Taking Center Stage: Downtown San Pedro’s Theatre Renaissance

(left to right) James Blackman (San Pedro Theatre Club, seated), Summer Cacciagioni (Encore Entertainers), Aaron Ganz & Paris Langle (TE San Pedro Rep) (photo by John Mattera)

As downtown San Pedro forges a path to reinvent itself, there’s been a quiet and unexpected renaissance along the way that is fitting for a district whose crown jewel is a landmark art deco theatre. In the past two years, four theatre companies have moved into downtown San Pedro – two in the past five months. Their range of casts and productions means downtown seems to be shaping itself as a unique performing arts district.

“I think these markets are all very shareable and each theatre has a unique experience. Right now they’re in perfect concert with each other,” says James Blackman, former director of the award winning Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities. After the company moved to the Warner Grand Theatre last year and went under not long after, he was considering throwing in the towel.

“I was eating at Niko’s late one night and I could hear “La Vie en Rose” playing on a Victrola up the street, so I walked up and saw people tangoing inside a storefront and thought, ‘There’s no other place in Los Angeles where you’ll find people dressed up tangoing this late on a Tuesday night.’ It was so beautiful. I thought, ‘I want to be part of a town that has this.’”

Blackman decided to stay and start over, building a theatre in a 1920s high-ceiling former department store space on Pacific Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets he named the San Pedro Theatre Club.

The lobby of the San Pedro Theatre Club.

Stepping into the lobby feels a bit like walking into a backstage area with rotating sets. The glimmer of the stage’s backdrop reveals an intimate venue with art deco touches and 78 high-back movie theatre seats.

“We’re trying to champion kind of an old form which is the old nightclubs of the 1920s and 1930s,” he says.

The theatre had its soft opening, a concert by jazz singer Windy Barnes, on First Thursday in August, and had its official premiere in September with the musical comedy, We Will Survive. Last month, it screened films in the second annual San Pedro International Film Festival.

The San Pedro Theatre Club recently held auditions for upcoming plays and musicals, and Blackman plans to have comedy nights, concerts and movie series as well. He says more than 1,500 of his Civic Light Opera subscribers are finishing out their season at the theatre club. When he gives them directions to San Pedro, he tells them to use the “guest entrance.”

“I say we have a service entrance and a guest entrance, and when I describe the route to them, I say, ‘Get off on Harbor Blvd. and you’ll see the San Francisco style bridge, then you’ll probably see passenger ships and the Bellagio-style water fountain and as you turn the corner, follow the row of lit palm trees all the way down to where the Red Car runs past the USS Iowa. Just before you get to the Maritime Museum, turn up 5th, 6th or 7th Street and go past the art galleries and specialty restaurants,’” he says. “It’s a sub narrative that sells the city as a destination, and sure enough, they’ll want to plan an entire day here.”

Blackman thinks San Pedro is on the cusp of an artistic revival that could make it Los Angeles’ newest arts destination.

“As native Angelenos, we go, ‘Let’s go check that out.’ We go to the new place. There are millions of us here and we look for day trips,” he says. “We go to someone else’s environment to enjoy an entire day and that’s an economy that is more than possible to bring in here.”

A few blocks over on 7th and Centre Streets, an acting school and small theatre company has turned a former doctor’s office into an intimate theatre space.

“San Pedro is everything I could’ve wanted in a potential home for a theatre company, there’s something about this rawness here,” says Aaron Ganz, artistic director of the TE San Pedro Rep, which moved to San Pedro in June after two seasons in La Crescenta as Theatrum Elysium.

The TE San Pedro Rep Team (left to right): Managing Director Chris Lang, Artistic Director Ganz, Communications Director Langle, Resident Designer Tamara Becker, Technical Director Richard Dominguez (photo by John Mattera).

The space features exposed red brick and wooden trusses, as well as a theatre library that is open to the public. Since moving in over the summer, San Pedro Rep has held acting classes and rehearsed its first upcoming production in its new home: Hamlet, which opens this First Thursday, Nov. 7.

“As a professional company, we choose works that have incredible meaning challenging the human experience. Everything explores the DNA of what it is to be a human being in the world,” Ganz says, adding that every seat in the tiny theatre is a front row seat. “We have a group of professional artists training around the clock, and we’re developing artists who are unabashed of sharing their soul.”

Tickets for the First Thursday debut of Hamlet will be pay-what-you-can, and regular ticket prices aren’t more than $25. “I don’t think theatres should just be for people who have money, and unfortunately that happens,” Ganz says.

Classes at the acting conservatory max out at 10 students, and the public is welcome to sit in on production rehearsals.

“When I came to Los Angeles, I was shocked to see what a big business acting classes were. We have small classes that allows us to really get to know and nurture our actors’ spirit,” Ganz says. “It’s great to have this community that has so much potential and is betting on the arts.”

San Pedro Rep is just around the corner from downtown San Pedro’s oldest running theatre company: Little Fish Theatre.

“I think it’s exciting to see all these theatres coming into downtown,“ says Lisa Coffi, who founded the theatre in 2002 after the success of Shakespeare by the Sea, which she started in 1998. When she opened Little Fish Theatre, downtown San Pedro was a much different place. “It was a spot that needed something open past 8 o’clock besides bars,” she says. “I felt it was right for theatre.”

