February 1999. Another sunny day in L.A.s rainy season. A theater sits near the unassuming corner of 24th and Hoover - flanked on one side by $1 Nada Sobre $1 and on the other by a modest home, facing the unlikely pairing of Davidson Plumbing Since 1927 and Iglesia de Dios Rios de Agua Viva - the hub of something larger than itself.
Inside, actors are rehearsing for Eric Overmeyers On the Verge. Theater, film and television performer Wesley Mann is Nicky. Right arm akimbo, Mann perches on a piano and appraises one of the lady adventurers trekking across the plays surreal, uncharted realm - Terra Incognita.
It wasnt a map that brought you to me, he says. It was... he grins, seriocomic and ever-so-slightly cross-eyed, ...kismet.
Act I: Serendipity
Call it kismet, serendipity, synchronicity or what you like, the series of events that made 24th Street Theatre possible borders on meant-to-be.
Flash backward to an ordinary evening in 1995. Feydeaus Theres One in Every Marriage is playing at the Venice-based Pacific Resident Theatre. In the audience is translator and adapter Suzanne Grossmann, who wrote the English version of the farce for the troupe. With her is husband, Robert Scales, dean of the USC School of Theatre. A short notice in the program catches Scales eye. Impresario Jon White-Spunner and director/choreographer Stephanie Shroyer--then managing and artistic directors of the ensemble--are looking to move the group to a new location, the notice announces.
Scales, who has long been hoping for a professional theater company to enrich USCs neighborhood, feels certain that North University Park--with its proximity to downtown and its easy access from most points in L.A.--is the ideal site. He gives the two a call.
What follows that first meeting is a human version of connect-the-dots, with the present shape of the theater on 24th Street emerging from a number of sequential--and serendipitous--connections.
Scales first act was to introduce White-Spunner and Shroyer to USC alumna Anne-Merelie Murrell, a businesswoman and real estate entrepreneur who has renovated a number of properties in North University Park. Her first project was the Chateau Row apartments on Hoover Boulevard, which she bought in the mid-1980s to attract her grandchildren to her alma mater. One project quickly evolved into many and into a passion for the neighborhood. In the space of less than a decade, she had acquired not only a series of apartment buildings but also several commercial sites along Hoover, including the 1910 Union Theater, along with an adjoining parking lot and a warehouse across the street.
It was to this historic movie house, one of the first in Los Angeles, that Scales and Murrell escorted Shroyer and White-Spunner. But the buildings theater-style arrangement didnt fit with the partners vision of a community arts complex. The space wasnt open enough for nontraditional staging. It couldnt accommodate a variety of arts.
The dusty warehouse across the street, however, was perfect. A former garment factory that had once served as a stable and a garage, the 1924 building had been boarded up for several years. Rubbish lined its floor. It smelled. Yet its possibilities were palpable. Both White-Spunner and Shroyer felt a rash of goosebumps: not too big, not too small, this felt just right.
At approximately the same time, Debbie Devine and Jay McAdams--the acting-writing-directing-producing team behind the family-focused Glorious Repertory Company, then resident at West L.A.s Odyssey Theatre--approached Shroyer with a request to restage the movement in one of their shows, Frankenstein. Shroyer, in turn, asked the husband-and-wife team to partner with her and White-Spunner on their inchoate project.
Within a year, the non-profit 24th Street Theatre Company was incorporated, and plans were drawn for renovation and conversion of the old warehouse. Work on the façade and interior began in January 1997. Some of the funds came from a $30,000 USC Neighborhood Outreach grant--money donated by USC faculty and staff earmarked for university-community partnerships.
The new theater was soon humming with activity: a 16-week workshop for at-risk youth called Working Here; a USC School of Theatre guest production of Lanford Wilsons Burn This; and Glorious Repertorys original Music of Magadalena Bay, directed by Devine.
In October 1997, William Saroyans The Cave Dwellers--aptly about a ragtag group of people seeking refuge in an abandoned theater--opened 24th Street Theatres first full season.
