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REDCAT: The Magic Down Below

February 7, 2012

REDCATIt’s Jan. 26, and upstairs at the Walt Disney Concert Hall Gustavo Dudamel is about to conduct a rather traditional program of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. People are bustling to find their seats. It’s a familiar scene.

Downstairs, by contrast, at REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater), the crowd is decidedly more hip and chatty, in expectation of a concert featuring the premiere of Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers to be performed by the Golden Quartet and Southwest Chamber Music and conducted by Jeff von der Schmitt.

The REDCAT lounge is filled with the buzz of conversation, the sound of clinking wine glasses, and the hiss of the espresso machine. A few people are browsing through the small adjacent library, whose shelves offer an eclectic array of titles that range from The Urban Cookbook, Islam Without Extremes, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, and The Librettos of Mozart to The Dictionary of Baseball.

“The library was my particular dream,” recalls Cal Arts President Steven Lavine. “I wanted people that arrive early (the way I do) to have a book to look at. I love it that whenever Peter Sellars is in town he comes down and goes through the books and that the Philharmonic musicians come in for our great coffee. We were voted the best espresso in L.A.,” he adds proudly. “We think it’s really important at REDCAT that our relationship with our audience goes beyond the consumer level.”

Jammin’ in the Basement

REDCATWhen Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in fall 2003, its architect, Frank Gehry, referred to it as “a new living room for the city.”

“If that’s true,” says REDCAT Director Mark Murphy, “then REDCAT is the basement rec-room. We’re an R&D center for contemporary art.”

Like its parent organization, the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, REDCAT is multidisciplinary in nature. Its extensive performance and gallery schedule includes some 150 events, 200 performances, and five gallery exhibitions each year. Its cutting-edge programming emphasizes contemporary music, dance, and theater (including a multiyear residency by the Wooster Group), avant-garde film programs, and animation festivals. It is Disney, after all.

“We’re in use about 330 days out of the year,” says Murphy.

In 2011, REDCAT’s stage hosted (among others) the Angel City Jazz Festival, showcasing the music of Theo Blackman; a dance program by Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula with guitarist Flamme Kapaya; the new German cinema of Werner Schroeter; video art by Janie Geiser; The Radio Show by choreographer Kyle Abraham; a tribute to animator Jules Engel; and Scream Festival 2011: Sounding Images, a multimedia concert of electroacoustic music film and video.

“We think it’s really important at REDCAT that our relationship with our audience goes beyond the consumer level.” – Steve Lavine

This month, REDCAT is preparing to present two days of performances devoted to the 100th birthday of the American iconoclast (and former Cal Arts faculty member) John Cage (Feb. 15–16). Next fall REDCAT plans to present a new production of Cage’s Europeras 1 and 2, as well as an all-Cage concert, at the new Cal Arts concert venue affectionately known as the “Wild Beast.”

Other programming for the spring season includes electronica pioneer Morton Subotnick with the California E.A.R. Unit; KarmetiK Machine Orchestra (musicians and robots); a two-day celebration of Maori and contemporary music from New Zealand; Dutch theater ensemble Wunderbaum with rock trio Touki Delphine; and director-choreographer Dayna Hanson’s Glorious Cause, among other mind-bending experiences.

The Academy Connection

John CageREDCAT is a performance-space extension of Cal Arts. And though it’s physically part of the Los Angeles Music Center complex (which is overseen by the County of Los Angeles), it is independent, unlike the other resident companies: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Center Theatre, and Los Angeles Opera.

“I think in the beginning there may have been some hesitancy about whether we would be a good fit for the Music Center and whether our presence would create administrative challenges,” says Murphy. “Once we opened it, it became clear to us and to the rest of the Music Center that we represented (quite literally) a backdoor entrance to the Music Center for a younger and more diverse audience. We receive financial support from Cal Arts, but it’s never more than 5 percent of our overall budget, which is about $2.2 million. The rest has to be obtained through a combination of contributions and ticket sales. But the relationship we maintain between REDCAT and the Cal Arts campus in Valencia (35 miles away) is all-important.”

Ever since it opened in 1969, Cal Arts has included major artists on its faculty and hosted a long line of stellar artists in residence, like Laurie Anderson, Tricia Brown, Meredith Monk, and John Cage. With the addition of REDCAT, these artists in residence can produce work (often incorporating student performers) that they know will be presented at the downtown venue.

“The Valencia campus has always attracted remarkable artists,” says Murphy. “But it’s easier to attract them, now that they know there is a downtown theater where their work can reach a wider public and is more likely to receive press coverage. You know the expression, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Valencia is definitely out of sight for most of our audience!”

“REDCAT is an R&D center for contemporary art.” – Mark Murphy

The connecting link between Cal Arts and REDCAT actually dates as far back as 1961 when two esteemed but financially struggling art schools — the Chouinard Art Institute (founded in 1921) and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music (founded in 1883) — merged to form the new California Institute of the Arts. Ironically, says Lavine, the land where Disney Hall and REDCAT now stand was originally proposed as the site for the new college, but Walt Disney was reluctant to accept land that would place the school under the control of the County of Los Angeles and its Board of Supervisors. As a result, Cal Arts was located in Valencia, which at that time was mostly orange groves. So, in a strange way, the location of REDCAT represents a return to its originally proposed site.

Mickey and Minnie Open Doors

The creation of REDCAT, however, was not part of Gehry’s original design for the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex, which also includes the offices of the L.A. Philharmonic. It was only when the project stalled and a major infusion of cash was supplied by Walt Disney Productions that a stipulation was added that a downtown venue for Cal Arts must be part of the overall design.

“Frank [Gehry] told me that he had always wanted a Cal Arts presence, but it was not included in any of the original plans,” Lavine recalls. “And when it did become part of the plan, no one had specified where the space would be or what it would look like. I remember a meeting at Frank’s studio when he walked over to the schematics of the project and said, ‘This is the only place it can go,’ which involved carving space out of the parking structure. It provided for a street entrance of our own and was accessible to the loading dock, which was crucial for loading in productions. That was the moment of genius.”

Because of the limitations of the space, the theater was conceived as black box, similar in design to the Walt Disney Modular Theater at the Valencia campus. The idea, says Lavine, was to create a totally flexible space that could be reconfigured to present the widest variety of programs.

When REDCAT celebrated its grand opening (on Oct. 28, 2003) it did so in totally Cal Arts style. It was a 24-hour marathon of arts presentations that began with a fancy gala, proceeded through the night with an array of musical and dance performances, and culminated the next day with a bevy of family-oriented entertainment.

“I’ll never forget,” says Murphy. “I’d gone in to try to get some sleep. And when I woke up, the Disney characters had arrived. There was Mickey and Minnie Mouse!”


 

REDCAT is located at 631 West Second Street in Los Angeles, underneath the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Ample parking is available.

For program information and tickets, call (213) 237-2800 or visit redcat.org.

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).