Craig Duswalt
Producing Artistic Director, Repertory East Playhouse

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, November 28, 2004
(Television interview conducted November 11, 2004)

Craig Duswalt     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is Craig Duswalt, producing artistic director of the (future) Repertory East Playhouse. The interview was conducted Nov. 11. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: "Producing artistic director" — that means you run the place, right?

Duswalt: That means I run the place.

Signal: And the place is the Repertory East Playhouse, the initials being "REP." So you're picking up where the Santa Clarita Repertory Theatre left off?

Duswalt: Correct. I used to be the producing artistic director for the Santa Clarita Repertory Theatre, so I actually lost a word since last time, so that's good. Till about a year and a half ago. I resigned about a year and a half ago.

Signal: How long were you running the "Rep"?

Duswalt: About three years. Three years. It was dark for about six months back in 2000 and I was looking to build a theater of my own. I kept passing San Fernando Road, seeing this dark theater all the time, and was wondering what was happening. (I) called the telephone number on the front; Marc Winger called me back and said, "We're looking for an artistic director."

Signal: Marc Winger was head of the Rep board?

Duswalt: He was a board member. I'm not sure if he was the president.

Signal: Of course, the Rep went out of business a couple of months ago, and you'll be using the same theater space. The Rep was a nonprofit; is your theater company for-profit?

Duswalt: No, same thing. Nonprofit. We rely on donations. We decided to go the nonprofit route. My board of directors is going to be very small at first, and we'll grow from there.

Signal: Have you formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation?

Duswalt: Yes I have. All that stuff is final.

Signal: And you've signed a lease on the space?

Duswalt: I have signed a lease, and we move in Nov. 17.

Signal: When do you go into production?

Duswalt: (The) first show is slated to open Jan. 14. You want to know what the show is?

Signal: Sure.

Duswalt: OK. It's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" by Neil Simon. We're starting off with a comedy; actually, the whole season is going to be filled with comedies and one murder mystery. Would you like to hear the season?

Signal: OK. Lay it on me.

Duswalt: A little back story. When I ran the Santa Clarita Repertory Theatre —

Signal: This show is only a half-hour long —

Duswalt: All right. I have 22 minutes. When I ran it last time, the first year we did mainstream-type plays. We did Neil Simon, we did a couple of murder mysteries, but very mainstream, back in 2001. The second year I ran theater, I tried to throw in a little edgier stuff along with the mainstream ... and some people liked it and some people did not like it. The third year, we went more mainstream again, but there were problems in the third year. And so, I have learned by all these mistakes.

Signal: What problems were there in the third year?

Duswalt: I can't go into the problems. There were problems in the third year.

Signal: Enough to where you left?

Duswalt: Enough to where I resigned, yes. And now, I've learned from mistakes that I have made, some mistakes that others have made, and this year is going to be very wholesome plays, and they're going to be with professional actors.
    We're going to do — there's going to be no offensive language, nothing to make anyone uncomfortable. They're going to be straightforward, nice plays, but they're going to be very well done. They'll be thought provoking, but we're just cutting out all the language.
    The first play is a simple comedy, "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" by Neil Simon, a very funny play. The second one, we're doing a musical, "The Fantastiks." (It's) the longest-running show off-Broadway in the history of — 20 years it ran in New York, and now it's coming here. (The) third show we're doing is "The Nerd," and that's by Larry Shue. He also wrote "The Foreigner," which I did two years, a very funny play, another comedy.
    The fourth show we're going to do in the middle, in the summer, we're going to do a children's show, "Charlie and Chocolate Factory," which is Willy Wonka. That will be for families, a total family audience. The fifth play is a night of one-acts. We're going to do four one-act plays, all comedies. The sixth play is "The Mousetrap" by Agatha Christie, and the seventh play is a Christmas show. I think we're doing "Inspecting Carol"; it's a comedy.

Signal: Supposedly, one reason the Rep had trouble drawing an audience was that the plays weren't mainstream enough. Is that why you're going more mainstream?

