Opinion: Let’s Go Bowl’ing

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Billy Fried

By Billy Fried

In the last six months, we’ve experienced a significant upgrade in the cultural fabric of Laguna. Starting, of course, with the magnificent Rivian theater and their benevolent twice-weekly community movie screenings. Now that Seahorse is gone, it’s become our unofficial clubhouse, a place to meet and hang with friends. At least until the permanent Forest Promenade is built. Then they’ll be siblings.

Right after that, we were gifted the magnificent Honarkar Foundation gallery space, which promises to augment our museum with stellar and hopefully challenging exhibitions, starting with the inaugural retrospective of the prolific figurative genius of local artist Jorg Dubin. And next up is a vast survey of the seminal California artist and abstract sculptor, Tony DeLap.  

And have you also noticed the significant upgrade in coffee shops to keep you caffeinated for all this exciting content? Let’s get this party started.

It’s all admirable stuff, but what about the other five days of the week, ten months a year, when our cultural scene is largely moribund? You know, when the Festival of Arts and Sawdust Festival are dark. Well, thanks to the work of your Mayor Sue Kempf and Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi, we may be on the path to swing just a little bit more. They are our two representatives on the Irvine Bowl Policy Committee, and they met last week with board members of Festival of Arts (FOA) to discuss ways of activating the event spaces, which everyone agrees are tremendous yet vastly underutilized civic assets.

The meeting was fast, productive, and an example of solution-based collaboration between the city and their tenant and operating partner, FOA, to encourage the use of the grounds all year round. And by grounds, they mean the whole enchilada – the art and events area known as the Festival grounds, Terra restaurant, the intimate 230-seat Forum Theater, and the granddaddy of them all, the sublime 2600-seat Irvine Bowl.  

For as long as I can remember, fellow residents have wondered why our amazing amphitheater wasn’t being used for anything outside of Pageant of the Masters. One only needs to venture to Santa Barbara’s Bowl, the Hollywood Bowl and Greek Theater in LA, or Humphrey’s By the Bay in San Diego to know that outdoor venues significantly enhance the cultural life of a town.

So why not here? We learned in the meeting that impacted neighbors above the Bowl have, in the past, voiced issues with the noise at Terra, but not with the Pageant – not recently – due to upgrades in sound baffling. And really, should a few residents who recently moved into homes above a city-owned, 80-year-old public venue have sway over whether they can stage concerts? It’s actually written into the deed restriction (with the Irvine Company back in 1947 when they gifted us the land) that the property be “used in perpetuity for public entertainment and recreational purposes.” Otherwise, land ownership would revert back to the Irvine Company. So it’s in our actual charter to use the facilities as much as possible.

So why not here? Well, when asked if there was any kind of moratorium on renting the facility for concerts, the FOA Board said no, but in reality, the barriers to entry are significant. First, there are the very restrictive noise levels, availability and curfews. Also, the FOA offers no staging, sound or lighting equipment, meaning the promoter has to bring everything in. But here’s the real kicker: renters of the venue have to be non-profits. Which leaves a pool of about none.

But that’s all about to change with the leadership of Kempf and Rounaghi. They have instructed the City Attorney to investigate ways of eliminating the non-profit requirement. After all, Terra is a for-profit entity on the very same grounds. And the city will consider funding the acquisition of staging, sound and lighting equipment, the cost of which would quickly be recouped (and eventually become a profit center) by renting it to the promoters. And that way we can easily control the sound decibels as well.

This should be great news for the Festival, who reported lower attendance this year than in the past. Is it really any surprise? We all love the Pageant, but with all due respect, it’s dated and redundant, and locals should be offered non-tourist programming in such a stunning venue.

Even though there’s a perception that the FOA controls the grounds, they are just the gatekeepers. We own it, but we’ve never exerted any influence on policy because, well, that’s just the way it’s been. But not no more. Not with young council people like Alex, who, instead of asking why, is asking why not. There’s a hunger for new programming to keep us relevant and vital as an arts community. Art is what has defined our community since its founding. But it can never be stagnant in its essential role to reflect back on the times in which we live. Tradition and progress are not mutually exclusive. We can honor the unique traditions of Tableau Vivant and Plein Air art without becoming an anachronism by embracing the full spectrum of modern performing and visual arts. We have the venues to do it. Now it looks like we have the will as well.  

Billy is the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an outdoor adventure company Email: [email protected]. 

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