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Burbank Leader

Theater of survival

Tough economic times have threatened to close the Colony, but the show goes on.

By Steve Appleford, steve.appleford@latimes.com

9:58 AM PST, December 9, 2012

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Actress Mariette Hartley has been through drama before, with decades of experience in film, television and on local stages, beginning with a Los Angeles production of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” with Bert Lahr. But she experienced suspense unlike any other during rehearsals for “The Morini Strad” at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, where an ongoing budget crisis threatened to shut down the play before opening night.

A weak economy finally caught up with the nonprofit theater, a Burbank institution for the last 12 years after thriving for a quarter-century in Silver Lake. On Oct. 27, an emergency “Save the Colony” fundraising campaign was announced with a mixture of hope and gloom: the Colony needed to raise $49,000 in just two weeks, or the play would be canceled, leaving the theater's future in doubt.

In an unexpected irony, “The Morini Strad” was the story of another treasured artistic icon in danger — in this case a priceless Stradivarius violin inadvertently damaged by its owner, an aging female virtuoso and recluse played by Hartley. The symbolism was clear, even if “MorinI” was put on the schedule more than a year earlier.

“It is a colloquy about art and discipline and commitment — with humor and beautiful music,” said Hartley, 72. Of the rehearsals, she added, “We realized we were kind of working in limbo, but we were continuing to work.”

Finally, during the first week of November, artistic director Barbara Beckley and executive director Trent Steelman announced to cast and crew that funds had been raised. “I cried, I was so invested in it. It was a pretty happy ending,” said Hartley, but then she corrected herself: “I hope not. I hope it's a beginning.”

The funds came in from a wide range of patrons and fans, mostly ranging from $25 to $2,000 donations, many accompanied by emotional letters of support that now cover a wall in the Colony lobby. “The letters on the board were just astonishing — ‘Oh, how I wish I could do more. I can't imagine my life without being able to come to the Colony shows,'” said Beckley. “Just beautiful letters of support.”

The Colony had already laid off half its six-person staff, in addition to an overall budget cut of 17 percent. The theater is now working toward a larger $500,000 fundraising goal by January in the form of cash or commitments for the coming year. The fund would cover the Colony's next two productions and reestablish marketing and fundraising “to stabilize and secure the future, because you can only go to this well once,” Beckley explained.

As if in anticipation of tougher times, the Colony cut back on its production costs years before, turning to small casts and less elaborate sets, while remaining true to its mission to produce quality theater. “Nobody actually noticed the difference,” she said. “In terms of physical sets, you just get really creative, and we continue to get Ovation nominations for our production values. We manage to do a lot with a little.”

They have high hopes that the funds will emerge, said Steelman. “As long as we have a degree of comfort that it will materialize, we will move forward,” he said. If not, they will postpone the last two shows of the season and survive through a contingency plan of hosting outside rentals in the Burbank venue. “It is not on the table to close our doors.”

Renting out the venue would be a hard decision for a company that prides itself on its original productions. Next on the schedule is the Hitchcockian thriller “I'll Be Back Before Midnight,” opening Feb. 6. And in April is the world premiere of “Falling for Make Believe,” an original musical about the short life of lyricist Lorenz Hart, built around a variety of Rodgers and Hart standards, including “My Funny Valentine” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” The Colony has been working on the project for two years.

The Colony's current financial challenges are different from any in the past. “To have that uncertainty is not a comfortable place to be,” said Beckley. “There have been ups and downs. I've been doing this for 37 years. Back in the early '90s there was a recession, but never quite like this.”

As the theater rebuilds its financial health through fundraising, “The Morini Strad” continues its run through Dec. 16, acting out the Colony's mission with a popular actress at its center. “We're really lucky to get Mariette Hartley,” Steelman said. “She is a fantastic actress, particularly on stage. The timing is really good for us to be in the middle of this campaign because we have a production that people are loving, and we have a star that's creating buzz and a draw.”

What: "The Morini Strad"

Where: The Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank.

When: Thursday through Saturday, through Dec. 16.

More info: (818) 558-7000, colonytheatre.org