Next Stage Theater Closed After Almost 30 Years In Hollywood
Following the original publication of this story, allegations were raised of harassment by theater owner Chris Berube. You can read the update here.
Rocketing rent is being blamed for pushing out the Next Stage theater (it was briefly known as the Actors Studio Theater) from a strip mall near the corner of La Brea and Sunset. It was one of Hollywood's small independent theaters, and since 1990 it offered a performance space for up-and-coming performers.
We spoke with theater founder Chris Berube last week as he was breaking down the theater's stage. It's "tearing me apart," Berube said. "It's like watching the autopsy of your kid."
Berube started the theater because he was sick of other theater companies charging dues, making you take classes, and putting aspiring actors in a pay-to-play situation. It started to take off, to the point that he was able to open other theaters throughout the area from Santa Ana to Glendale. The idea was to be able to tour shows among the different venues.
"Then I learned that people in L.A. generally don't go to small theaters, unless they have a connection with said theater," Berube said.
Still, he managed to make the small network of theaters work, though he found it exhausting. That was until a couple of years ago, when Berube had to pull back as he dealt with cancer. Through that, he kept the Next Stage and its welcoming philosophy going.
But when the original owner sold the building, a management group came in and significantly raised the rent, according to Berube. He thinks they didn't want a theater in their building.
Signs started popping up that there were issues about a year ago, according to actor Brett Schlank, who had been a part of the theater.
"Every once in a while, Chris would put out something [on social media] a little cryptic, and people would go, 'Hey man, what's going on?'" Schlank said.
Berube put up a protest via lawyers, but they weren't able to work things out to keep the theater going.
"So now, after 30 years, I'm moving out of my space," Berube said.
More than the shows, Berube said that he misses the community the most.
GIVING ANYONE A STAGE
The theater would allow people to come in with their scripts and put them up with no upfront costs, which is an unusual approach in the L.A. theater scene. In return, the theater would take half of the door proceeds.
"The idea that you can go to a place where you don't have to pay to act is a big deal," Schlank said. "You could put your own stuff up -- stuff that you wrote, or things that you always wanted to do, but maybe you couldn't pull enough money together."
They also offered free rehearsal space.
Sharing revenue caused some problems. For a time, Berube let actors earn a cut of tickets in shows he directed -- also somewhat unusual in small local venues -- but processing all those checks led to some contentious moments.
"One guy came in one afternoon and threatened to throw me over the balcony and kick my ass," Berube said.
He told the man that it was the first time he'd heard about it, and offered to go cut him a check. The amount he was owed -- 15 dollars.
HELPING STRUGGLING ACTORS
Others praised Berube. Berube tried to help struggling actors who might be living on the street or in their cars, offering them a place to stay. There was one man who he helped for several weeks, but things didn't look good for him despite that help.
"We thought, 'Oh my god -- hopefully we won't find this person's obituary in the paper someday,'" Berube said.
Cut to four years later -- he stopped by, wearing a suit and driving his own car. He thanked Berube for his support.
There was another young man who was, as Berube described him, "a general screw-up" but who participated in the theater. Eventually he came in and said that things were looking good for him, and that he had to decline doing another show because he was going to be in The Last Airbender.
"I was like, 'Oh, the Last Airbender. What, are you doing some extra work or whatever? And he just stops and tilts his head and goes, 'No, I'm the star of it.'"
NEXT STAGE MEMORIES
Schlank's favorite Next Stage memory involved an all-female Monty Python revue he put together called "Monty PyThong." They put up sketches from legendary comedy group Monty Python, as well as tweaked versions of them.
One night at the Next Stage, original Python member Eric Idle came out to see the show.
"He's one of the comedy idols that I have, and he was there, and he liked the show, and he liked the little flourishes that we added," Schlank said. "And that is actually one of the highlights of my life."
Another time, the police had to be called over a situation at the theater -- and one of the cops was suspicious of what kind of entertainment they were putting up. According to Berube, they had an exchange similar to this:
Cop: "What kind of shows do you do up there?"
Berube: "We do stage shows."
Cop: "Oh, like nude stage shows?"
Berube: "No, they're just general."
Cop: "Oh, so you don't do any nude stage shows... buuut people come to see your shows?"
Berube: "Yeah, they generally do."
Cop: "So what kind of people come to see your shows?"
To Berube's relief, an A-list star came down the stairs and gave a finger-gun acknowledgement to Berube at just that moment. That helped the officer realize that the venue was actually legitimate.
A POTENTIAL RETURN
Berube has been working on bringing the theater back. Berube was skeptical about it actually coming to be, after hearing people who claimed to be millionaires or bigshot producers failing to come through when the theater needed their help staying open.
"I'm not holding my breath. But, who knows? If the right people come along, and the right opportunity presents itself, I don't think I could stay away from it," Berube said.
The theater's closure indicates to Schlank that there's an expectation of higher revenues from building management companies now.
"I don't think theater's going to go away, but I think that the specialness that the Next Stage offered -- that was very rare to start with -- I think that's going to be hard to come by," Schlank said.
He noted other recent consolidation, like the Acme Comedy theater consolidating down to one location in North Hollywood. But that theater is focused more on comedy rather than being the open-to-anything Next Stage.
"I think it's important to remember what Chris was trying to do, which is provide a safe place for actors to work as though they were working in a professional environment, but not having to pay for the privilege," Schlank said. "You shouldn't have to be rich to do your art."
Without the Next Stage, a lot of aspiring performers wouldn't have stuck with it, Schlank said.
"There are a lot of people who probably would have gone home after coming to L.A.," Schlank said, "but I know people from there who, they're doing commercials, they're on television -- and it was the first place they landed where they got a chance."
UPDATE: ALLEGATIONS OF A TOXIC ATMOSPHERE
Updated Jan. 16, 2019
Others raised their own complaints about the Next Stage. In a Facebook group discussion about the theater following the original publication of this story, opinion on the theater and Berube was split. Multiple actors who had performed there raised concerns about issues including not being paid after being told they would be, the poor condition of the theater, and feeling that Berube was inappropriate, particularly with women. This includes a comment on the LAist Facebook page alleging that Berube "constantly makes uncomfortable advances to cast members."
Actress Amy Harber, who performed in several shows at the Next Stage, alleges that Berube has a bad temper that he took out on actors. Another actress who performed at the Next Stage between about 2008 and 2010, also told LAist that Berube had a temper with performers and could be insulting about people's looks and other personal traits. She agreed to talk on the condition she not be named due to her concerns about her safety.
Harber shared an email with LAist that she said came from Berube. In it, the person identified by Harber as Berube made several insulting comments about her, including that she looked "like a guy."
Berube said that Harber's allegations were "absolutely false and untrue," and denied being inappropriate with women. He added that anyone who feels that they were treated inappropriately deserves to be heard.
After her experiences, Harber said that she started telling people not to do shows at the Next Stage anymore, which led to her being banned from the theater. Harber said that Berube repeatedly called both her and a friend of hers who had been turning people away from the Next Stage.
"I'm just sick of this guy trying to paint his theater as a loving, supporting place for his actors, and it wasn't," Harber said.
Berube said that he had called Harber one time to see if their conflict could be worked out, but that she hung up on him after less than 10 seconds.
Berube told LAist that Harber had stalked and harassed him for years. Harber denies those allegations.
Berube added that anyone who believes he owes them money can contact him, and he promised to fix it.
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