Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, presented by The Colony Theatre Company, continues Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 and 7 pm; through May 9. Tickets: $37-$42. Colony Theatre, 555 W. Third St., Burbank; 818.558.7000, ext. 15, or colonytheatre.org.
Thirty-five years ago Barbara Beckley was a leading actress (please don’t call her an “actor”) with the newly formed Colony Studio Theatre where, in 1981, she received an LA Drama Critics Circle Award for her leading performance as an ex-con in Marsha Norman’s Getting Out, with fellow company member Robert O’Reilly directing. Soon, through enormous volunteering effort she turned herself into the indispensable right-hand to founding artistic director Terrence Shank while the theatre grew to Equity-waiver prominence in its less-than-ideal Silver Lake setting. When Shank gave up the reins after the ninth season, the organization fell into her lap.
Beckley recalls, “The word out there was the company would not survive for six months without Terrence. That made me mad. I honestly thought I would keep it going for just a few years. I am an actress; I didn’t want to be a producer. Then I had an epiphany. We thought it would be cool to model ourselves on Louisville Humana Festival, the granddaddy of all new works festivals, and do a new play series. We started looking for new plays.Â At our level we didn’t get the cream of the crop but there were a few we thought we could make work.”
The play Bearcat by Bob Wilson, also directed by O’Reilly, became the catalyst for Beckley’s commitment to her new life as producer and artistic director.
“Opening night there was a full house,” she continues. “I was stage managing, sitting back in the dark in the booth calling the cues. During the first act it was so weird: they were laughing and getting it – it was working! I was amazed. During intermission in the lobby people were talking about the play. Then in the second act, where it turned serious, I heard this sound that is the most beautiful sound you can ever hear in the theatre – silence you could cut with a knife. This means they have stopped breathing they are so thoroughly engaged.
“At the end I called the last cue and they burst into applause. They started cheering, then the cheers grew and the leading actor came out and he was smiling. He was so happy. Then I realized sitting there in the absolute darkness and anonymity of the booth, no one knew what I had done on the show or my contribution but I felt exactly the same way. I had this thought, ‘How many people go their entire lives without feeling the way I do at this moment?’ That’s when I decided I would take the reins and see what I could do – it happened all in a moment. I got more joy in putting the elements together and watching it meet the audience than I got standing on the stage.”
So Beckley stayed in the Artistic Director’s chair for 15 years in Silver Lake then under her leadership the theatre multiplied threefold to a mid-size theatre in Burbank. While the theatre was in transition Beckley received an Ovation Award in 1999 for “Leadership in Los Angeles Theatre.” During the next decade the Colony has survived economic hardship, enormous changes in the structure and artistic vision of the company.
Beckley has remained upbeat through both the joys of the organization’s development and its occasionally unbearable growing pains. She says, “I find it unbelievably amazing we are celebrating our tenth year in Burbank. At the same time I am thinking back to what the world was like when we got here in 2000. Everything changed in 2001 when 9/11 happened. In the theatre I noticed for quite some time there was a dramatic drop in attendance. It seemed to coincide with the rise of home entertainment centers and a kind of nesting instinct that took over, where people started gathering their loved ones around them. I read in the New York Times the top 10 most in-demand jobs this year didn’t exist in 2004. The way the world has changed has had an enormous impact.”
Part of that change in the theatre world has been a dramatic shift in publicity and press coverage.Â She explains, “Now everyone is out there blogging so reviews by audience members hit within an hour of final curtain on opening night. You combine that with the tremendous cut back in print and you find the influence of the experienced professional critic has declined dramatically. A good review in the Daily News used to make the phone ring. It doesn’t even cover theatre now. When we became a mid-sized Equity theatre we automatically jumped to feature reviews in the LA Times Calendar, sometimes on the front page. That no longer exists. We’re a few paragraphs in Theatre Beat. For us it becomes word of mouth and e-newsletters.”
In addition to the lack of reliable press, the company has been forced by economics to move away from the enormous shows that would be joyously squeezed into the 99-seat Silver Lake space. No longer can the Colony provide roles for a large resident company. “It has become much more difficult. We still do plays we love but it is harder because we are so limited. No Grand Hotels, we can’t even do a revival of The Laramie Project with eight actors! That’s now a big cast.
“The difference in producing at this level is that once you get into a union contract situation you are subject to all the state and federal laws regulating employment. Our very first Equity contract was in fact minimum wage but it was $240 a week. On top of which we pay $120 for each actor’s health plan and 8 Â½ percent pension plus workers comp – and actors are in a very high workers comp category in state law. Add to that all the payroll taxes.”
