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Council Hears Debate Over Theater Space

The bid to occupy Burbank’s Center Stage theater space was in the spotlight this week as the City Council deliberated the issue amid mounting public discourse, deciding to conduct additional interviews with applicants in a future meeting.

City staff kicked the request for proposal process, or RFP, to the Council after procedures were jeopardized when unsatisfied applicants shared confidential details about the process on social media and in the press. Staff hoped the City Council would accelerate the process in a transparent manner.

“It’s really difficult to make this decision because we don’t have a complete package and we can’t yet get the answers to a lot of the questions that we asked,” said Councilwoman Zizette Mullins, as she proposed additional screenings. “I am hoping that this helps us complete the process in a fair and transparent way. Hopefully we can bring the integrity of the process back knowing it has been done in an open, public setting.”

The bid contest for the 14,000-square-foot theater space adjacent to the Burbank Town Center was initiated by the city in late 2022.

In initiating the RFP process, the city invited arts and theater organizations to apply to occupy Burbank Center Stage in December 2022. As part of a development agreement with the Burbank Town Center, the city leases the building at a very low cost and is committed to utilizing the space for arts and theater.

Among the applicants to occupy the space are the current sub-tenant, the Colony Theatre, which hopes to secure a long-term lease at the space where they’ve run live theater, dance, arts and culture events for 23 years. Colony was joined by Greenhouse Arts and Media, After Hours Theatre Company and the Burbank Community YMCA — partnered with Conundrum Theatre Group — which are also vying to lease the space.

In its staff report, the Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the Burbank Center Stage space, recommended the YCMA and Conundrum Theater Group take over the space after the Colony’s lease expires in December, based on a panel of city staff and community theater experts.

There has been general confusion and outrage over the RFP process since it was initiated, and a movement to “Save the Colony” has mounted in recent months.

“The RFP process is not designed to pit one group against another,” said Mayor Konstantine Anthony Tuesday. “This was supposed to be an internal process. It was not intended to go public or have any of the problems we have seen. It is very disappointing that it has come to this.”

The conversation began when the After Hours Theatre Company spoke out after they were controversially disqualified from the process for a “lack of communication.” Representatives for After Hours told the Leader they hadn’t heard back on their application for weeks, and that its team called the city repeatedly without response ahead of being disqualified.

The Colony asked the Council to cancel the RFP entirely and instead proceed with signing a long-term lease with the Colony, while the YMCA, in partnership with Conundrum Theatre, asked that their bid be given a fair chance.

“For the entirety of my tenure, we have never been given a long-term lease, yet promised one since 2018. The questionable intent behind the false promises along with the handling of the RFP has caused detriment to our business and our brand. You cannot successfully operate a theater on a month-to-month lease. It is a setup for failure,” said Heather Provost, producing artistic director at the Colony Theatre.

The YMCA, in partnership with Conundrum Theatre, proposed that they be granted the space to use as a community theater space, as opposed to using it for putting on professional theater shows.

“We believe that a vibrant, thriving, accessible community theater experience can nurture, inspire and change the hearts and minds of an entire community,” said Mary Cutone, director of the Burbank Community YMCA.

In 2017, the Council initiated a separate RFP process for Burbank Center Stage citing “ongoing financial challenges and their inability to produce original productions at that time,” said Marisa Garcia, Parks and Recreation director. That process feel through after attempts to partner the Colony’s programming with the Burbank Unified School District.

The city says that putting out a competitive request for bids for a city-owned space is simply a best practice to assess market conditions and solicit proposals from those who wish to occupy that space.

“A healthy competition often results in transformational change including enhanced or expanded services or different programs for the community whether with existing operators or new partners,” said Garcia.

According to Garcia, the city wasn’t limiting the request to strictly theater operations. Instead, they were open to entertaining bids for museums, galleries or other cultural center bids.

City officials suspended the RFP process in July, citing that external communications and press coverage during the process garnered significant public attention. The city indicated that it could be difficult for the panel to make an unbiased decision and decided that the panel would no longer make a recommendation, and the decision would instead be made by the Council directly.

The Colony Theatre received the lowest score among the three evaluated RFP applicants by a panel of “three subject matter experts in community theater and three city staff members,” according to city staff reports.

Throughout the process, additional interviews have been added, and deadlines have been pushed back by months, raising questions about the RFP process.

“Although staff has been very thoughtful with this RFP process, we do acknowledge that the initial lack of communication prior to issuing this RFP has caused some to question the integrity of this process,” said Garcia, adding that staff should have solicited feedback from the community in an open forum.

Members from the Colony and the YMCA gave their point of view during Tuesday’s meeting, hoping to garner support from the Council.

“I came to the Colony in 2017. The theater was struggling,” said Provost, referencing her early days as artistic director at the Colony.

“We immediately implemented an entirely new business model and were in the black in six months and producing union shows again. More recently we navigated and survived a global pandemic. We should be celebrating that fact. A thriving venue coming out of a pandemic should never have been sent out for an RFP in the first place,” said Provost.

Provost provided some context behind why she chose to speak out about the RFP process in recent months, a choice that led to a swell of public outrage and kind words about the Colony Theatre from dozens of supporters on social media and at numerous city meetings.

“When we spoke the truth publicly about Parks [and Recreation] business practices and the RFP process, we feared retribution that our RFP bid may be jeopardized for doing so, and alas, here we are,” Provost said. “For the entirety of my tenure, we have never been given a long-term lease, yet promised one since 2018. The questionable intent behind the false promises along with the handling of the RFP has caused detriment to our business and our brand. You cannot successfully operate a theater on a month-to-month lease. It is a setup for failure.”

Provost was critical of the Parks and Recreation Department’s handling of the RFP process, citing their leasing history as a point of contention.

“I would assume Parks and Recreation provided you with a copy of our proposal, yes? No. And that absolutely tracks. This entire RFP process should be thrown out. It has lacked integrity since the day it was announced,” she said.

Provost also questioned the YMCA and Conundrum Theatre in her comments, saying “We have worked with the party being recommended, and while the work they do is vastly important in their own sector, it is deeply concerning that they need to be told tech rehearsals are necessary, you can’t paint the stage during load-in, don’t focus lights on a stage you intend to paint … common knowledge for professionals. This is not a hobby for us.”

Cutone defended the YMCA, describing the intent behind the organization’s foray into theater.

“YMCAs are all uniquely different, depending on the unmet needs of the communities which we serve,” she said.

“Now, knowing that 50% of LGBTQIA+ youth have seriously considered suicide in the last year, we are responding with our social impact center. Nowhere in our mission does it say we are a swim and gym,” said Cutone.

Cutone addressed attacks against the YMCA. “It is difficult not to defend barbs thrown the Y across social media, print organizations and, frankly, community gossip,” said Cutone, appearing to hold back tears. “I am here to report that our only offense is that we responded to an open RFP and provided our best vision for the Burbank Center Stage.”

During a future meeting, the Council will prepare questions for applicants who will be screened based on the merits of their application, proposal format and business model. The Council will then decide on who the Burbank Center Stage space will be granted to.

First published in the August 26 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

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