Little Fish puts on 11 productions a year and is still thriving at almost 80 percent capacity, and most of its audience comes from the South Bay. Its next production, Every Christmas Story Ever Told and Then Some, opens Nov. 8.

“It’s a fast and furious mélange of Christmas stories performed by a three-member cast. There’s A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas – it’s like a campy abridged book of Christmas stories,” Coffi says.

Downtown San Pedro has also experienced a surge in youth theatre. Encore Entertainers, a Torrance-based all-ages theatre company, will open its seventh production at the Warner Grand Theatre, Peter Pan, on Jan. 10.

Encore Entertainers' production of Oliver!

“We’re starting season tickets this year and that is largely due to the tremendous support we’ve had in San Pedro,” says artistic director Summer Cacciagioni. “We’ve sold more tickets in San Pedro for a first show than most of our shows in Torrance and Redondo Beach, so the support has been tremendous; we love it.”

Encore will bring in a professional flying company for Peter Pan that will lift Peter and Wendy 15 to 20 feet in the air. Auditions for Encore’s spring production of Shrek: the Musical will take place in February or March

Cacciagioni, who has directed more then 60 productions, says the company offers opportunities for families and youth in a time when the arts are being cut from schools. “We’re the only group I know of that has all ages where families can perform together,” she says. “Thirty percent of our students receive some form of scholarship or financial assistance; we don’t ever want to turn anyone away due to a financial situation.”

Encore will have its annual fundraising gala on Nov. 10 at the Torrance Marriot, which will be hosted by Redondo Beach Mayor Steve Aspel.

“Most of our students won’t grow up and become professional actors, but we care about teaching them skills to become accountable, responsible, passionate people,” Cacciagioni says. “Especially with the Internet, the next generation of kids is being robbed of a lot of basic communication skills, and I feel like theatre is even more important than ever for them to learn those skills.”

San Pedro’s Scalawag Productions has put on three musicals at the Warner Grand Theatre since its founding in 2011. The company trains teens and young adults ages 14 to 22 for musicals. “Our high school and college kids want to perform, and there wasn’t a program for them,” says Scalawag Productions co-producer Gale Kadota.

The cast trains under a team of music, dance and theatre professionals for one musical production each summer. “We try to keep it as close to a Broadway experience as possible, and the casts are usually 35 to 40 members tops,” she says. “We believe they’re able to receive much better instruction in a smaller group rather than throwing 100 kids on stage.”

After performing Fame over the summer, the company is putting on a few fundraisers including a screening of White Christmas at the Warner Grand Theatre on Dec. 7. Auditions for next summer’s Guys and Dolls will take place in February.

Kadota thinks the theatre renaissance in downtown is much needed. “The whole idea with Scalawag was not only to have a home for kids, but to get downtown San Pedro active with theatre. We just need to keep bringing in productions and keep it alive.” spt

For more information and tickets, visit www.thesanpedrotheatreclub.com, www.sanpedrorep.org, www.littlefishtheatre.org, www.encoreentertainers.org and www.scalawagproductionco.org.

The Play’s The Thing

While the citizens of this country are pondering who will get their vote in the Big Election of 2012, here at Little Fish we’re pondering what plays will win a place on our 2013 schedule.

Just as in politics, the selection process is not an easy one. Will it be the popular choice or the nominee who can change the world (even if no one wants the world changed)? Ultimately, the buck stops at the desk of Lisa Coffi, Producing Artistic Director of Little Fish. She makes the final decisions. And she would like you to know it’s not easy.

It starts with, well, nothing. Lisa has to come up with a list of candidates. Some comedies. Some dramas. It’s always good to have some familiar titles, including a classic piece with instant name recognition. (In 2013, you’ll recognize one whose initials are S.M., and that’s all I’m gonna say.) It’s also good to include some shows that no one has ever heard of to bring some new ideas into the mix.

She has to find plays that are well written, and that she thinks our patrons will enjoy. She doesn’t have professional pollsters to help; she has to try to read the minds of her constituency to know what they will vote for with their theater-going dollars. Are they tired of Southern accents yet? Do they want to see plays with aliens in them? But she also has to pick plays that spark the creativity of our company members so they don’t defect and change their affiliation. And no one wants to hear the same old thing over and over again, so she has to consider if the work as been done recently in the Los Angeles area.

Our political parties have primaries and conventions to give folks a chance to express their opinions. Lisa gets suggestions and comments and a whole lot of opinions from other Little Fish company members. Sometimes the only solution is to get everyone in the same room and fight it out.

Then there’s what you would expect to be the boring part of securing the rights to produce the plays. Let’s just say it’s a bit more complicated than “pay to play.” Some handlers just don’t want their candidate on our slate. We usually need to publish our season before we get the rights to everything on our schedule, and that’s why sometimes there are changes after the season starts (think of them as broken campaign promises “beyond our control”).

If you want to find out which candidates made the cut and won a place in our 2013 season, you’ll need to come to our Annual Season Unveiling and Fundraising Party. This year’s party will be held at Little Fish Theatre on Saturday, November 3 from 5-9 p.m. In the past, we’ve held the party offsite, but by inviting folks to our special little space, we can offer treats like backstage tours.

And, of course, you’ll have a chance to give us your vote of confidence and purchase season tickets for our 2013 season! It’s going to be great – we would never lie to you. And if you’re reading this after November 3, you can just go to our website at littlefishtheatre.org to read about our 2013 season and buy tickets. spt