Malibu Playhouse gets a makeover

The recently renovated Malibu Playhouse features an updated backstage area (above), redesigned lighting, surround sound and fresh coats of paint, as well as other modern and inviting touches. 

With only a few short days before its new season opens on Sept. 6, the Malibu Playhouse is looking a little sportier thanks to some much-needed renovations and a little help from friends. 

“The entire lobby is different now,” Artistic Director Gene Franklin Smith said. “It’s modern, but welcoming and warm and approachable. We ripped that horrible carpet off the wall and painted it. The exterior colors now match the interior colors. We put in this dramatic new chandelier in the concessions area. You can come into the theatre and believe you’re in for a professional experience.” 

The theatre embarked on a fundraising campaign in the spring via the crowdfunding website, which yielded enough cash to tackle the worst of very necessary renovations. 

Smith said it was “cathartic” to rip down the ancient, shredded black curtains that had covered the floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of the theatre and reveal the bare bones of what was originally a mid-century church with architecturally rich design. 

However, the new light let in showed a theatre in sadly deteriorated condition and the Playhouse crew went to work. 

In Smith’s view, the decrepit condition of the theatre prevented the company from offering a Malibu-worthy evening at the theatre and he tackled the first considerations in optimizing effective stagecraft: lighting and sound. 

He hired John Ruegsegger, the master carpenter for the Geffen Theatre, to redesign a sound booth. “He’s incredibly skilled in woodwork, and he did this for us for practically nothing,” Smith said. They redesigned the lighting grid to fill the stage. And they brought in a sound company to properly balance the sound system that had been donated by actor and Malibu eminence grise Dick Van Dyke. 

“We now have real surround sound,” Smith said. “It allows us to do so much more in musicals and provide special effects. It’s a huge change.” 

Some of the work done is not visible to the audience. Backstage has been spruced up, renovating a dressing room that Smith likened to something out of the Addams Family or the Munsters. 

“It was depressing and cobwebby,” Smith said. “We put in all new lighting in the big dressing room. And we even put in a little dressing room for someone who is afraid to strip down in front of everyone else in the cast.” 

Much of the manual labor was provided by someone whose perspective of the theatre was formed both offstage and on. Longtime Playhouse veteran Will Carney, a contractor in his “day job,” said it was an emotional labor of love to rip out the old dressing room and help wire up a new sound system. 

“For me, live theatre is about live sound,” Carney said. “We have an intimate theatre here and I’m not interested in being mic’d. These upgrades were done on a nickel and I think once people see the kind of change you can get with not a lot of money, they’ll step up and help with the rest.” 

The theatre is being readied for Smith’s first season as artistic director. “The Dream of the Burning Boy” by David West Read opens September 6 and is the West Coast premier of the comedy/ drama. The play concerns the mystery of a high school student who dies unexpectedly and the ways students and teachers deal with the tragedy. Though a bleak subject, Smith insists the play is very funny. “Read really captures the voice of teenagers in this,” Smith said. “And we ended up casting several Malibu students. The cast is truly phenomenal. People will believe they are in a New York theatre.” 

Smith is also working with several local hotels and eateries to arrange package evenings for the run. Malibu Playhouse is partnering with Duck Dive to offer pre-show dinners with a 25 percent discount for theatre tickets. 

The Playhouse is also arranging dinner/theatre evenings with area hotels like Westlake Village Inn, the Hilton and the Sheraton, which will provide transportation to and from performances. 

As the season progresses, Smith promises a host of new ventures, including one-off musical reviews, staged readings and one-person performances of works by L.A. area playwrights. Dick Van Dyke has even hinted at doing a variety show. 

“Every penny of our fundraiser was well spent,” Smith said. “People will come to Malibu Playhouse now and say, ‘So, this is what a theatre is supposed to look like!” 

Information of the upcoming Malibu Playhouse season may be found at