A new theater to open on Main

By Samantha Hermann

While the Lizard Theater Company has generated a small but devoted following from around Los Angeles, many Alhambra residents are unaware of it. Among them, until recently, was the city manager, Julio Fuentes, who was hoping just such a group could bring new cultural life to Main Street. Then last spring he attended a Lizard show and discovered the city already had a thriving performing arts company — just that it was missing a stage of its own.

Rapid plans for a city-funded theater ensued. In a couple months Lizard will move into its own theater on 112 West Main Street, made possible by roughly $100,000 in tenant improvement money. Everyone involved seems a little surprised by the turn of events. The acting group “appeared out of nowhere,” Fuentes, who is responsible for the city’s push to support the theater, said. Lizard director Jay Parker, echoed his sentiments, “It came right out of nowhere,” he said, describing the funding. “And, really I have never heard of a theater company getting this kind of support from anyone.”

Though unexpected, the new theater is just the next step in a long journey for the company. It started in 1992 as an improvisational group known as the Subterraneous Lounge Lizards and moved in 2005 to its current space with the Center of World Dance. More than just a stage, Parker says with Lizard he strives to create a supportive environment offering advice, acting classes, performance opportunities and a sense of community that company members say can be hard to come by in Hollywood. “We wanted to be a safe refuge for actors,” Parker, an actor and playwright himself, said outside an Alhambra coffee shop. “It is definitely different from the whole Hollywood scene where everybody is just looking out for themselves,” said Nora Jesse, an actor who has appeared in nine shows with the company. “Jay has this way of creating a real family environment among all his actors.”

With most of the actors from out of town, Parker says they are vulnerable to scams, and “we just make sure everyone knows what to watch out for.” For example, aspiring actors are often offered a role only to later find out that they actually have to pay a fee or sell a certain number of tickets in order to be part of the production. The company spreads awareness of such traps largely through postings on their Website and Facebook page. “Whenever we run into anything like that, we put up a big red flag and let everybody know that this is scam — don’t work with this guy,” Parker said.

In this spirit the company strives to create an atmosphere where people take care of one another. “We’ve had a doctor in the area who is an aspiring playwright,” Parker said. “So we produce some of his plays, and when our actors need some medical help, we send them to him.” Giving actors a “safe haven” is what Parker finds most rewarding. “I feel like I’m being part of other people’s lives and making a positive difference, where there is so much negative stuff coming from Hollywood, and so much negative stuff within the acting profession,” Parker said.

Helping to create this environment is Bryana Pickford, an Alhambra native who, along with Parker, shares the title of managing director. Pickford started working with the theater while in college and now runs its educational programs. What is most rewarding, she said, “is having an outlet to do what I am passionate about, what I love, and having it be so close to home, and such a family.”

Even though the Lizard Theater may cultivate a different environment than Hollywood, it maintains close ties with the industry. Company alums have recently appeared in the film “My Sister’s Keeper” and the television shows “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” Parker said such success stories bolster the company’s reputation with both audiences and other actors. “Our actors come in because they want to get noticed and they are trying to get work, and this is a way for them to do that,” Parker said. “So the more successful they are, the more successful we are, and vice-versa.”

Actors are not the only ones making the trip to Alhambra for the Lizard Theater. Parker estimates that the company draws 80 % of its audience from outside the city, mostly from Los Angeles. They are making an effort to recruit new audience members through a “pay what you can” ticket pricing model. “We wanted to open up theater to everyone, regardless of finances —especially now, when everything is hard.”

The new space will present even more opportunities for the theater to draw in larger audiences. The new theater will have 50 seats, 20 more than the old space. Not sharing a space will also mean the ability to add matinee performances and hold additional workshops.

Though the company will retain the close-knit family feel that is at its core, the city’s assistance will help move them into a bigger league. “They are pouring a ton of money into it and turning it into something that is going to be just as good as any small theater that you would go to in L.A. or Hollywood,” Parker said. “We are really excited about it. It’s going to open up a whole new avenue for us.”

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