Sometimes a particular production doesn’t work out the way you envisioned, but becomes a turning point anyway. That was the case in 1983 with CISTERNS by Julie Jensen, a play we at the Back Alley Theatre described as three people dealing with sexual disaster. The Hollywood Reporter called it, “original, funny and rich in mysteries and surprises,” but Variety thought, “Talents of Jenny O’Hara, Jennifer Salt and Michael Cavanaugh are wasted on this 70-minute piece that starts nowhere and goes nowhere. Laura Zucker directs, but that doesn’t help any either.”
In the midst of working on this production, the printer who had long occupied the front half of the warehouse the theatre was in decided he was done and all 13,000 sq ft of the building became available. We leased the whole shebang and now had a rehearsal space as large as the stage, room to store sets, props and costumes, dressing rooms and offices. I had recently given up my practice coaching actors like Lynda Carter, Jose Feliciano and Gabe Kaplan to focus on managing the theatre, and we hired our first full-time staff member along with someone to run the box office.
We hadn’t realized it but locating the theatre in the Valley was the luckiest thing we could have done. We served this population of 1.5 million people by producing in the area in which they (and we) lived and worked. Valley residents made up more than 75% of the theatre’s audience. Productions were exceptionally well attended, averaging more than 80% capacity, even during previews. This let us mount new work and run it, tweak it, re-rehearse it, sometimes for weeks before opening, a luxury no other theatre in LA had.
The California Theatre Annual of 1983, edited by Barbara Isenberg, in its description of what was happening at the Back Alley, said that in four short years “the tiny Equity Waiver theatre in the flatlands of Van Nuys, “which began as Allan’s and my “hobby,” now had an “international reputation.” Our mission was coalescing: “The Back Alley Theatre’s purpose was to present original plays and works new to Los Angeles audiences in collaboration with the best of LA’s professional talent pool. The theatre’s focus was on unique voices and on creating daring and emotionally rich experiences in an atmosphere of professional discipline.”
I never directed again and my long hair was gone (see photo). I was becoming a producer and an arts administrator. What I was meant to do.