By Kathy A. McDonald
Images by Tim Aukshunas
Santa Monica’s robust cultural offerings reflect the diversity of its community. Boasting one of the city’s most eclectic and stellar lineups of programming, the multi-purpose BroadStage offers theater, dance, opera, jazz, world music, musicals, classical symphony, chamber orchestras, family programming and much more throughout its annual seasons. Since its 2008 opening, the dynamic performing arts complex in central Santa Monica has enlivened the minds and hearts of residents, commuters, students and visitors.
Programs showcase a range of talent from Los Angeles’ entertainment elite to renowned international artists. Located on one of the satellite campuses of Santa Monica College, the BroadStage is the centerpiece of its Performing Arts Center and campus, home to the school’s music program, classrooms and a student-centered contemporary art gallery.
“One of the best elements of the main BroadStage is that it’s a very intimate space (530 seats) but it has a very large stage [40 feet wide by 38 feet deep] capable of doing absolutely anything,” explains Rob Ballis, BroadStage Artistic and Executive Director. “You can have really beautifully produced and fully realized artworks, dance, theater and music but you get to experience them in a very intimate, immediate way,” he adds. Unlike any other performance space in the country, the BroadStage’s configuration allows eye contact with artists from the boxes to the back row–forging a new kind of artist and audience experience.
Rob Ballis, BroadStage Artistic and Executive Director
“It’s a rare occasion to see performers of this caliber on a stage that size. Oftentimes it inspires those artists to do something really different, to take a risk or to do something really exciting or build a special project,” Ballis continues. The building was initially funded by a 2004 bond measure; the Broad Foundation (established by businessman and entrepreneur Eli Broad along with his wife Edythe) came onboard to endow the new facility with funds, ensuring there would be a non-profit presenting organization, tasked with bringing world-class work to L.A.’s Westside. Most of L.A.’s premiere performance venues are downtown and BroadStage fills an enormous gap. “Previously there was no presenting venue of this kind of stature and capacity in Santa Monica,” explains Ballis.
Founding artistic director Dale Franzen led the charge for creating the space; the original vision was a state-of-the-art opera house on a smaller scale, appropriate for younger voices learning the craft. The bespoke design came from Santa Monica-based architect Renzo Zecchetto of Renzo Zecchetto Architects. The striking exterior is a series of complex shapes dominated by a large, cantilevered overhang and a grand glass-encased volume at the top, which glows like a lantern at night. “The architect’s whole concept for the space was to create a beacon that people could see from all around Santa Monica and be drawn into that light,” says Ballis. “It really does beckon you.”
Inside, the BroadStage is notable for its acoustically pristine environment and a comfortable horseshoe plan with custom-designed seating.
The comprehensive arts environment is remarkable for a college campus.
Solid Honduran mahogany is found throughout and contributes to the theater’s impressive resonance. “It’s a very live room, which in musical terms means that if you’re an acoustic musician your sound is going to reach the listener quickly, and will come back to you very quickly,” explains Ballis, who began his career as a classical clarinetist. “You’re in a very reverberant space that allows for an enormous amount of detail,” he adds.
Singers, classical and jazz musicians consider the experience of being in the hall as one of their favorites. “The minute artists walk off that stage, they want to come back,” he contends.
Top tier artists have enhanced the BroadStage since day one. Audiences have seen Mikhail Baryshnikov, actors Helen Hunt, Isabella Rossellini and Hal Holbrook and tenor Placido Domingo—just one of the celebrity opera stars who’ve given recitals in the past. As with other venues, the theater went dark for the 2020 season due to pandemic closures. Reopening meant a return to the BroadStage’s varied mix of highly creative works: actor Alan Cumming (Tony Award winner for “Cabaret”) and Ari Shapiro (host of NPR’s “All Thing Considered”) were seen in a dynamic collaboration performing “Och and Oy! A Considered Cabaret,” a collection of songs and stories. Author and noted humorist Fran Lebowitz, performed “Pretend It’s a City,” a show based on her Netflix documentary series. Influential choreographer Mark Morris presented “The Look of Love,” the Mark Morris Dance Group’s heartfelt homage to the music of Burt Bacharach, with costumes by Isaac Mizrahi.
Solid Honduran mahogany is found throughout and contributes to the theater’s impressive resonance.
In early 2023, a multi-year residency and mentorship program with jazz master Stanley Clarke was established. A duo concert with famed Japanese jazz pianist, Hiromi will launch Clarke’s residency. Sought after contemporary choreographer and director Akram Khan will present his company’s show “Jungle Book reimagined,” wherein key characters of Rudyard Kipling classic tale confront climate change. The production combines animation, video and sound design and cutting-edge visual technology to turn the stage into a magical world.
Pushing the bounds of the BroadStage’s stagecraft, Geoff Sobelle will present “FOOD,” his immersive theater work. The interactive production, where audience members sit at a long dinner table, is described as a meditation on the ways and whys of eating. The production also involves four-and-a-half tons of dirt, says Ballis.
Complementing the main stage is an equally, technically equipped ‘blackbox’ theater space for 100 people, named the Edye, for patroness Edythe Broad. The flexible space hosts cabaret, solo performances and lectures in almost any configuration an artist’s imagination allows. One continuing curated series focuses on blues and soul music. Opened in 2019, the complex’s East Wing sits across a wide plaza and features a flexible indoor/outdoor space for 200 on the ground level. It’s used frequently for jazz shows and boisterous live events.
The comprehensive arts environment is remarkable for a college campus. Students participate in internships and intersect with the space per their select curriculum. “The diversity of programming is matched by the level of welcome we’re offering to an extraordinary range of interests and different kinds of people,” says Ballis of the BroadStage’s commitment to an authentic welcoming environment.
“You’re going to have a great time coming to the venue, whatever artist you see there, you’ll be assured they will be fantastic,” promises Ballis. “The reasons to come are many and the reasons to return are many more.”
For tickets and current programs: BroadStage at The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage