Have you driven the Ford lately?

Photos from the Ford Theatre website

An important LA venue is waiting in the wings. If it's built, it could become the most important new theater/dance-specific venue in LA since the construction of LATC three decades ago.

It's a 299-seat theater that would be part of a building that would replace the current south parking lot at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, overlooking the Cahuenga Pass in Hollywood.

Its most exciting feature is that it wouldn't be designed as the home of one particular company. It would be designed to serve as a steppingstone for a variety of smaller LA companies - theater and dance -- as they try to produce more ambitious, attention-getting shows, with more compensation for the artists.

This isn't a mere gleam in the eye of Laura Zucker, the executive director of the LA County Arts Commission, which operates the Ford. It's part of a proposed comprehensive upgrade of the Ford that already is the subject of an environmental impact statement, which is open to public scrutiny. But most of the money for the upgrade hasn't been approved.

I spent some time reading parts of that environmental impact statement, which makes a strong case that the project would respect the public park where it would be located. It would add a hiking trail behind the amphitheatre, but its new buildings (including increased parking) would arise only on already developed land. The statement analyzes concerns about earthquakes, traffic, noise, gnatcatchers and other subjects related to the area's physical environment in exhausting detail. It concludes that the impact of the project in these areas would be "less than significant" - in other words, it would be safe and green by most people's standards.

But the EIR doesn't address the impact that this project might have on LA's theatrical ecology. There, it could be "a game changer," Zucker says.


For decades, too much of LA County theater has been barely noticed because it's mired in the stratum of sub-100-seat theaters, where the size of the audience is inherently small and most of the talent receives only paltry fees. Zucker and her husband, actor Allan Miller, used to run one such theater, the Back Alley in Van Nuys.

Meanwhile, a handful of larger companies (Center Theatre Group, Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse, La Mirada Theatre, Musical Theatre West) and a few midsize groups (Shakespeare Center, Theatricum Botanicum, Falcon) receive much of the available institutional support from public and private sources.

In the last three decades, several once-smaller companies (LATC, Colony, East West, International City, A Noise Within, Independent Shakespeare) climbed out of the 99-seat arena into midsize venues with more appropriate compensation levels. But upon successfully completing that time-consuming and difficult process, most of their leaders haven't been eager to share their hard-won spaces with smaller companies on any regular basis, nor have they often shopped in LA's smaller theaters for productions that might move up the ladder.

According to Zucker, the 299-seater at the Ford would be intended specifically to move some of the city's better smaller productions to a position of greater prominence and endowment. Yet it would accomplish this goal without seriously reducing the intimacy that audiences usually expect in a sub-100-seat space.

The process of picking the spotlighted productions would generally follow in the footsteps of the process that previously allowed selected smaller companies - usually without any permanent homes of their own - to use the 87-seat [Inside] the Ford venue, which is located under the main Ford Amphitheatre. But that program - while appreciated by the recipients - didn't give those productions even half the attention they might have received at the 299-seat level.

Under the proposed upgrade of the complex, the current [Inside] the Ford would be converted into a self-service market for picnickers on the adjacent Edison Plaza (plus, perhaps, a small rehearsal facility), while its functions as a sub-100-seat venue would move to a new black-box space that would be included within a building that would arise on the north side of the Ford.

Back on the south side of the property, the new building that includes the 299-seat space would also feature a restaurant, several levels of parking and a park-like plaza on top.

Are you licking your chops yet, theater fans?

Of course there is that nagging question of how to pay for it. Zucker estimates that the entire upgrade could cost $130 million, of which $27.5 million has already been authorized by the county for ongoing improvements in the Ford amphitheater itself.

"We're not planning to go to the board for the whole enchilada," Zucker says. "We're planning to break it up into pieces over time." And surely no one would object to a private offer to pay for parts of the project. There's a reason why we remember the names Taper and Ahmanson so readily - they were donors whose names are now planted on other county-owned theaters.

The 299-seat theater should be considered an essential piece of this package, not a frill that could be delayed interminably. Unlike, say, the new restaurant or the parking garages or the hiking trail, it would fill a need that isn't currently being met anywhere else in the county.

It's important that theater lovers throughout the county make clear how important this project would be to the health of LA theater. Right now, it's especially essential to make sure that Sheila Kuehl and Bobby Shriver, the two candidates for the job of county supervisor in the district in which the Ford is located, are well aware of what's going on.

Kuehl apparently is already a believer in the proposal. On her website, she explicitly promises to "propose a funding program to implement the completion of the master plan for the Ford Amphitheatre, including new parking garages, a 299 seat theater, a restaurant and hiking trail. Funding must also include ongoing maintenance."

But Shriver doesn't specifically mention the Ford in a long statement about "the arts" on his website. He notes, however, that "the Supervisor for the Third District has traditionally led in building and maintaining our cultural infrastructure; I will continue that tradition." I'd feel a little more confident about that pledge if it were followed by a sentence that included the words "Ford" and "299-seat." Care to step up to the plate, Mr. Shriver?

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