During normal times, you could drive along Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood between McCadden Place and El Centro Avenue at around 7:45 p.m. and see crowds of people lined up with programs in hand, waiting on the sidewalk for the house manager to let them inside.
This strip is known as “Theater Row,” a bustling community hub for theater artists of all stripes. Actors, writers, directors, producers and designers all congregate here to craft and showcase their talents on the storied small theater stages of Hollywood.
But thanks to COVID-19, crowds are a safety hazard, dismantling a core part of the theater business model. What’s left are empty spaces: parts unperformed, costumes unworn, tickets unsold. A lot of hay was made recently about how William Shakespeare wrote his masterpiece play “King Lear” while quarantined during a rash of the bubonic plague, but, of course, everyone had to wait for the plague to subside before they could see it performed.
With their usual means of revenue brought to a halt, the fate of each venue is in jeopardy. When the pandemic is over, will Theater Row still be a row of theaters?
“We’re always fighting to make it work. We’re used to living in a recession all the time. We’re used to not having money.”
Matthew Quinn, artistic director of Combined Artform and producer for Theater Asylum
2020 was shaping up to be another good year for Racquel Lehrman, who was easing into her 15th year as owner of the Lounge Theatre. Before she moved in, the space was a side home for The Actors’ Gang, but for the past 15 years, it’s been home to Lehrman’s production company, Theatre Planners, as well as a slew of rental productions.
“I make my money on rentals,” Lehrman says.
Producing theater has been an on-going passion for Lehrman, and her ability to keep the business afloat during good times and bad is a testament to her business acumen. In the past 15 years, she never missed a single rent payment.
As early as December, requests came pouring in about renting space at the Lounge for the upcoming Hollywood Fringe Festival, an annual, three-week-long theater arts festival that invades the performance spaces on and around Santa Monica Boulevard every June. The lead-up to the festival is always a lucrative time for the venues, and, as it’s gotten more and more popular over the past decade, some of the more diligent and eager Fringe producers make their calls way in advance to reserve their preferred venues. Agreements were made. Contracts were signed.
By the end of January, Lehrman started hearing rumblings about the new coronavirus. Renters wrote her emails asking if they should be concerned about the virus affecting their upcoming shows. She didn’t think the virus would affect anything, and for weeks, Lehrman told every concerned renter that she expected to move forward as planned.
Renters who had their shows scheduled for March tried to push their productions another month ahead. Others tried to get out of their contracts. Lehrman refused. They had signed contracts after all.
“Everybody who signed an agreement made a complete 180 and tried to cancel,” she says. “Then, in two days, I made a complete 180 as well. I should be refunding their money. I called every person. Do you want a refund? A credit? Do you want to turn your deposit into a donation?”
By the end of March, the calendars were all clear. L.A.’s small theater scene, and much of the world, was put on hold. The organizers of the 2020 Hollywood Fringe Festival postponed the event to October and then canceled the festival altogether.
Without any business coming in, nor enough money on reserve, Lehrman had no way to pay rent for April. Her employees had nothing to do. Prospects for the future seemed dubious. “I’m not going to be the martyr who paid rent so my landlord could have it,” she says. “Even if we opened our doors in May or June, I knew business wouldn’t be at 100%.”
On May 15, Lehrman formally announced over social media that she was closing the Lounge Theatre, officially making it the first venue on Theater Row to close its doors under the shadow of the pandemic.
“Do I think Theater Row will look the same as it did on March 15? No.”
Daniel Henning, founding artistic director of The Blank Theatre
In the summer of 2015, the Los Angeles City Council officially designated a strip of Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood as “Theater Row.” Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, a former performing artist himself, was present for the official designation ceremony. He cites the theater arts as a boon for both the local community and its economy and is known to make an appearance at some notable theater events. He’s attended every Hollywood Fringe Festival awards ceremony since being elected to the city council.
Formally, Theater Row stretches from McCadden Place to El Centro Avenue and is home to a cluster of theater spaces including, but not limited to, The Complex, Hudson Theatres, The Broadwater and The Blank Theatre. Then there are some Theater Row-adjacent venues not too far away, such as Studio/Stage to the east on Western Avenue, The Actors Company to the west by La Brea Avenue and Theatre of Note to the north, off Sunset Boulevard.
Daniel Henning, who runs The Blank Theatre on Wilcox Avenue, was instrumental in getting the city to officially recognize Theater Row.
“It was for the long-range game,” Henning says. “The idea that the City of Los Angeles officially recognized Theater Row as a destination that’s important, that’s a big deal.”
Unlike stores that compete for business, Hollywood’s theater venues function more like an ecosystem, a forest of trees bound by conjoint roots. All the venue owners are friends. They work with each other. They look out for each other. When one owner doesn’t have any space available for a prospective renter, they’ll send that renter along to another venue — possibly to a venue right next door.
The Lounge was the eastern-most venue in the officially designated Theater Row strip, sitting on the corner of El Centro Avenue. After Lehrman left, the landlord began renovating the space. It may one day rebound as another theater, but it’s equally possible that it may turn into a restaurant or yoga studio. If it doesn’t come back as a theater, the physical makeup of Theater Row will be lopped off on its eastern edge.
If the Lounge was so easily vulnerable to closure, it puts into question the stability of its Theater Row neighbors.
“If we don’t get support from the [National Endowment for the Arts], the federal government, the city, the county,” Henning says, “I see that as a really difficult journey for businesses that only make money when there’s an audience. If support comes along, then maybe that changes.”
“I think they think they know how dire it is, but they don’t know how dire it is.”
