The title of Planet Earth Theatre's most recent show proved to be prophetic. Only a few days after the final performance of In Heat, the 15-year-old company was in hot water with its landlord, who served notice to evict the troupe from its downtown warehouse home after a complaint was lodged with the local fire department. The dramatics that have transpired since have been only slightly more entertaining than the company's last several productions.
"I was trying to get the building up to code, but the landlord panicked," says Greg London, the company's artistic director. "He didn't want to put any money into fixing up the place, so he just told us to move out."
London, who teaches acting in ASU's Master's Performance program, was served last Wednesday with a notice of eviction that gave the company only two days to evacuate the building.
The troupe has resided in the former warehouse at Third Street and Roosevelt since 1985. There, in a building known more for the colorful 40-foot mural that adorns its west wall than for the shows presented in its dank interior, Planet Earth has reigned as the only alternative theater company in the valley. New translations of old saws like Hair and The House of Bernarda Alba played alongside underground stuff like last season's Shopping and Fucking.
While both the Arizona Republic and KNXV-TV reported last week that the eviction was the result of a failed fire inspection, the building is actually up to current fire codes. That's because, by the time the Phoenix Fire Department received an anonymous complaint about unsafe conditions at Planet Earth, London had already spent more than $1,000 to ensure that the theater was fire safe.
"Much of the complaint filed against the building proved invalid," according to fire prevention specialist Patrick Stonebraker, who investigated the venue. "They had the proper exit signs, and the necessary emergency equipment. There was nothing wrong there except that they had no place-of-assembly permit."
Any public building that hosts more than 50 people at a time requires such a permit, according to Stonebraker. He recommended that London apply for the $53 permit, and also required that the venue obtain a certificate of occupancy. (City records show that the last such certificate was issued to a commercial print shop that occupied the building when it first opened in 1958.)
"I was never able to reach Greg to get the ball rolling," Stonebraker says. "So I contacted their water company to inquire about who their landlord was. I figured I'd deliver my recommendations directly to the building's owner."
Besides finding the name of Planet Earth's landlord, Stonebraker discovered that the company's water bill was delinquent.
"So he went to our landlord and told them we weren't paying our utilities and didn't have the proper permits," London says. "Why is this his concern? He's with the fire department. We're up to fire code, so he should just go home and leave the other issues up to us."
Stonebraker also learned that Planet Earth was six months behind in its $350 monthly rent, a fact that seemed to interest him more than it did the building's owner, Esca, Ltd.
"We were less concerned with the delinquent rent than we were the pending repairs the fire department said we'd have to make," says Esca, Ltd. spokesperson Stanley Paul Cook. "The fire inspector pointed out that we needed plumbing and electrical inspections, and we knew those would lead to repairs that we weren't willing to pay for. We decided it would be less expensive to just shut the building down."
Cook admits that word of the company's delinquent water bill helped him make up his mind. "We began to wonder if Greg had kept up payments on his liability insurance," he says. "If he hadn't, that meant we were liable for any injuries sustained by patrons there."
London was as quick to provide Cook with proof of Planet Earth's current insurance policy as he is to question Stonebraker's interest in his theater company. "Why is this guy recommending electrical and plumbing inspections?" he wonders. "Why is it his business that we're behind in our rent and utilities? I knew we were fucked when I heard the guy's name. It sounds like the name of someone in a John Waters movie."
"I can't take responsibility for the fact that they didn't pay their rent and water," Stonebraker says. "I was merely pointing out that they had to get these two permits, and that there would be repairs required before they could get them."
Although Cook has assured London that he's free to move back into the building if and when the repairs are made and the rent is current, it may all be moot now that Esca, Ltd. has listed the building for sale. "It will almost certainly be demolished by whoever buys it," Cook says. "It's a run-down old building. There's not much there worth saving, really."
In the meantime, London has been granted a 10-day extension to his September 1 eviction. He's seeking storage for the theater's seats, set pieces and props, and is scouting locations for a new Planet Earth Theatre. He continues to rehearse the company's upcoming shows, William Shakespeare's R&J and Shannen Doherty Shoots a Porno, and is planning to stage both later this month.
"Just don't ask me on what stage," London says. "Right now, it all looks pretty hopeless."
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