Colony Theater

Barbara Beckley, artistic director of the Colony Theater, on stage at the Burbank location. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / August 14, 2012)

Barbara Beckley, pencil thin and fiercely emphatic, sits in an armchair in the living room-style lobby of the Colony Theatre in Burbank. Sounds from the stage indicate that rehearsals are underway for the second show of the Colony's 38th season: the West Coast premiere of John Morogiello's backstage comedy, “Blame It on Beckett.”

The Colony's artistic director and longtime leader is looking back, tracing her company's trajectory from an actor-driven, 99-seat venture in Silver Lake to its transformation into a 276-seat, full Equity theater. Founded in 1975 by a group of Los Angeles actors, the Colony Studio Theatre, as it was called then, earned considerable critical acclaim and audience loyalty during its first 25 years in “the land that time forgot,” as Beckley puts it.

“We called it Silver Lake because that was cool,” she said, “but actually we were in this hole between Silver Lake, Echo Park and Glassell Park. Our nearest competitors were the Dodgers.”

Beckley initially managed the theater for founding Artistic Director Terrence Shank while pursuing her own acting career. After the company's successful first year, she recalled, “people said, ‘What are you doing next season?' Terrence and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, guess we better figure that out.'”

The Colony quickly gained a reputation for sterling, award-winning, often original work — it was and is the recipient of numerous L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle and Ovation Awards. The audience grew. Regulars began trekking in from as far away as Orange County.

“They still do,” said Beckley.

When Shank moved on in 1984 for a theater career in Florida and South Africa, the leadership position “kind of landed in my lap,” Beckley said. In 1987, she spearheaded a canny marketing effort that would set the stage for the theater's evolution.

“That was the year that we discovered telemarketing. We decided to throw everything we had into a campaign to build our subscription base. It was a leap of faith.”

That strategic move coincided with a through-the-roof smash hit for the company: Jean Anouilh's “Ring Around the Moon,” headlined by Parker Stevenson.

“We grew because we were able to build an absolute killer subscriber base,” said Beckley. “We captured the name and phone number of every ticket buyer that walked through our doors. We followed up with phone calls within 48 hours and we sold subscriptions at intermission and after the show.”

Beckley's curtain pitches remain a Colony tradition.

“In that one campaign,” she said, “we went from 835 subscribers to 1,845.”

Over five years, the Colony's subscriber base grew to more than 3,000. “Our shows were virtually sold out before we even opened them,” Beckley observed.

The Colony was operating under an Actors' Equity Association plan allowing professional Los Angeles theaters of 99 seats or fewer to pay actors a minimal stipend.

In order to produce work under a full Equity contract and pay actors meaningful wages and benefits, the company would have to become a midsize theater, a risky step that small theaters rarely take. A few that made the leap are A Noise Within, now based in Pasadena; International City Theatre in Long Beach and East West Players in L.A.

Yet with the Colony's large subscriber base, said Beckley, who received the 1999 Ovation Award for Leadership in Los Angeles Theatre, “we had the capacity to do it.”

Looking for a city to partner with, the company eventually landed in the vacant satellite facility of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, a corner structure of the Burbank Town Center mall.

“We walked into the exhibit hall,” Beckley said, “and, oh, my gosh, it was dying to be a theater.” With high ceilings, no obstructive columns and an upstairs room “that ended up the exact width and depth of the stage” to use as rehearsal space, “it was perfect.”

The Burbank City Council approved the Colony's proposal in 1996. Four years of architectural planning, construction and delays later, the company moved in.