If the whole organization can be described as devoted to family theater, then Devine and McAdams are its resident fanatics. Working in arts education long before it was in vogue, they have a calling “to elevate the level of children’s theater,” as Devine puts it, “to be a catalyst for change” by courting artists (the intense Jude Narita and controversial Danny Hoch, to name two) who don’t usually “do kid stuff.” The result? They put on shows that engage people ages 8 and up--way up.
One of the more recent examples: The Nightingale and the Rose, a play examining race and class adapted from Oscar Wilde’s classic tale. The show played to 1,500 schoolchildren as well as to packed houses of adults.
Devine and McAdams bridge gaps with their teaching, too. Both are California Arts Council Artists and have been conducting drama classes at Norwood Elementary every Monday for two years. They address through theater arts the tough issues urban kids face, providing an immediate outlet for emotions and imaginations.
“We are keeping the doors open,” says McAdams, pointing to the open carriage doors. “This [theater] belongs to them,” Devine adds.
In that spirit, the 24th Street Theatre has a continual pay-as-you-can policy. “It’s more important to get people in here than to get their money,” White-Spunner explains.
The theater’s doors have been open their widest with the Glorious Reper-tory’s 1998-99 “Saturday Explorer Series.” Underwritten by another USC Neighborhood Outreach grant, the series presents a wide variety of free Saturday afternoon performances for youth and their families.
McAdams, in the character of a salt-seasoned captain who opens each installment of the series, urges his reluctant first mate (and the audience) to push on toward the unknown island--a metaphor for art.
“A true explorer has to more than set his eyes on it,” the captain says. “He has to set his foot on it, too. Once you find it, discover it, no one can take it away from you, boy. It’s yours! Yours to keep forever.”
The kids are discovering the theater in droves. And when the kids come, their parents follow. Quite a few stay.
Perhaps no one exemplifies parental in-volvement as well as Jeanine Guerrero’s mom, Juany Molina. She has lived in the area for 30 years and remembers the building’s garment-factory and boarded-up days. Molina, a Parent Center coordinator at Norwood Ele-mentary, was first drawn to 24th Street by her daughter’s interest. Now a regular as well, she perambulates the lobby floor on a Saturday, passing out brochures along with smiles.
Molina stops, placid amid balloons and Oreos. “We are very lucky to have this here,” she says. Her hands draw a gentle arc in the space around her. “We don’t feel strange in this place. We feel at home.”

Act III: A Capacious Space
Characterized over and over again by the words “home” and “open,” the theater has a lived-in and welcoming feel. Even as it adds new stories and, quite literally, new layers to its walls, it preserves its history. The paint on the exposed roof beams has been deliberately left peeled and peeling. The old industrial lights still watch over laborers, though now they’re set designers and costumers rather than seamstresses. The bricks remain.
What really stands out about 24th Street Theatre, however, is the sheer space and its capacity for change. Its 99 seats (auditorium chairs donated by the USC School of Den-tistry) are set up to be dismantled. With enough hands, the theater can be rearranged in 20 minutes from in-the-round to proscenium or thrust. So far, no two productions have been staged alike.
Shroyer’s artistic vision of “an environmental, audience-participatory” theater is fulfilled by the malleable configuration. There are more than 150 theaters in L.A., she points out, but few have this sort of flexibility.
“Our sets are inspired by the architecture,” she says. “We try to use all the corners, so we have [actors] entering through the audience, getting into the audience.”

To actors and the public alike
, the theater is indeed open--physically as well as temperamentally. Whether presenting lost works, re-interpreting established ones in a new light or renting the space to new plays, the theater is developing a repertoire that, in the words of its mission statement, “does not in a conventional way repeat what is already known, but extends and illuminates.”
Every facet of 24th Street reflects this unbound philosophy. Music presen-ters Jar-vinen and Naidoo--who are not interested, they say, in “a predict-able aesthetic profile”--define FaultLines’ “new music” in the broadest sense to include jazz, classical, folkloric and experimental genres. They double-book acts that don’t usually have overlapping audiences because, says Naidoo, “it’s an im-poverishing thing for music as a whole for lines to be drawn.”
Gallery curator Fertik, too, remarks on the freedom. She speaks--with evident gratitude --of “a chance to stretch” and of “giving a number of different photographers exposure.”
The goal, White-Spunner sums up, is not “about what I like but, as best possible, about serving the needs of the different arts.”

