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Local theater is an ecosystem. That’s what Seema Sueko, artistic director of Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company and one of San Diego’s theater leaders, likes to say. She describes the continuum this way:
The big companies like La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe don’t exist in a vacuum. There are medium-sized theater companies and baby theaters. There are shows that can pay actors and shows that can’t. There are theaters that have been able to raise enough money to buy their own buildings and those who rent. And within those that rent, there are those with a fixed home and those that rove from performance to performance or from season to season. For the county’s several roving or “gypsy” theater companies — groups with plays, casts and crews and sets but no stage of their own — the effort to find a space in which to perform that play can be a difficult endeavor.
Some of the local theater spaces are too big for the gypsies, with too many seats for how many tickets will realistically sell. Or they might be too small, not allowing as many people who want to see a performance the chance before it’s over.
But Sueko’s company, Mo’olelo, announced this week it’s found a home at downtown’s 10th Avenue Theatre, with 107 seats. In years prior, Mo’olelo has performed all over the county, including at the Centro Cultural de la Raza, the La Jolla Playhouse and the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center at Balboa Park. Each time, the company would pack up props and materials from its office in Kearny Mesa and truck them back and forth to the rented theater spaces.
Being a gypsy company suited Mo’olelo nicely for the last several seasons, Sueko said, but the move marks an important symbolic step in the small company’s progress as a fixture in San Diego’s scene. (Another previously gypsy company, Ion Theatre, moved into its own new home in Hillcrest last spring.)
Besides the easily apparent perks of having a place where audience members know to come, the move is a logistical relief, too.
The company has moved its office out of the space it was subletting from a worker’s compensation law firm in Kearny Mesa into the theater. Now, instead of “schlepping things back and forth from the office in Kearny Mesa,” Sueko said, Mo’olelo can settle in to 10th Avenue.
Originally built in 1928 as a chapel for military servicemen to access 24 hours a day, the building has been owned since 1997 by Jeff Cotta, who wants the building to be an arts hub. It’s already home to three visual artists, rooms for art shows and rehearsals, a personal trainer and other groups that use the classroom/event rooms or the rooftop for parties.
It’s not a new space to Mo’olelo. Since 2009, the company has been performing on the stage, using it more and more last year for shows and special readings and events. And becoming a resident company isn’t new for Mo’olelo either — it was the first company in the program that La Jolla Playhouse has been running for a few years to give a smaller, homeless theater company a rent-free space for a season.
Finding a permanent home, though, ranked below Mo’olelo’s top priority of paying actors a union rate. Part of Mo’olelo’s mission to be “socially conscious” includes paying actors the union wage prescribed by the Actors’ Equity Association. For Mo’olelo that means paying actors about $345 per week of rehearsal or performance, and paying another $145 per week per actor for health insurance and pension. Sueko said even actors who are not part of the union are paid that rate.
“When you pay more for rent you often pay less for people, so a building that was our own was never anything we aspired to,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean Mo’olelo didn’t want to find a long-term rental situation like this one, especially because the building is shared with other groups.
That commitment to paying the union rates gets at a whole other huge issue in local theater that I’ll come back to in another post. But it’s important to realize that for non-union actors, there are no minimum wages, no rules about taking breaks or working certain hours, said David Ellenstein, artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theater.
I visited Sueko at the 10th Avenue Theatre yesterday and will talk more about this news today at 4:30 p.m. on NBC 7/39. If you miss it, we’ll post the clip here as soon as we can.