Retorts: Theater controversies act up

DIANA CAREY speaking at Wednesday's meeting of the Westminster City Council (OC Tribune photo).

DIANA CAREY speaking at Wednesday’s meeting of the Westminster City Council (OC Tribune photo).

There is something about publicly-supported theater that draws politicians like reporters to an open bar. Operation of Garden Grove’s Gem Theater and Festival Amphitheatre had multiple conflicts ranging over a generation, and now Westminster has one to call its own.

retortsAt Wednesday’s meeting of the Westminster City Council, a proposal to change management of the 400-seat Rose Center Theater was floated by Councilman Tyler Diep. His idea of soliciting “requests for proposals” from other parties to take over operation of the facility on All American Way –adjacent to the civic center – brought a sharp response from Friends of the Rose Center, a non-profit group that currently operates the facility.

Executive Director Tim Nelson was mild in his remarks, but board member Diana Carey was angry. Until she lost her seat on the city council to newcomer Kimberly Ho, she sat about 10 feet from Diep on the council dais twice a month from Diep. Why hadn’t he mentioned this before?

As often happens in politics, the true impetus behind proposals and actions are not always obvious. Initially, the proposal for RFPs was couched in simply fiscal terms – maybe the city could no longer afford the $70,000 subsidy (primarily in utility costs) it gives toward the operation of the theater?

But as the discussion continued, another issue – perhaps the key – emerged. Some people or organizations wanted a discount from the established rental fees; some perhaps – it’s still not clear – expected the use of the facility for free. This appears to be contrary to the contract governing the use of the Rose Center.

To me, this feels a lot like déjà vu. I remember the struggles over the Grove Theater Center, when complaints about an annual $50,000 subsidy may just have been cover for not liking all that Shakespeare they were doing. Later battles over the use of the two theaters in Village Green Park also were waged under a smoke screen.

The operators at that time were producing very little theater of any kind. Efforts to oust them in favor of people who actually wanted to produce plays were cleverly depicted as being as anti-art. George Orwell would have been proud.

Why theaters attract controversy may be a riff on what Henry Kissinger once said about academic battles. The fighting is so fierce because “the stakes are so low.”

The arts are – or should be – an important part of any community. But at a time when crime rates are spiking, homelessness is rampant and Westminster is looking to launch a major economic development effort, is this really where the city and its leadership want to place the focus?

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts column appears weekly.



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