Duswalt: First of all, when I was there the first two years, we sold out 95 percent of our shows. In 2001, 2002, we were selling out most of the time. 2003 is when things started happening, and part of my fault was that I did a couple of edgier things. I learned from that, and people prefer the more mainstream, less offensive plays.
    The last artistic director who took over from me tried to do more of the edgier stuff, too, and obviously (fewer) people showed up. She tried "Desdemona," "The Birds" by Aristophenes — very great plays, but not very well-known-named plays where someone would say, "Oh I'd love to see that play." So that was a major problem.
    But when I ran the theater, I also ran an advertising agency, so I know how to market. I know how to market a theater, and luckily I have a creative side, too. So that's why I think I did very well back then, and I'll be able to learn from my mistakes and do it better this time.

Signal: Do you think the real problem with the Rep was the selection of plays, or the marketing, or the quality of the acting?

Duswalt: Well, last year, I heard — I didn't go to many shows last year when I wasn't running it. I heard the acting was great. They lacked money to do extensive sets; we did really great sets. We had a set designer, Brian Maly, who is coming back this year, who is phenomenal. They didn't have Brian last year, and they didn't have a budget for sets, too, so it was kind of hard to do great sets. But people — like when you walk into a theater, the first thing you see is a set, and you have this image of, "Wow, this is going to be great." I think they lost that last year. I don't know if they had a marketing budget, and I think that hurt them, because I never saw ads in the paper or ads in The Magazine of Santa Clarita or Valley Living Magazine or Elite or the new Inside SCV.

Signal: You're right down the street from the Canyon Theatre Guild, which offers some of the same mainstream, Neil Simon-type fare you say you'll have. CTG is a 399-seat theater; you've got 81 seats. Are you trying to be like the CTG, but a smaller version?

Duswalt: The Canyon Theatre Guild — I think their main focus is big musicals. That's where their big draw is. Now, they do a couple of other shows that are acting, just straightforward dramas or comedies, but they mostly do comedies. But their big thing is musicals, and that's what they're very good at.
    We are very good at doing smaller plays. Our plays are all two-person, three-person, four-person, maybe five-person plays, maybe a nine-person play once in a while. But it's more of the relationship acting; it's a little deeper.
    Now, I'm doing mainstream plays, but like "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," the plot is a man is having a nervous breakdown. You need a really great actor to pull off somebody who's having a nervous breakdown and then he's over it, but then he has to find this fine line between being crazy on stage — but, you know what I'm saying? You need a great, great actor. I'm not saying they don't have great actors, but we have professional actors who come in here, who get paid — not a lot, but they get paid — who can do dramatic acting really well.

Signal: So unlike CTG, which is a community theater with actors who are community members, you're going to hire professional actors?

Duswalt: All of our actors appear on TV, in films, and what they do is, they do shows on the side to keep their acting ability sharp. They do theater to showcase themselves for casting directors. We get a lot of casting directors who come up.
    The other thing that I'm doing different this time is, I have Green Room Design and Advertising, (which) is my ad agency, which I am dissolving, kind of, and opening up Green Room Management. My wife owns a modeling and talent agency, and I'm going to own a managing company where we manage actors.
    I'm not restricted by the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA (American Federation of Television & Radio Artists) on what am I allowed to do because I'm not allowed to run a theater and be a Screen Actors Guild agent, so I'm going to be a manager. What I can offer actors who come up from Los Angeles to do shows at our theater is, I will invite agents from L.A. to come up, casting directors, to see them show what they can do in front of a live audience.
    And Hollywood, usually they're 25-seat theaters. They're very small, and sometimes they're not filled up; we will fill the seats in this.

Signal: Do you have to pay union scale?

Duswalt: Yes we do, but it's a 99-seat planned theater where we only have to pay a very small amount.

Signal: What does 99-seat theater mean?

Duswalt: L.A. came up with an idea because equity houses — equity are the professional actors, stage actors — they are allowed to do shows only at equity houses, and they get paid, let's say, between $300 and thousands a week. But a small, 81-seat theater cannot afford to pay everyone in the cast $300 a week. They'd go broke in a week. So they came up with a 99-seat plan, equity-waver theater, which means they can — I can do a show having professional actors and pay them a lot less money so I can survive.

Signal: The last plays in that space were drawing an audience of only two or three people. How do you go from that low level of interest, to being able to pay actors?

