbook.

For the theater-bereft Westside, whose residents once could only hope to see major theatrical productions by traveling downtown -- often in rush hour -- this is a big step up culturally. And it has been in development for a very long time -- each detail dissected, discussed and considered.

The story goes that about 10 years ago, Dale Franzen, an opera singer and, at the time, a member of Santa Monica College's music faculty, found herself at a dinner party with Dustin Hoffman, who once upon a time attended SMC. They met at the home of Piedad Robertson, then SMC's president, and talked about how great it would be if the Westside had a world-class performing arts center. So they sketched out a plan on a napkin. In time, as their vision took flight, Franzen took on the role of artistic director (she is now director), and Hoffman, who chaired the building committee, became chair of the Broad Stage's artistic advisory board.

Over the ensuing decade, a whole host of notables were consulted on making the dream a reality, including professionals associated with the Los Angeles Opera, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Wiltern Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and California Institute of the Arts. The old joke would have you believe that a donkey is a horse built by committee, yet in the case of the Santa Monica Performing Arts Center, Franzen managed to birth a butterfly from a silkworm (and I now officially have run out of species clichés).

Recently, Denise Leader Stoeber, associate director of the Broad Stage, gave me a tour of the facility as workers were putting on the finishing touches.

The Broad Stage was designed to be performer and audience friendly; the 499-seat theater space has a bright and clean design, yet feels intimate. Every seat affords clear sight lines meant to allow eye contact with the performers, and the seats themselves, imported from Italy, are firm and comfortable with good legroom (I tested them).

The stage was conceived to accommodate drama, dance and musical performances. Accordingly, there are 37 fly lines, allowing for complex changes of scenery. There's also an orchestra pit, and the stage can accommodate a 45-piece orchestra. A 9-foot concert Steinway piano, stored in its own specially designed cupboard, was a gift from donors Eva and Marc Stern. The stage flooring is partially sprung, so has a very good surface for dance, added to which a professional dance floor has been fashioned to be placed on top for performances.

Of course, the audience will see only a small part of the story. There is ample wing space, a comfortable green room, dressing rooms for solo performers as well as for a company of as many as 14. There's an orchestra lift and a trap pit that allows the stage to open from almost anywhere, and both the backstage and below-stage areas are handicap accessible. The Broad Stage also has a state-of-the-art sound system and state-of-the-art performance lighting (with two lighting bridges and follow spot room). It can accommodate filming as well as live broadcasts. As for screening movies or events -- such as high-definition transmissions of live opera -- the stage has both the sound system and the screen, though it still lacks the projector (donation, please?).

Finally, the acoustics were designed by Mark Holden of Jaffe-Holden Acoustics, who has worked with both the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and Lincoln Center in New York. A motorized variable acoustic drapery system allows the room to accommodate the sounds of different artistic performances and disciplines.

And for my green-conscious friends, eco-warriors please note: The theater was built with Honduran mahogany, a renewable resource, and the heating and cooling systems are beneath the floor and vent beneath the seats, rather than from above, while the lobby has been configured to be naturally vented, all for maximum efficiency.

Last, but by no means least, for those patrons who have had the experience of missing part of a performance because they were waiting in line outside a restroom, the good news is there are four public restrooms, and the main women's restroom includes a lounge and double capacity facilities.

The Edye Second Space, which is adjacent to the Broad Stage, is a 99-seat theater, with its own lighting grid and the ability to show video. It is intended to showcase a wider range of more experimental works, including readings, plays and interdisciplinary productions.

For both the Broad Stage and the Edye, Stoeber said, the ambition is to be a place where artists used to performing before large audiences can perform in a more intimate setting, where new work can be incubated, and where new artists can be presented. To that end, for example, on Oct. 11 the acclaimed mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade will perform Mozart, Bernstein and Poulenc, as well as new works composed for her by composer and accompanist Jake Heggie.

Just to give you a sense of what architect Renzo Zecchetto has accomplished, in its technical abilities the Broad Stage is at the same level as UCLA's Royce Hall, yet Royce can hold an audience three times as large. The combination of the intimacy of the Broad and the technical virtuosity is unparalleled here.

What is remarkable, when you think about it, is that until now, no such performing arts center for music, dance, and theater has existed west of the 405 Freeway. That is not to say that the Westside has been without temples of culture: The Getty Center and the Getty Center Malibu have staged theater events, readings and happenings, as has the Hammer Museum in Westwood, and there have been events at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica; the relatively new Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City (an outpost of the downtown Center Theatre Group), has mounted significant theater productions; as has the Miles Playhouse in Reed Park. Santa Monica Civic Auditorium hosts the occasional concert, and the Skirball has, among other offerings, a thriving world music program. Nonetheless, despite these and many other performance spaces, the Westside has never had a dedicated stage of this caliber to attract world-class artists.

