Archway Theatre Company Is Thriving Outside the Black Box

When Archway Theatre Company closed the doors on their North Hollywood theater space in January of this year, it was “a bitter sweet decision,” said artistic director Steven Sabel.

Archway Theatre Company’s three-year tenure in the black box space they created on Burbank Boulevard saw them produce more than 30 productions and theatrical events on their stage. Nonetheless, it was time to move on, said Sabel.

“It was a difficult decision for us as a theater company. We worked hard to convert that space into the performance venue we wanted, and it served us well for three years of incredible work, but it was also holding us back from the work we truly wanted to do,” Sabel said.

When it came time to renew the lease on the building, Archway opted not to exercise their three-year extension, and instead made new plans to produce theater elsewhere. In a bold move, the members of the resident company announced a season of five productions, and set out to secure locations that would not only serve each play, but also enhance the settings through their site specificity and immersive quality.

“We truly wanted to create our art outside of the black box in a new creative way that could offer our audiences a more unique theatrical experience,” said Sabel. “Little did we know how closing one door would open so many new ones for us as a theatre company.”

Page to Stage Connection

Developing a partnership with nearby Woodbury University in Burbank, was the first move to open new doors for the theatre troupe. With sponsorship from the Woodbury University Library, in January the members of Archway converted the university’s Enkeboll Courtyard into an English country tavern, and presented their production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” That production led to booking a series of three more productions to be produced at sites on the university campus.

“It’s such a great synergistic relationship, and we consider ourselves so fortunate to be the theater company in residence at Woodbury – which never could have happened without librarian Nedra Peterson,” Sabel said.

As the head librarian at Woodbury, Peterson has always maintained a schedule of cultural and educational events sponsored by the library as a thriving center of activity on the university campus. Past events have included guest speakers and lectures, a variety of performances, as well as fun themed events and contests for the student body.

“Nedra (Peterson) keeps things active at the library, and we are thrilled to be a part of the cultural offerings at the university, while enticing new visitors to discover the beauty of the campus and the fine programs they offer there,” said Sabel.

Founded in 1884, Woodbury University offers a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees through its four major departments: Business, Architecture, Media Culture and Design, and Liberal Arts. Approximately 1,200 students attend classes there. As part of the partnership between the university and Archway, students and faculty members are admitted to performances at no charge.

Surrounded by Books

Archway Theatre Company is Thriving Outside the Black Box

In July, Archway Theatre presented their second production on the Woodbury campus, this time inside the library itself. Sabel’s original adaptation of “Faustus” was presented before audiences as they sat in the library surrounded by books. The Woodbury Library building used to serve as a chapel many years ago when the site was a Catholic center for young women. Sabel said the location couldn’t have been better.

“Here you are in what used to be a chapel – now a library – surrounded by shelves filled with books, watching a story about a man who sells his soul to the Devil in order to obtain ultimate knowledge and power. It was such a perfectly immersive experience for everyone,” Sabel said.

Though the building was deconsecrated many years ago, the architecture of the structure is undoubtedly church-like, with a vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows, and a raised dais at one end, which the Archway members used as their stage.

“We brought in flats, platforms, curtains, and step units; and then John (Eddings) created a set that incorporated actual book shelves from the library. Nedra (Peterson) supplied us with used and outdated books for additional props,” said Sabel.

Archway is known for their exceptional set designs and construction. The theater company has been awarded the Valley Theatre Award for set design the past two years in a row.

In Between

In between productions at Woodbury, in April the members of Archway presented a highly successful production of “The Women” inside the Pinup Girl Boutique, a women’s clothing store in Burbank. Several performances became standing room only presentations as audiences packed in to watch a cast of 18 women play more than 40 roles in the classic play.

The production made use of the boutique’s show room and dressing rooms for actual scenes in the play, and Sabel and Eddings teamed up again to create subsequent locations, such as a hotel room and a bathroom, complete with a cast iron claw-footed tub. Audiences were surrounded by the fashions of the boutique, which were also used as costumes for most of the scenes.

“We provided audience members with a fashion card that described the garments each actress was wearing in each scene. Patrons could see the dress on the actress, then find it on the rack, or visit the website to order it in their own size. It was a very popular feature of the production,” said Sabel.

This month, Archway Theatre Company is teaming up with the Valley Cultural Center in Woodland Hills to present the Center’s annual Shakespeare on the Green performance at Warner Center Park. Archway’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will preview at the park, before moving to the Alumni Quad of Woodbury University for five performances in September.

“We were honored to be asked to perform at Warner Center, and we’re very excited to bring our “Midsummer” to the university, where we will present the play under a beautiful giant oak tree as our natural site-specific setting,” Sabel said.

Later this year, in October, the company will present “Shakespeare’s Haunted Garden” as a fund raising event for the Tarzana Community Cultural Center. The production will lead tours of patrons through a series of scenes and monologues featuring Shakespeare’s villains and monsters presented at different sites throughout the grounds of the Center. Four food and wine stations will be interspersed between the scenes as guests enjoy the 90-minute experience.

Back to Woodbury

Archway Theatre Company is Thriving Outside the Black Box

Also in October, Archway will return to the Woodbury campus to convert the library into a courtroom setting to present Sabel’s original play, “The Trial of Lizzie of Borden.” Based on actual transcripts from the inquest and trial of the famous murder case, the play is a retelling of the gruesome events that left two people savagely murdered, and a wealthy Lizzie Borden who walked away scot-free with her parent’s inheritance.

“Long before the OJ trial, or a variety of other unsolved cases, the Lizzie Borden trial captured the attention of most of America at the turn of the 19th century. Two people were brutally hatchet murdered in their home, and nobody was ever convicted of the crime,” said Sabel.

The Archway production will explore a viable theory of what really happened, while remaining true to the actual testimony of the witnesses called to trial. In the end, the audience will have to decide for themselves whether Lizzie Borden was innocent or guilty of the crime, Sabel said.

“We all know the famous children’s rhyme: ‘Lizzie Borden took and ax, and gave her father forty whacks.’ Well, actually it was 18, but that was plenty enough to do the deed,” said Sabel.

In the Works

The members of Archway’s resident acting company are currently deliberating titles to produce for next year’s season. Sabel’s intent is for the company to continue their site-specific and immersive style productions. One idea the company has been toying with for some time is presenting a production of “Steel Magnolias” in an actual hair salon. Another one on the list for future shows is a production of “Glengarry Glen Ross” to be presented inside a real estate office.

“We want to stick to our site-specific, immersive style as much as possible,” Sabel said.

Future outdoor productions will also be in the mix, including at least one Summer Shakespeare production for next year. The mainly classical company, and Sabel in particular, is known for a penchant for the Bard.

“I’ve produced 21 out of 37 Shakespeare plays, and though some of them are always worth revisiting, I’d also like to check another title of off my list, if possible,” said Sabel.

Without giving anything away – the company usually announces their season in October of each year – Sabel said a couple of his favorites, which are lesser known, include “King John” and “Pericles.”

“We can’t confirm anything yet. Company members made their production pitches at our last meeting. We are in the deliberation phase now as we discuss the viability of certain titles, potential casting, production budgets, and of course suitable, site-specific locations,” Sabel said. “You’ll just have to wait until October to see where we are going in 2019.”

For additional information about Archway Theatre Company, season schedules, and ticket details visit: or call (818)980-7529.

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Lisa Bianconi
Author: Lisa Bianconi

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