A first-rate professional cast skillfully renders the most intricate nuances in Saroyans humanist call to arms, wrote Los Angeles Times critic Philip Brandes. The production made it into the newspapers Critics Choice column. The Cave Dwellers broke-even at the box office (a rare event in L.A. theater), and its run was extended twice.
That same fall, musicians Shaun Naidoo and Art Jarvinen joined 24th Street Theatre. White-Spunner had met Naidoo in Cape Town in 1986. A decade later both were coincidentally teaching at USC. When White-Spunner suggested to Naidoo that he start a music series, the composer teamed up with summer-residency colleague Jarvinen, a fellow composer and percussionist.
It was an opportunity too important and too meaningful to pass up, they say in a contrapuntal rush. Naidoo and Jarvinen promptly launched FaultLines, a series of new music concerts notable for their daring and variety.
Meanwhile, USC News Service photographer Irene Fertik had seen the exhibit of Don Bartlettis images of immigrant crossings in the lobby gallery. Inspired, she proposed an exhibit of her Light Catchers, a Cultural Affairs Department-funded show by and about seven African-American photographers working in Los Angeles in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Fertik has since become the lobby gallerys curator.
Act II: You Can Go Home Again
The way 24th Street Theatre finds its artists and partners is not so much by auditioning or interviewing as by connecting.
Its about open collaboration and relationships, says Shroyer, and so far, its been very exciting. She pauses, searching the theater--in mid-production disarray--for an apt metaphor. Its like, an elephant never forgets. Once youve been part of the company, you can always come back.
Gregg Daniels, who directed Oscar Wildes The Importance of Being Earnest in 1997, agrees. Its the artistic home for many, he says.
The many Daniels refers to--though they include established performers and creative professionals of every stripe as well as USC theater students and faculty members--are not necessarily people who describe themselves as artists. They are neighbors.
Family-oriented and tightly knit, the community surrounding the 24th Street Theatre is of modest means, but it isnt transient. Folks are chipping in--giving of their time, their energies, interweaving the theater into the fabric of their lives.
Everyone is making a commitment, says White-Spunner, dragging a trash bin to the curb, to making this a better place to be.
There are Valerie and Richard Noriega, who walk to the theater on Saturdays to help out. Theres Anthony White, a long-time resident informally dubbed the block mayor, who comes by occasionally. (He recently improvised a dramatic scene with the cast.) Theres Patsy Carter--owner of the Inn at 657, an elegant bed-and-breakfast on 23rd Street--who hosts receptions and cast parties. Theres a homeless man called Gary who sometimes earns tips playing the baby grand in the lobby and gallery. Theres twenty-something José Martinez--heavily tattooed and formerly of the Harpies gang--who stops in one winter day, when the afternoon begins its slide into evening, and introduces himself as someone from the Youth Department Project, working with the Vermont Avenue Elementary School kids. Hes lived here his whole life, he says, and hes determined to give these kids a better [one].
And then there are the kids. Young Victor Parra pops in for shows or rehearsals every chance he gets, and has appeared in several productions. Mario Larrazabal, a teenager living three streets down, was in The Cave Dwellers. The daughters of Armando Vicente, a tax accountant two doors west, have danced ballet folklorico at 24th. And 6th-grader Jeanine Guerrero, now a theater regular, has taken part in two of Glorious Repertorys workshop series for at-risk youth, Working Here and Ties That Bind. Not long ago, she performed in a FaultLines concert with three other kids, all of them accompanied by a quintet of master musicians. Four days later, she was working the concession stand before the Fiesta put on by Bob Bakers Marionette Theater.
We get to know our neighbors through their children, says White-Spunner, who has been frequenting neighborhood meetings and is a tireless champion of 24th Streets community-centered activities.
The theater is now building an audience through local youngsters, with help from the citys Cultural Affairs Department and numerous ties to USCs Family of Five Schools--32nd Street/USC Performing Arts Magnet, Foshay Learning Center, Nor-wood Street Elementary, Vermont Avenue Elementary and Leticia B. Weems Elementary.