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.

Our Creative Corridor to a Stronger Economy

Last spring, on a local campaign stop, Mayor Eric Garcetti was asked for ideas on boosting San Pedro’s economy. He cited the usual harbor-related stuff you’d expect, but then he added another point that pleasantly surprised me; make San Pedro one of the creative corridors that exist in Los Angeles.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. According to the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Business Policy – “The creative industries are a major player in the regional economy, generating more than 640,000 jobs and over $200 billion in annual sales revenue.” Being creative is big business in L.A. and San Pedro has many of the necessary elements to be poised for making good on the mayor’s idea.

Much of the talent is already here. As a local filmmaker, I’ve personally collaborated on numerous projects with San Pedrans. As a matter of fact, I’m even developing a TV idea with San Pedro Today’s own Joshua Stecker (how many of you knew Joshua freelances for entertainment publications such as The Hollywood Reporter?) Our partner, Matt Misetich, manages Script Pipeline, a company that discovers and connects writers from all over the nation with Hollywood’s top producers and managers.

My greatest local collaboration to date was with San Pedran, Chris Burke, and his partner, Jared Cotton, on Bloody Thursday, a PBS documentary film that chronicles how West Coast longshoremen fought to win the ILWU. The film garnered us an Emmy, which has allowed us to go on and do numerous other projects.

It’s probably apropos that my first meeting with Chris was at San Pedro Brewing Co. because he and Jared just premiered a show called Brew Dogs for the new Esquire Network about a pair of hilarious Scottish brewers that travel America in search of great craft beer. And SPBC is at the center of numerous scenes in my documentary, A City Divided, about the USC vs. UCLA football rivalry, which premieres on Fox Sports in November. (And btw, Misetich has an office above SPBC, which seems to be fast becoming the center of the creative universe).

A great thrill in making Bloody Thursday was having a song in the film performed by Mike Watt. Ask almost any alt-rocker about San Pedro and they’ll tell you that it’s Watt’s hometown. Watt, the bassist in Iggy and the Stooges, was in the Minutemen, a seminal punk band at the forefront of a rock revolution that allowed musicians to control their own career fate with a do it yourself (DIY) ethos, which exists to this day. In fact, San Pedro’s Recess Records, headed by Todd Congelliere, has for over 15 years kept our town on the punk map with its DIY approach to promoting music.

However, punk isn’t the only form of music that’s emerged from San Pedro. For example, 2003 SPHS grads proudly watched the Grammys last February as one of their classmates took home a trophy. San Pedro’s Miguel Pimental won a Grammy for Best R&B Song, “Adorn,” and electrified the audience when he performed the song in a live duet with Wiz Khalifa.

In addition to all of the great talent that’s already here, I’m also heartened by the numerous opportunities that exist for local youth to help build our creative corridor. Marymount is constructing a state of the art production facility on 6th Street that will attract film students from all over the world. The Boys & Girls Club features an amazing studio that allows its members to record music, shoot short films, and create animation and 3D projects. San Pedro City Ballet nurtures the talents of young dancers and includes prima ballerina Misty Copeland as an alumna. And the Warner Grand Theatre is home to youth theatre company Scalawag Productions and Encore Entertainers.

We often discuss linkage between our downtown and the waterfront as a key factor in a sustainable economic future for San Pedro. I would propose that we also begin to include linkage between our local talent, youth and the creative industries of Los Angeles as a key strategy in developing San Pedro into one of the prosperous creative corridors that make L.A. the entertainment capital of the world. spt

On The Fritz

Promising calm skies, light traffic and a serious case of laughter, Fritz Coleman does his stand-up performance, On the Fritz. Proceeds from this concert go to Scalawag Productions, Grand Vision Foundation’s youth musical theater program. For tickets visit www.grandvision.org.