Duswalt: So much has happened in the last two months. The theater was in danger of going away. There was talk about ripping the seats out and just put a business in there. A lot of people came up to me and said, "Is there any way you want to do this again? Can you even think about doing this again? Do it by yourself? Take over the Rep?" I started thinking about it, and because we own this talent agency, we figured out, my wife and I, that we can combine that end of it and running a theater, so we might have a better chance this time.
    We're going to focus on — I have called in a lot of favors this time. I own, as I said, the ad agency, and I give in-town business, because of my clients, I put ads in papers, magazines; I do a lot of favors doing designs for them. That's why I'll call in a lot of favors. The Signal is doing is a huge favor; I talked to (Publisher) Richard Budman, and they're going to give us ad space in The Signal for us to promote our shows. Jill Mellady of Mellady Direct Marketing is going to do our mailings for us, the brochures that go out for the season and Evening With the Rep, which we'll talk about later.
    (Signal Features Editor) Michele Buttelman always writes great articles for us; I've already had two things. The Daily News, the other people, are going to do some stuff, too. I have a lawyer friend of mine who's incorporating everything for free. Neal Weichel, he's a real-estate friend of mine out here, and he's going to be on my board; he's doing a lot of things. John Duncan of (eSolutions) is hosting my Web site for free. Brian Maly, the designer — I know, I've got a list of people. Frank Maga is the landlord, and he helped me get into the space for almost what the Rep was paying. He could have gotten a lot more for the space, but he wanted to save the theater, too.
    I have a lot of people helping out in the beginning, helping us get back on our feet, and therefore I could spend money on direct mail, printing of postcards and stuff like that.

Signal: How will you measure whether it's working? What's your breaking point?

Duswalt: Here's the deal, what everyone has to know. I have a two-year lease that I have guaranteed. I'm in there for two years. As opposed to last season, where the season got canceled after four shows, there will be no chance. I'm in it for two years, at least two years. So if people sign up for season tickets, there will be no chance for getting a half season. You're going to get the full season this year and next year.
    So, my measure of success is filling the seats. I want to sell out 90 percent of the shows, and I will.

Signal: Why are you doing this as a nonprofit instead of for-profit?

Duswalt: Because I can get donations. People tend to want to give donations. I can get grants. (The) L.A. County Arts Commission gives out grants. We can get an intern for $4,000. We get $4,000 to pay an intern for a summer to help us do stage managing or whatever. I need help advertising and doing separate projects. Just mainly, though, corporate donations are a write-off for people.
    I would love to run it as a for-profit, but no one will give me any money. (The assumption would be) like Craig's taking it all. And I'm not taking much, believe me.

Signal: Being a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation sort of implies that there's an educational aspect. Is there?

Duswalt: Well, there's — also you can be a public benefit (corporation), you know; that's kind of what we're (doing) at first. I'm in negotiations with another former artistic director, and that person —

Signal: Former artistic director of the Rep?

Duswalt: The Rep, one of the two. That person is putting together a proposal right now to bring back an Education Outreach Program, where we go into schools and we perform at elementary schools and junior highs — and also bringing back Shakespeare in the Park.

Signal: Tell us about that.

Duswalt: That's a love of mine, but this is one of the reasons why I resigned. I was doing way too much, one person doing way too much. I have to focus on the theater. I have to focus on marketing the theater. I have to focus on bringing in good talent. I need someone else to bring in (the Education Outreach Program) and Shakespeare in the Park, and I think I have that person.

Signal: You weren't doing Shakespeare in the Park when you were running the Rep, were you?

Duswalt: Yes, I was. We did a very elaborate —

Signal: I thought it was gone by then.

Duswalt: No, it was gone for one or two years, and then I brought it back in 2002. We did "The Comedy of Errors," and we had challenges. We didn't have the (microphones), so we had wind. We had wind problems. People couldn't hear, sometimes. The set was the most incredible set: It was Turkish ruins that this guy, he's a CalArts grad, Jim Thompson (designed) — (an) unbelievable set. And we did a fund-raiser where we showed the set at Mike and Jocey Hogan's house, and it was great. But the production value was not as good as we did at the Rep.
    I don't like to water things down. If I'm going to do it, I want to do it right, and that's why I have to focus on the theater. I (need) someone else do to the other things, because Shakespeare in the Park is a love of mine, but if I did that and the theater, I'd be in Bellevue.

Signal: Remind us what Shakespeare in the Park is.

