By Brian Feinzimer
By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
Looking back over 20 years and the dozens of productions he produced as artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse, there's a great deal that makes Andrew Barnicle proud. Plays he directed—like Mamet's American Buffalo and the 1950s Red Scare spoof Red Herring—as well as the relationship he helped to forge with Irish playwright Bernard Farrell. There were box-office smashes and personal artistic triumphs.
But there's one show in particular that absolutely mystifies him: The 2007 staging of Art, Yasmina Reza's smartly written comedy about three New Yorkers debating the nature of art.
"I thought a play about art [staged] in Laguna Beach would have" been a hit, Barnicle says. "But it was a box-office disaster. It got standing ovations from the people who were there but just didn't sell. Just one example of something I learned over the years: You can never tell. I guess if I did know, I'd be living in a penthouse in New York."
Barnicle announced last March he was stepping down as the playhouse's artistic director. The 2010-11 season was the last he programmed, and Private Lives, which he is directing and which opens this weekend, is the final show of that season. He joined the playhouse in 1991; one year later, Richard Stein came aboard as executive director. Over the next two decades, the two men led the transformation of a 70-year-old community organization into a full-fledged professional company, guiding the playhouse into the upper echelon of American regional theaters (South Coast Repertory is the only other OC institution in that category).
But costs skyrocketed as the playhouse paid its actors union-scale wages and spent more money on productions. And when the economy began to tank, it, like every other professional-theater troupe, found itself in deep shit. Subscribers peeled off, fewer people donated to the arts, and its bread and butter, single-ticket sales, also started drying up. Two years ago, the playhouse's board of directors made the decision to reorient from a producing entity into a presenting entity. It's opening its space to community groups, collaborating with other theaters, and presenting ready-made shows staged elsewhere and trucked into Laguna. Even its in-house productions will feature shorter running times and smaller casts. While not the major reason behind Barnicle's choice to step down, the organizational reshuffling was a factor.
"The organization [was] going through a lot of stuff, and finally, [I began to think] I'm the odd man out. But it was purely my decision," he says. "The decisions made by the board were good decisions made to preserve and sustain the organization. . . . It's part of the whole sea change [in American theater]. . . . The playhouse is certainly not alone."
A bigger factor in Barnicle's decision, however, was that he had "hit a wall," he says. "Running a theater for 20 years is an awfully long time. Plus, I'm turning 60 this year . . . so all these things just kind of came together at the same time."
It would have been sweetly ironic if the last play during Barnicle's tenure was something along the lines of Sartre's No Exit. There is no irony in signing off with Noel Coward's sharply witty 1930 comedy, Private Lives. "It's one of the few plays that I'd always wanted to direct," he says. "It's small and contained, and I love it."
And though not exactly rabble-rousing fare, Private Lives contains challenges, largely dealing with audience expectations, since many seasoned theatergoers are already familiar with it. Then there's the hurdle of how to handle the play's most uneasy aspect.
"The [main] couple beats the shit out of each other, and that can be a little shocking," he says. But mostly, Barnicle says, the play "is just so funny and witty. And we're doing it the right way. We're not trying to do anything new with it. Just using vivid actors who try to make each moment mean something."
As far as Barnicle's immediate future, he says he plans to freelance direct and act. He has talked to the playhouse about directing a show next season, although nothing is official. He has several projects lined up at Southern California theaters. And though Barnicle is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the playhouse, it will remain a place close to his artistic heart.
"I have no regrets," he says of his time there and his departure. "I had a great time, and I think they're going to be just fine without me."
This article appeared in print as "Not Scraped Off At All: Andrew Barnicle leaves the Laguna Playhouse with no regrets, lots of love, and one final play."