Act IV: The 100th Seat
Without a single full-time or paid staff member and with zero dollars to start, the theater has managed to break-even in its last two seasons--due largely to support from the community, USC’s Neighborhood Outreach program and the city’s Cultural Affairs Department. Of the eight major applications the theater has made for grants, it has received each one.
But White-Spunner isn’t taking success for granted. “Getting it open was easy compared to running it,” he laughs, his face cracking into equal parts earnestness and irony. “There are expectations now, and we have to meet them.”
The theater needs to grow and spread in the space, he explains. In the next two years, the company will focus on applying for more grants, building on the existing infrastructure, and finding a way to hire a staff rather than relying solely on volunteers.
Currently, the 24th Street Theatre has a 99-seat capacity--the largest size permitted by L.A. Actors’ Equity rules for venues paying actors the $5-per-performance minimum. But White-Spunner has high hopes for the theater--more seats and more people filling them. He dreams of a more active arts community in the neighborhood--maybe a bookshop and café nearby. He envisions the theater becoming a stop on USC’s tram route. And a stop on the touring schedule of international performance companies.
“I want this to be a place that’s not only L.A.-centric,” he says.
L.A.-centric? Con-centric is more like it.
The 24th Street Theatre--just south of Interstate 10 and in a neighborhood too often overlooked--is at the center of something larger than itself.


Who’s Who in the Cast

Jon White-Spunner. Longtime director of the renowned Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, White-Spunner moved to the United States after marrying Lydia Hannibal, an American actress he’d met in 1989 while touring with You Strike the Woman, You Strike the Rock. His accent a fluid mix of Irish, Zimbabwean, South African and, now, American, White-Spunner is plain-spoken and describes his role as one of “offering new experiences and possibilities.” When he isn’t at 24th Street, he’s at the USC School of Theatre, where he works as a theater administrator and an adjunct assistant professor.

Stephanie Shroyer. A choreographer and two-time Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award-winning director, Shroyer is the former artistic director of the Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble, where productions under her tenure garnered 48 awards and nominations. There’s something deeply serious about Shroyer, a concentration that proclaims her belief in the importance of drama. Like White-Spunner, she too is an adjunct assistant professor at the USC School of Theatre, teaching acting, directing and movement. Shroyer directs at least one USC School of Theatre production a year.

Debbie Devine. A 20-odd-year veteran of the stage, Devine is president of the Board of Women in Theatre and the founder of Glorious Repertory Company. The troupe, composed of half-a-dozen core members and co-directed by husband Jay McAdams, has been at the forefront of L.A.’s family theater since 1987. The group writes, directs and produces shows for audiences 8 to 108. A native Angeleno, Devine has an unwavering passion for every aspect of youth theater. Her robust voice sometimes cracks mid-register or mid-delight as she says, without a trace of irony or schmaltz, “we are the lucky ones. It’s a gift to share theater art.”

Jay McAdams. A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, McAdams had a recurrent role on NBC’s soap “Days of Our Lives.” As a playwright and producer, he has five critically acclaimed plays to his credit, among them Glorious Repertory’s The Snow Maiden, which ran for several holiday seasons at the Odyssey Theater. Wiry, coiled with energy, McAdams mimes what youth theater shouldn’t be — inane animal caricatures — as his hands dance above his head on the fulcrum of his wrists: rabbit’s ears despite their human shape.

Art Jarvinen. CalArts graduate and teacher, percussionist, composer, “physical poet” and cook, Jarvinen owns and operates a contemporary music publishing company, Leisure Planet Music. A founding member of the California EAR Unit — since 1987 the ensemble-in-residence at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — Jarvinen has also started the innovative Some Over History, a group that performs Jarvinen’s “junkyard classical” compositions and records on O.O. Discs. Despite his all-black garb, Jarvinen has a sudden bubble of a laugh. He says he named 24th Street Theatre’s music series FaultLines because “there are fissures in the music community, fragments. We want to shake the ground and get some of those fragments to tumble into each other.”

Shaun Naidoo. Composer of what Jarvinen describes as “high-maintenance” music — requiring virtuoso musicians and extensive equipment — Naidoo’s work was recently featured in the Los Angeles Philharmonic-sponsored “Green Umbrella Series” at the Japan America Theater. In the fall, his most recent composition, “Bad Times Coming,” will receive its East Coast premiere at the New World Symphony in Miami, Fla. A recording will follow on the CRI label. Naidoo, DMA ’94, is a part-time lecturer at the USC School of Music. His sad face belies an activist’s spirit. “You have to care about the state of what you do, where you live,” he affirms.

Irene Fertik. Staff photographer at the Burlington Free Press for six years, Fertik is now senior photographer at the USC News Service and a member of the Arroyo Arts Collective. She has exhibited her “Homecoming: Ethiopian Jews in Israel” show in the U.N.’s Palais de Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Since photographing A. Phillip Randolph — famed organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — she has made it her mission “to document the black experience in this country.” A child of the ’60s and the daughter of an actor father and a playwright mother, Fertik says she “feel[s] at home in the theater.”


 

 

 


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Photography by Catherine Ledner

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