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June 11, 2003

Community Spirit

From: Back Stage, NY - Jun 11, 2003

By Scott Proudfit

The NoHo Arts District is perhaps better known for its chip-on-the-shoulder self-promotion and its seemingly bottomless community coffers dedicated toward renovations than for what usually comes first: exciting work onstage. But between 5108 and 5112 Lankershim Boulevard there is in reality a hotbed of creativity that could one day seriously vie for the center of the L.A. theatrical universe. Here neighbors Deaf West Theatre and the Road Theatre Company have presented two of the most popular and professional productions ever to grace the 99-Seat theatre scene. Two years ago, Deaf West added depth--and deaf/ hearing cultural tension--to Roger Miller and William Hauptman's Big River, making it more interesting than the original and gaining the attention of Gordon Davidson, who transferred it to a hit run at the Mark Taper Forum. Deaf West is currently in rehearsals for a Broadway production of the show at the American Airlines Theatre, co-produced by Roundabout Theatre Company in association with the Taper.

It's a 99-Seat Cinderella story, only slightly exceeding the excitement over Road Theatre's current critically acclaimed, 10-month run of The Women in Black, which will celebrate its 100th performance at the group's Lankershim home on June 14. The spooky Stephen Mallatratt two-hander (with a ghostly assist) has been extended through July 20, with its original cast intact, and has stepped up to an Actors' Equity Small Professional Contract, the Road's first.

It's double reason to celebrate and perhaps to wonder if there's something special about this NoHo block. Company Rep should hope so. That group will soon be moving into Deaf West's dark house for a two-year residency. But first, in a bit of brotherly support, Road will open its latest show, The Seventh Monarch, at its neighbor's theatre the same night Woman in Black celebrates its centennial.

Clearly, despite the theatre world's particularly famous brand of schadenfreude, success for one can mean success for all--at least on this local corner. Deaf West's associate producing director Suzanne Tara concurred, "Ideally there is a trickle down. We had this wonderful experience of being able to go to the Mark Taper Forum because of their generosity and the vision of Gordon Davidson. That led us to New York. And with the Road being as successful as they are, it seemed the right thing to do to say, 'Come to our space. We'll make it affordable for you to do so. You can succeed and make money because we've had that done for us.' We're planting seeds, little theatrical seeds, and we'll see what we sow."

This will be the first time Road has two simultaneous "mainstage" shows running, a LORT-type expansion in terms of personnel and finances that seems to fit the ambitious group like a glove. Artistic director Taylor Gilbert described the unique situation--credited to Woman's overwhelming success--as "a morale boost" for her company, and she has similarly high hopes for the future. "A goal of ours in the next few years is to find additional spaces that we can produce from and to possibly take a show that has run in NoHo and run in somewhere on the Westside," she said, "so we are able to pursue other audiences."

Gilbert is directing The Seventh Monarch, a poetic psychological drama by Jim Henry, who authored one of the Road's biggest hits, The Angels of Lemnos in '99. However, she sees no reason why Woman in Black can't run indefinitely. The Road is even considering an offer to transfer the production to the Queen Mary.

Meanwhile, Deaf West hasn't completely turned its attention to the Great White Way. Company Rep will take a break for one show during each of its two seasons at Deaf West so that group can keep its hand in. Said Tara, "We are anticipating a production in spring 2004. We hope it will be a world premiere. We have commissioned an author to write a piece for us, and it has a storyline concerning deaf actors. It's a small cast and a straight play. And then we will also have our Summer Conservatory in July 2004. We'll find a way to make that work in the space. And then in 2005 we will again most likely have a spring production; we're hoping for another musical." Moreover, Deaf West plans to collaborate with its tenant, Company Rep, in the development of a children's theatre program.

Meanwhile, Tara is clearing out the Deaf West stash of awards in the box office window to make space for the Road's own collection. And though Deaf West is days away from getting a new $50,000 marquee--a flashy bit of further branding--she doubts the rental situation will prove too confusing for the theatres' patrons. "This is the first time we've rented," said Tara, "so I had concerns for conserving the integrity of our space and bringing good people in that know theatre and live theatre and would respect the space. I think it's easier for the community to make the adjustment to having one theatre company in here rather than a bunch of different rentals."

And Tara loves that her space is not sitting dormant: "It's very nice to hear rehearsals going on, to have the space being used. And to see a set being loaded in. It's a lot of really positive creative energy."

The next tenant in line, Company Rep, which has bounced from the El Portal to its current home at the American Renegade Theatre, will no doubt add to the bustle of life at Deaf West and benefit from the association with these two powerhouses, as well. But that's the advantage of community spirit.

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