Monica Martin, owner of The Complex Hollywood
Between Wilcox and Cole avenues sits a row of back-to-back theater storefronts adorned with a corresponding row of marquees protruding over the doors. This building is The Complex Hollywood. It’s home to five theaters, five studios and four office spaces. It holds the largest concentration of venues under the banner of a single operation on Theater Row. It’s been in operation since the 1970s. Generations of writers, actors and directors have shared their art on these stages.
“I was riding a beautiful wave,” says Monica Martin, owner of The Complex. After working there for a few years, Martin took over the business in 2018. 2020 was starting to look like a profitable year. She thought she could finally go on a vacation. “And now I’m on one,” she jokes gloomily.
The venues, normally bustling with theater people, now sit empty. She’s been doing what she can to keep income flowing into the business, including renting the space for film shoots. She even trained to become a COVID-19 compliance officer to help those renters meet safety requirements established by the Screen Actors Guild.
But the revenue from these shoots doesn’t even come close to paying the rent. She’s applied for grants, but none of them are large enough to cover lost income. And with every month that passes, another rent check is owed.
“It’s super unusual,” she says, “for anyone in the theater business to get through six months with no income.”
Across the street and one block west, The Hudson Theatres house three separate performance spaces and share the building with a cafe and a restaurant, both of which are still open.
There’s one word Zeke Rettman, managing director of The Hudson, used repeatedly to describe the situation he and every venue owner on Theater Row is facing right now: Brutal.
When Rettman took over ownership of The Hudson in 2019, he felt positive about its future. At the start of this year, he had bookings well into the summer months. Things looked great.
In residence at The Hudson for the past 15 years was the Comedy Central Stage, used by the cable network to develop new shows and comedy specials. They were a major contributor to The Hudson’s overhead costs. In the wake of the shutdown, however, Comedy Central cut ties with The Hudson.
Like Martin at The Complex, Rettman rented out his spaces for film shoots. Also, like her, he cut off the phone lines to save money. And even though he has a good relationship with his landlord, figuring out how to pay the rent became the biggest struggle.
“I’ll hold on as long as I can,” Rettman says, “but there’s a breaking point. If I get a grant, I give it to the landlord. If I get a film shoot, I give it to the landlord. I believe we’ll rebound, but it’s not as if we’re not amassing massive amounts of debt.”
Next to The Complex sits the Studio C space, an intimate 36-seat venue formerly run by Matthew Quinn, a producer with Theater Asylum, a venue and production management company. Just like Lehrman at the Lounge, Quinn had to close the doors of Studio C. His lease was up on June 30, and he did not renew.
“It all comes down to the landlords,” Quinn says. “Landlords have to forgive the rent. As a business person, I understand how hard that is.”
When asked who they think is best prepared to weather the pandemic storm, the Theater Row venue owners all point to the Sacred Fools Theater Company at The Broadwater on Lillian Way, home to four performance spaces and one bar, The Broadwater Plunge. Padraic Duffy manages both the theater company and the bar. “I picked the two worst industries to double-down on,” he says.
But Sacred Fools is particularly fortunate to have a benevolent landlord in Padraic’s father, actor Patrick Duffy. While Sacred Fools still has financial obligations, including rent and other expenses, they’re afforded more leniency than everyone else on Theater Row.
“We’re privileged to be in the position we’re in,” Padraic says. “But we’re very worried about the entire ecosystem. My worry is that once a theater is lost, landlords won’t keep them as theaters. When the pandemic hit, it was, ‘Oh my God, we can’t do Fringe!’ But then it was, ‘Oh my God, we might not have any venues to do Fringe!’”
At this point, I should mention, full disclosure, that I’m a company member of Sacred Fools. Part of the reason I wanted to write this article was because of the concern I share with Padraic, that after the pandemic is said and done, the only theater space left standing could be The Broadwater. The Broadwater could end up being Theater Row. As Rettman said, brutal.
“Theater people rarely give up.”
Padraic Duffy, managing director of the Sacred Fools Theater Company
Two things struck me as I interviewed each of these venue managers. First, many of them seemed to make a financially viable business from operating small theaters, debunking the stereotype of small theaters eking by every month by the skin of their teeth.
“It’s all going to come down to money,” Martin says. “It would be real easy for people to turn these theaters into high-rises. If Los Angeles cares about theater and they want us to stay, we need to be in the conversation. These are the training grounds for the people that are in the shows that you see on Netflix, Apple and Amazon. It’s a great source of pride for me. As much as they say we don’t need theater, we need theater. And theaters.”
I was also struck by how many of their bleak outlooks were peppered with hope and optimism.
The first time I tried calling Henning at The Blank, he was too busy to talk. He was in the middle of producing the 28th annual Young Playwrights Festival, which features play submissions from teenagers all over the country. This year, the festival is taking place online between August and September. He’s shown no sign of slowing down just because there’s a pandemic shutting things down.
“March 15 was the deadline for the Young Playwrights Festival,” Henning says, “but these 15-year-old kids in Iowa want to put up their plays. We have to make this happen and move forward.”
Both Lehrman and Rettman see light at the end of the tunnel, agreeing that even though some venues on Theater Row will close, new ones may pop up in their place.
“Artists have been hibernating,” Rettman says. “The creative drive is going to be alive and well. Once the government allows us to come back, we will.”
Padraic echoes that sentiment. “I’m hopeful the community will want to feel like a community again,” he says. “That there will be a demand for theater and bars and crowds and getting silly. That the supply will follow.”
Even Quinn has embraced his new role in the pandemic chapter of Theater Row as the host of “What’s Next?” a livestreamed show covering topics like producing theater for an online medium and diversity in theater, while also checking in with other venues.
“When we come back, things are going to be different, but I’m having fun with this!” Quinn says. “If we can’t be optimistic, why are we artists?”