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Santa Monica Playhouse Sits on a Half Century

February 1, 2010

“I want to show you something,” Chris DeCarlo said, leading me to a framed piece of paper in the lobby of one of the Playhouse’s stages. “A reviewer from the UCLA Daily Bruin saw a performance we did years ago of a Eugene Ionesco play. He didn’t care for it. Kind of blasted it in the paper. Funny thing was, Ionesco himself saw it.” DeCarlo points to the note written in Ionesco’s hand: ‘Une excellente representation’.

So there.

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DeCarlo and wife, Evelyn Rudie, are co-artistic directors of the Santa Monica Playhouse. They’ve been with the theatre – no, they have been the theatre – since 1973, starting Actors Repertory then, when the place was barely pubescent.

“Longevity gives us a nuance of style,” DeCarlo tells me, “to navigate through a difficult landscape.” Take that to mean the world of theatre or the world of theatrical finances and you’re spot-on. “I remember being here in the early 1960s, wanting more than anything to act on stage. I was too young. And just when I was old enough, I got drafted.”

He brought back a new manliness from Vietnam and got one role after another. He met and married Rudie who also writes and performs. Through the years, they have staged more than 500 original productions for adults and, separately, for children. “It’s the longevity,” he said, “that gives us the stamina to sustain the quest.”

Just what is that quest?

They look at each other through years of sharing a pursuit. “To do intimate theatre. To bring in a new generation of audiences,” DeCarlo said. “Look, our average audience member is around 60.” “And that’s why,” Rudie pipes in, “our greatest challenge is audience development. People under 35 often aren’t going to the theatre. We [speaking of theatre in general] need those younger people.”

To that end, DeCarlo and Rudie diversify. They stage productions, offer acting classes, rent their stages. “Today,” DeCarlo says, “60 percent of our earned income comes from these diversifications. The other 40 percent comes from donations and very small grants. Ten years ago, 95 percent of our earned income came from our… earned income.”

Rudie flahes back to something her father once told her. “This is show and business. You can’t have one without the other.” DeCarlo added, “When we took over the theatre in 1973, we inherited a $10,000 debt. We managed to pay it off without grants! And when we bragged about our fundraising efforts, we got press. Too much press. That bragging came back to haunt us ten years later when we needed grants.”

He adds, “And we’re always on the precipice.”

Like Center Theatre Group, and the Geffen, Broad, Odyssey, and other theatres, the Santa Monica Playhouse has an active youth program. Elementary, junior, and senior high school students see productions once or twice a week and make use of talk-backs after shows. “I remember one kid,” Rudie recalls, “who came out of a talk-back and said, ‘I had no idea theatre could be so cool!'”

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Chris DeCarlo and Evelyn Rudie

Given the recent decision by the Pasadena Playhouse to go dark while it tries to resuscitate its finances, you can’t blame a theatre director for being on edge. They make it from one production to the next production, the equivalent of going paycheck to paycheck.

“The competition,” Rudie says, “is never other theatres. No, it’s sports, movies. That’s why we’re so focused on productions that are oriented to younger audiences, and doing community- and college-outreach: once they see a play, they’re hooked.”

DeClarlo turns almost mournful. “People’s perception of theatre is ‘Broadway’ – it’s not us, it’s not local theatre. And bottom line, theatre is contracting. It’s not growing.”

“Then why,” I ask, “do you keep at it? And when will you stop?”

“I’ll stop when I’m dead,” DeCarlo fires off. “I’ll run it forever. That said, we recognize the importance of finding the right hands to put this in when the time comes. We’re aware of that now.” 

They sit quietly for a moment, until DeCarlo’s eyes brighten. “We did a production once in Osaka, Japan. An old man left the theatre crying. He said to me, ‘I wish I had seen something like this when I was a child. My life would have been completely different’. That’s why I still do this.”

The Santa Monica Playhouse  1211 4th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401-1391; 310-394-9779. Their current production of “Love in Bloom” has been extended.

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