The financial realities and the need to fill a much larger house also changed the status of the once very large resident company that manned the Silver Lake theatre. Beckley sadly explains, “At first I honestly thought we could just take what we were putting on our Silver Lake stage and put it on in Burbank in a theatre three times the size and it would still work. But then I noticed that first year or so our shows weren’t landing the way they had before. It gradually dawned on me some things needed to change and it was a very painful lesson.
“Then with paying Equity wages and running a much larger space, we ran into financial challenges and had to cut down cast sizes. When you only have four people on the stage each one has to be absolutely dead on. That doesn’t always work with a resident company where sometimes you’re casting actors in roles they might not be totally right for. I had to do what I believed was best for the theatre but it was a very hard transition and through the process I know some people got hurt which still pains me to this day.”
Nevertheless Beckley is determined that the Colony Studio Theatre continues to be one of Los Angeles’ few successful mid-sized theatre companies. “Right now given the economy our goal is to survive. I have been doing this a long time and there have been ups and downs – I know we’ll get through this. My goal right now is to be one of the ones left standing.”
So what keeps her going? “That story I told you about my epiphany – it happens as often as not.Â Not quite in the same way because that was the first time. Any artist of any kind can relate.Â There is nothing like the joy that happens when it works. When it doesn’t work it is agony and more than anything I want to go find another profession. But when I am up in the office during a comedy and hear the laughter, it is so exhilarating. Then to hear the silence during a serious play, the cheers at the end, and to have people come out talking about the play. You look at their faces and they have been transformed. That thing we just did gave them something really valuable they could take away.
“What we do is really hard. It is hard to get it right. I always feel that if by the time they get to their cars they are talking about what they are doing tomorrow, then we have kind of failed. It’s not worth it. But when they do have that transformational experience and come out having something change for them in a very fundamental way, that is the purpose of art. What can we do that has the potential to create that experience for the audience?Â It really comes down to that.”
Then she adds with a sigh and a smile, “Of course, not to be so completely pure we also have to think about what we can sell.” Right now she is excited to sell tickets to Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s hugely popular 1968 musical based on Brel’s songs that has not been seen in Los Angeles for some years. About this production, the LA Times review by F. Kathleen Foley said, “Jon Lawrence Rivera’s bold staging features a dream quartet that makes Brel’s timeless music a gift.” For the record, it appeared by itself in the Thursday edition after opening, then landed in the paper’s Critics Choices. When last checked, the show was selling standing room for some performances.
Colony Executive Director Trent Steelman says practically, “Every review has been terrific. Brel will be one of our highest grossing shows.” It is boosting the morale of the Colony staff and bodes a promising start to the 36th season.
It begins with Grace & Glorie (June 12-July 18), a comedy by Tom Ziegler about love, loss and the search for meaning in all our lives. Playing the illiterate 90-year-old Grace is Beth Grant with Melinda Page Hamilton as Glorie, a hospice caregiver. Cameron Watson, who helmed the Colony’s award-winning Trying, will direct.
Following will be the West Coast premiere of Free Man of Color (Aug. 14-Sept. 12), a true story by Charles Smith about John Newton Templeton, one of the first freed slaves to graduate from an American university. It will be directed by Dan Bonnell.
John van Druten’s ’50s classic Bell, Book and Candle will be the fall offering (Oct. 23-Nov. 21). It centers on a beautiful witch living in New York City and will be the first Colony production directed by the award-winning Richard Israel.
In 2011, Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias (Feb. 5-March 6) will bring back Hollywood 1939 when famed producer David O. Selznick is three weeks into filming his latest historical epic Gone With the Wind when he pulls in script doctor Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming to craft a screenplay for one of the most successful films of all time. Andrew Barnicle will reprise the directorial chores he did for the Laguna Playhouse production.
Husband-wife team Paul Kreppel and Murphy Cross will direct The All Night Strut! (April 2-May 1), conceived by Fran Charnas. This sassy musical centers on the Depression, World War II and the postwar boom with songs by such legendary composers as Hoagy Carmichael, Frank Loesser, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Cab Calloway and George Gershwin.
All vital signs appear for the Colony to continue living, alive and well, in Burbank.
Story image of Brel by Michael Lamont. Opening Night photo by Rick Bernstein. Article by Tom Provenzano.