Duswalt: It's where we went into various parks throughout Santa Clarita and we did free shows to the public of — two (years) ago we did "Comedy of Errors," and we would, every Saturday night at 6 o'clock for six weeks in a row, we would go into a park under some trees, hopefully, set up a set and just do a show. Anyone can come, and we average 300 people per show.

Signal: Wasn't the idea that in Shakespeare's day, that's how they performed a play?

Duswalt: Yes. And that's why there are a lot of companies in the U.S. and London and New York, too, that do this in-the-park thing. It's great. I mean, it's so laid back. It's usually for free. You get a lot of grant money if you do stuff for free for people, and it's the core of acting. I mean, it's Shakespeare.

Signal: The old Rep used professional actors; were they paid?

Duswalt: When I was there, yes, they were paid. We're only supposed to — by law, the union law, we only have to pay the people who are in the Screen Actors Guild or AFTRA or equity or American AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists) for variety acts. We only have to pay people if they are in one of those unions. If they aren't in any one of those unions, we don't have to pay them. But we did, two years ago. I'm not going to this year, because that's a huge part of the budget, and if they're not in one of those unions, that means maybe they're not professional actors but they're really good actors who used to do (it) and aren't doing it anymore. They're still good quality; there's great quality people who aren't professional actors because they just gave up the dream, which has not been an easy dream to follow.

Signal: So you're going to use both professional and non-union actors?

Duswalt: Depending on who auditions and how good they are, the answer is yes.

Signal: You're allowed by the unions to have a mix?

Duswalt: Yes, you can. We tend to cast the leads definitely professional. The lead's carrying the play. Like, if it was a two-person play, it would, 99 percent of the time, be professional actors because they have to carry the show. If it's a 10-person play, I could have four people who are nonprofessional, but they're going to be very good. The competition is high. We advertise in Back Stage West, which is the actors' bible for auditions, and when I was there we would get 50 to 60 people auditioning for two- and three-person plays.

Signal: Is there a theater company in greater Los Angeles that people might know, that compares to what you're planning to offer both in terms of plays and acting quality?

Duswalt: I can't remember the names because I've been out of it for a year and a half and I'm old now. But there are a lot of 99-seat plans in North Hollywood. The NoHo Theatre Arts District, which is starting over again, and Burbank. There's one called Stage One, I think. But the interesting thing is, most 99-seat planned theaters are all like 25 to 45 to 50 seats in L.A. They are really small. We have a pretty high 81-seat theater.

Signal: 81 is big for a 99-seat theater?

Duswalt: Yes it is, believe it or not. Yes. The Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles — I think it's on Sepulveda — that's one of the most famous 99-seat theaters, and they've been around for eons.

Signal: What do you do as your day job?

Duswalt: Well, now, or (starting) Nov. 17?

Signal: What have you been doing since you left the Rep? You have the marketing business; you do work for clients?

Duswalt: Yes I do. I design ads and brochures and catalogues.

Signal: You mentioned there were a number of ideas for your theater space on San Fernando Road. There was even a rumor the Canyon Theatre Guild wanted it, so it could expand.

Duswalt: Yes they did. It was a hot item, as far as businesses. I think, no one told me who, but there was a lot of interest in bringing another business. The Canyon Theatre Guild wanted it, but I think — I don't know how it went down, but I think they didn't want a monopoly of theaters down there. I don't know that for a fact, I'm just guessing. They wanted the Canyon Theatre Guild to be one and the Repertory East Playhouse to be another.
    Because what they want to do, I'm to understand, is to make it an arts district where there are a lot of theaters. You know, maybe even more theaters. You know, Broadway survives, and there are millions of shows on Broadway, and Burbank has 20 theaters on one street and NoHo has, like, 15 theaters on one street. We want to bring people down there. So if the Canyon Theatre Guild had that (existing) space and they had that (new) space, it's kind of like, you know, the same people. And then what if they get another space?

Signal: If your plays aren't that terribly different from what the CTG offers, are you going to be in direct competition?

Duswalt: No.

Signal: Why not? Won't we see a theater war?

