COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: After the Pandemic – Reflections by Theatre 40’s David Hunt Stafford

Elaine L. Mura - LA Splash

Registered Critic, Writer

Active for over 45 years as an actor and theater producer, David Hunt Stafford currently serves as the artistic and managing director of Theatre 40, a post he has held since 2000. He serves as producer on all of the productions and has also performed in over 80 plays at Theatre 40 productions, including Arms and the Man, Our Town, and Screwball Comedy. Television and film credits are numerous and include M*A*S*H, Lou Grant, and The Waltons. Theatre 40 works hand-in-glove with the Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) and presents its productions at the Reuben Cordova Theater in Beverly Hills High School. He is also responsible for producing the long-running and critically acclaimed The Manor – Murder and Madness at Greystone, which has played inside Greystone mansion in Beverly Hills for 18 years. David took time from his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.

When did your theater first begin its long career? What led to its creation? What’s the mission statement? Were you involved from the beginning?

David Hunt Stafford:  Theatre 40 was founded in 1964 by a group of actors who got together at the home of Susan French in Santa Monica Canyon. They assembled to read Shakespeare. Susan French, John Houlton, Jonathan McMurty, Robert Cornthwaite, James Boles, and a few others went on to incorporate Theatre 40, filed for a 501(c)(3) status, and formally organized the company. At that time, Theatre 40 did not have a “home.” That happened about 10 years later when the deputy superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District, Dr. Reuben Cordova, became familiar with the theater group and brought Theatre 40 onto the campus, creating a permanent home for us. I joined Theatre 40 in 1989 as an actor. Around 2000, I stepped in to handle a misunderstanding with the Beverly Hills Board of Education, settled the dispute with the assistance of fellow board member Gloria Stroock, and was voted managing director.

The contract that was created between the BHUSD and Theatre 40 is honored to this day. Theatre 40 would be given the “room” – which was originally a storage room for custodial supplies – in exchange for an Adult Education class for senior citizens in the community which members of Theatre 40 would teach on Monday night. This program is called the Adult Education Monday Night Theatre Appreciation Class. Again, the Monday night theatre appreciation class is still ongoing to this day after approximately 45 years. Doing the math, that adds up to over 1,150 plays readings that we have done over the years for the adult students who enroll in the class. The founding fathers sought the help of donors to build the theatre inside the “room.” Ana Bing Arnold stepped up and contributed to the cost of the design and building of Theatre 40. Ming Cho Lee did the design for the theater.

Over the years the Beverly Hills High School has rarely used the theater. When they do, it is with our blessing and full cooperation. Our relationship with the BHUSD and the high school administration has been maintained and is always positive. The members of the Board of Education, the members of the BHHS administration, the superintendent of the BHUSD, and the principal of the high school have changed over the years – and continues to change. Nonetheless, we maintain a positive, flexible, and cooperative relationship with whoever is in charge. The City of Beverly Hills, the City Council members and City staff have always, over the years, been very supportive of Theatre 40, especially in recent years. The City Council have always been strong supporters of our programs and productions and an enormous advocate of our organization. We are always grateful for their support. It has worked well for us.

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

DHS:  We closed the theater after the first weekend of the fifth production in our 54th season, the world premiere of the award-winning new play Taming the Lion by Jack Rushen. The play had already received several positive reviews praising the acting, story, and the design. It was scheduled for four more weekends.

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

DHS: We are closed – that is the impact. No show – no audience – not actors – no box office – no revenue coming in. The impact is dramatic, and we need to get going again as do all the small theaters and everyone else in the world – but not at the risk of contamination to ourselves and others or illness to anyone.

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditions? Fundraising?

DHS: We are not streaming. We are having virtual meetings and virtual rehearsals, and we are planning on re-opening Taming the Lion as well as our final show of the season. Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help by Katie Forgette was scheduled to open May 15 and it still may – but that is only a possibility at this point. It may be delayed longer, depending how things are in the world. When the world is given the “green light” to resume, we will hit the ground running. We will be ready. We just don’t know when that will be quite yet. Yes, we are doing fund raising; and we need funds and resources very badly.

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

DHS:  When the world gets going again and the economy returns, I think that there will be a healthy appetite for people to get out and enjoy what the theater community in Los Angeles has to offer. There are a lot of very high quality theater productions going on in Los Angeles. Many very high quality theater groups producing great shows. Theatre 40 is proud to be considered among those theater companies that has interesting, compelling, and extremely high quality productions available to the public and to the community we serve. We are proud of our choices, our staff, our board, and our company of actors.

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

DHS: We need fund raising, more season subscribers, and younger audiences. From the theater public, we need more charitable contributions, donations, more corporate sponsorships, more financial support from the private sector, and grant monies to support our theater. We also want more season ticket holders, more subscribers, and more subscriptions.

What are some of your future plans?

DHS: We want to continue as soon as possible – and continue with energy, high quality, positivity, and excellence – with commitment to our audience and to our company. We want to grow as much as we can so that we reach more people – the theater lovers of Los Angeles – with what we have to offer. Our plans include growing our base of season subscribers and our resources so that the future is secure for our Theatre 40 audiences and for our company of Theatre 40 actors, designers and technicians. We want this most important art form to thrive and bring entertainment and intellectual stimulation to those who attend.

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Elaine Mura moved to New York City as an adult, where she completed her doctorate in psychology and worked in one of New York’s many State hospitals. Subsequently, she decided to scratch a persistent itch to travel and spent ten years living and working in Denmark, Germany, Portugal, and Iran – with shorter stops in the many scenic spots in between. She aplied her skills all over the world doing research, clinical practice, and academic pursuits. Since relocating to Los Angeles, she taught students in the graduate program at Pepperdine University for many years and spent the last 20 years as a forensic psychologist with the California State prison system. But the writing bug forever lay just beneath the surface, and she is currently writing magazine articles and theater reviews while working on a play, a novel, and a book of short stories.