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Editorial: Theater suffers a loss

August 26, 2010

In the midst of celebrating its 90th anniversary, it seems Laguna Playhouse is suffering yet another loss: that of longtime artistic director Andrew Barnicle, who announced his resignation this week. Barnicle says he wanted to step down before planning for the new theatrical season got underway but will stick around to help find a successor and bridge the gap between his tenure and the future.

Barnicle's resignation, after 20 years, comes three years after the departure of Richard Stein as managing director, a post he had held for 17 years. The Stein-Barnicle duo was noted for a high level of theatrical and literary ambition and for bringing high-quality world premieres to the Playhouse, and generating impressive reviews and awards.

Stein's departure heralded a slump for the Playhouse, which, in 2009, was forced to abandon his longstanding ambition of building a second stage and to sell the office building it owned adjacent to the Moulton Theatre in order to shore up its finances.

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At the same time, under new Managing Director Karen Wood, the Playhouse seems more devoted to short-lived traveling shows and musical revues than original, dramatic theater. To be sure, these shows are of excellent quality, particularly the Hershey Felder series depicting iconic musical figures from many eras. Most of these productions are quite successful, we understand, and of course the Playhouse needs to keep the money coming in or face an even bleaker future.

Announcing the 2010-11 season, Wood called it "a new era" of "accessible programming" designed to please audiences. Indeed, so far we've seen comedians, a ventriloquist and what's next? A flying circus?

This is a nervous time for the arts. The venerable Pasadena Playhouse, for instance, was nearly forced to close its doors after many decades as a venue for serious theater. Having recently emerged from bankruptcy, the Pasadena Playhouse is reorganizing and just announced its fall production lineup. The dangers are real, and no one wants to lose Laguna's much-loved Playhouse.

Under Stein and Barnicle, Laguna Playhouse had morphed from a local, community theater that launched a number of highly successful careers to a professional level theater with national standing.

At this point, it appears Laguna Playhouse seems to be operating more in the role of a commercial, rented theater, instead of pursuing original, high-quality productions that may challenge audiences but have the ability to move the art of theater forward.

As the Playhouse celebrates nearly a century of existence, we hope the theater's leadership can keep it viable — both financially and artistically.

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