Duswalt: (CTG Director) TimBen (Boydston) is actually a personal friend of mine and we've discussed this. You know, sooner or later, I have to build up an audience. If, for two years, I'm going to build an audience and do great and very wholesome plays — now, there's some really great, wholesome plays that the Canyon Theatre Guild won't do, that if I just cut out a couple of words — it's still an edgier-type play, but it's just not offensive. It's still thought-provoking.
    We did "Prelude to a Kiss" a few years ago, and I left in a couple of words that I would not do again, that I probably shouldn't have done. It's a very nice play, but it's very, very, very advanced. I mean, it's very deep and it's metaphysical and stuff, but it's a really classic play. It's a hard play to pull off, and I think you need professional actors to pull it off really well.

Signal: There are almost a quarter-million people in our valley. CalArts and probably even COC are doing edgier stuff than you're planning. You're a marketing guy; isn't it just a matter of marketing to the right people? Isn't there a market in our growing valley for the cutting-edge stuff?

Duswalt: You would think so, wouldn't you? My opinion is, there isn't. And if there is, they don't come out.
    I did it for two years, and maybe we didn't market it perfectly, but we filled the seats. But we filled the seats with people who wanted to see Neil Simon. My dream is to eventually do four shows that are more common and two shows that are edgy. I'm not going to do it yet. I will do it. I have to build an audience.

Signal: Some people would like to see art films and old Western movies in Old Town Newhall. Will there be an opportunity for that in your theater space?

Duswalt: (Former Rep Director) Nancy Lantis did it. I don't know how extensively they did it. I think that Wednesday night they did films. I don't know how many they did, but they tried it.
    I want to fill up this space every night of the week, every day. I'm offering corporations to come in during the day, and if they want to give seminars, at a very nominal fee, if they want to have training classes for corporations, if they want to have anything, you can rent it out for two hours for, like, $100 and get 81 seats and you can have lights and sound and lots of things. I want to fill the space up.
    As far as films at night, the problem is, we rehearse during the nights, Monday through Thursday, and then we have shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So it's really hard to have a night of arts, theater, movies. I do want to do that, however. I'm thinking maybe like a Wednesday night, we rehearse from, like, 6 to 8, maybe, and then after, an 8 o'clock show. Because I loved the idea that they carried out fully. I don't know how many they did, and I don't know how publicized it was, but I love that stuff.

Signal: You aren't in Valencia or Stevenson Ranch; you're in Old Town Newhall, with something on the order of a 41-percent Latino population in the immediate neighborhood. Will you be offering anything in Spanish?

Duswalt: The Education Outreach Program, when we did do that, we had one show (that was) a bilingual show. We used to do half of the play in English and half of the play in Spanish. I'm toying with the idea of having "Charlie and Chocolate Factory," the family production, half-English, half-Spanish.

Signal: Not in the same show —

Duswalt: Yes, in the same show. So in other words, if you said to me, "Craig, are you going to drink from that cup?" And I'll say, "You mean you want me to drink from this cup?" — you know, answer in English and Spanish so we would cover, and you would be able to understand what the other person said.

Signal: You think you can sell that?

Duswalt: We did it with (the Education Outreach Program). ... It's for kids. And the kids — I don't know the Latino population; I don't know how much of theater-goers they are. I don't know. I just don't know.

Signal: Marketing, Marketing, Marketing —

Duswalt: I know, but I know they would take their kids to go see a kid's play.

Signal: Spanish language films, as well —

Duswalt: Maybe that's an idea, too.

Signal: How do you see your new REP helping the arts district grow, beyond just filling up those 81 seats?

Duswalt: That's it. ... You know, there have been years of this Old Town Newhall (re)development going on, and I pray that it happens. Rumor has it that it's going to start happening in this next year, the first phase will be done, the angled parking, and two lanes on San Fernando Road. I think it's very important to get foot traffic there. I would like to see a movie theater brought in there, but I don't think there's enough space for that.

Signal: And some interesting night-life, too?

Duswalt: Yeah. There's no other place to go for night-life. (Valencia) Town Center is good for the mall, I mean for the movie theater, but imagine if there was another place that was Old Town-feeling. And just older buildings and all that stuff. Old Pasadena — I love that.

Signal: Why the "east" in Repertory East Playhouse?

Duswalt: Because I'm from the East Coast, number one. No. 2, it's on the east side of town; it's on the east side of the street; and I ... wanted it to say REP.
    Really quick, Evening with the REP, Feb. 12 at house to be determined. Watch for information about it in The Signal.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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