L.A.´s Black Dahlia

FEATURE by Willard Manus

The Black Dahlia is the little theatre that could, thanks to the drive and passion of its founder and artistic director, Matt Shakman. At 29 and less than a decade out of Yale University, Shakman is something of a wunderkind. Four years ago he turned a storefront on Pico Boulevard into a 30-seat theatre which has achieved remarkable success. The Dahlia's first production, Orson's Shadow by Austin Pendleton, not only enjoyed a long run (and transferred to the Tiffany) but won numerous critical prizes, as did most of its successive productions: Belfast Blues, The Shoreham, Den of Thieves, Ragged Time, Angry, Theatre District and An Infinite Ache.

Shakman's love of theatre goes back to his childhood, when he appeared in commercials at the age of four. His hometown is Ventura, CA., where his family has resided for seven generations. After working in community theatre until he was fourteen, he opted to attend a boarding school in nearby Ojai ("where I could be a normal highschooler"), which was followed by four years as an undergraduate at Yale.

"I was there for a liberal arts degree," Shakman recalled, but was drawn to extracurricular activities in theatre. "I learned a lot working with some very creative people, including Bobby Lopez, composer of Avenue Q. We focussed on Shakespeare and theatre as history, but my real interest was in contemporary theatre--what's interesting today, rather than what's gone before."

After "pounding the pavements" as an actor and assistant director in New York for several years, he made two big decisions:

to concentrate on directing and to relocate to Los Angeles. "I'd acted all my life, but it no longer brought me joy," he said. "I felt I could better control my own destiny as a director, especially if I started my own theatre."

Los Angeles appealed, not only because of its talent pool, but because space was more affordable. "One of my big influences was Peter Brooks' The Empty Space, in which he said that all that's needed to make theatre is for someone to walk across a space and someone to watch him."

The Wilshire Vista section of Pico Boulevard had been damaged in the L.A. Riots but was slowly undergoing redevelopment. "Not only was space cheap but the area wasn't too far from the Los Angeles County Museum and Hollywood," explained Shakman. "The neighborhood had great potential, which has been born out lately. Houses that went for two hundred thousand four years ago now sell for eight hundred thousand; coffee shops and art galleries have replaced the auto body shops."

Shakman and a few friends built the Black Dahlia from the ground up. They raised capital by putting on benefit shows, asking for donations, holding readings. "The most difficult part of the process was getting permission from the Dept. of Building and Safety. They fought us every step of the way, until an aide in Councilman Nat Holden's office took up our cause and made some key phone calls. Finally, after a seven-month struggle, we got our certificate of occupancy."

It will always be a struggle for a 30-seat theatre to survive, but thanks to its successful productions, a charitable grant, and continuing donations, the Black Dahlia has thrived. "Not that any of us attached to the theatre has been paid," Shakman confided. "I don't draw a salary and everyone else--the dramaturge, tech and set

director--work pro bono. My next goal is to remedy that situation. Right now the theatre feeds their hearts, but I'd also like it to feed their wallets."

Shakman pays his bills by directing in television (Huff, Once & Again, Everwood and Oliver Beene). He would also like to begin directing feature films, but even if that happened, he would never turn his back on the Black Dahlia. "I love running a little theatre, love the challenge, the joys and sorrows. Above all, I love being able to mount, three times a year, plays I care about and believe in."