To ensure that Los Angeles denizens can enjoy their evening, the Broad Stage parking lot can accommodate 289 cars, in addition to valet parking, fitting, since as David Mamet reportedly said of the new venue, "the only thing more important than a forum where the community can go hear the truth is a forum where the community can go to hear the truth with adequate parking."

What then, you may ask, is the price tag for a world-class arts center? More than you might imagine: $45 million. And if you are a resident of Santa Monica or Malibu, you can thank yourself for making all this possible: In 2004 Santa Monica and Malibu passed a $35 million bond measure to support the project; $5 million came from other government agencies and individual donors, along with additional funds from a 2002 bond measure passed to finance improvements to Santa Monica College.

This marriage of public and private funds and of a community college and a performing arts center with world-class ambitions required a fair amount of creative collaboration and innovation in of itself.

"Embedded in the original Santa Monica College charter is the call for a performing arts center, so the stage fulfills our mandate and our traditions," said Chui. L. Tsang, the current president of Santa Monica College. One can also point to KCRW-FM, the nationally renowned radio station that broadcasts from the SMC campus, as an analogous "community service" of SMC.

In practice, what this means is that the college will use the space for rehearsing its orchestra, college band and chorus (which can include as many as 100 people), and for performances associated with those groups. The Madison Building behind the center is available for classes and for rehearsals, as is the Edye Second Space.

Both the Broad Stage and the Edye will plan their programming around the college's use. At the same time, the Madison Group, a nonprofit organization created to stand at arms-length from the college, will lease the space and administer other programming for the center while raising money for what Stoeber called "this world-class programming in a world-class building." Memberships are available, and the inaugural season package has a five-ticket-for-the-price-of-four deal.

The inaugural season offers evenings of song, dance, music and theater from a diverse group of artists, ranging from mezzo-soprano Von Stade on opening night (Oct. 11) to jazz artist Theo Bleckmann, cajun ensemble The Pine Leaf Boys and a cappella group Chanticleer, to dance companies such as Lulu Washington and Diavolo, musicians Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin, as well as conductor Kent Nagano leading soloists from the Montreal Symphony (for a full schedule of events go to www.TheBroadStage.com).

The first season, impressive as it is, is still somewhat of a "soft launch," as they call it in the Internet world. Given that the opening is about a year behind schedule, the artists for the first season needed a certain flexibility to accommodate the Broad Stage. As Franzen has noted, the first season performances "allow us to test how the room and our systems perform in staging music, oratory, song and drama." The second season is already being scheduled, and there is talk of including more ethnic dance and more family offerings. Hoffman has been working on theater offerings to launch next year.

To support the programming as well as arts education, Eli and Edythe Broad donated $10 million to create an endowment. At a press conference earlier this year to announce the gift, Broad proclaimed: "We have the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and now the Westside will have its own premier performing arts venue."

That the Broads have become our modern Medicis was not lost on Hoffman, who lauded them: "Without people like the Broads, we wouldn't have commissioned work of Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and so many of the great painters. How they use their capital is commendable."

Initially the Broads had urged that the theater be named after Hoffman, but they were ultimately persuaded otherwise. "Edye loves the theater" press materials quote Broad as saying, "and after 53 years of marriage, I wanted to honor her by naming the second space "The Edye.'"

As for Hoffman, during the planning of the Broad Stage, one of his suggestions was to have a restroom just off-stage for performers -- apparently his many years in the theater have taught him that such a contrivance would be invaluable. The restroom is now there, and Hoffman has asked that a plaque noting his contributions to the Broad Stage be placed there.

Something about that just tickles me. The Broads may have their names on the front of the building, but Hoffman has created his own rung on Rambam's ladder: the ironic acknowledgement.

The Broad Stage, as it goes forward, will no doubt evolve. As part of Santa Monica College and as part of the Santa Monica community, it has a rare opportunity to make its "global theater" locally relevant. The degree to which it becomes integral to the community and to Los Angeles as a whole will depend on both the quality and choice of the offerings, as well as its responsiveness to the audience. A task that poses as many questions as it does challenges.

For example, given that Emeritus College is also part of Santa Monica College, serving the senior community, will the Broad Stage create programs suited to senior schedules when the facility is otherwise not in use? Similarly, what about family programs? Will there be the equivalent of "early bird specials"? Weekend afternoon shows at family-friendly hours? Will they hew to the classic, or tilt to the new, or provide both? And how will the audience respond? (And who will they be?) All this remains to be seen.

For now, let us rejoice in the fall harvest of riches in Santa Monica: from newly opened restaurants, such as R+D Kitchen on Montana and Anisette just off the Third Street Promenade, to the forthcoming relocation of Santa Monica Seafood and the café and oyster bar they intend to open, to the imminent arrival of Diesel Bookstore in the Country Mart, and to this new starship that docked on 11th Street (with ample parking), ready to take all who enter on voyages of the heart, mind, soul and spirit.

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