MID-CITY Heard of the Broad Stage yet?

The $45 million performing arts center opened last year to much fanfare. It was built to serve as the premiere venue of its kind on the Westside. Santa Monica College funded all but $10 million of the ballyhooed project with a voter-approved bond with the hopes that it would serve both the arts community and the school’s student population.

So far, the plan has worked like a charm. By day, scores of students use the facility for music and arts classes. By night, the Broad Stage hosts top flight performers, attracting primarily a mature audience of arts patrons.

With students and mainstream arts patrons squared away, the director of the Madison Project, which operates the venue, realized there was a vast untapped demographic that wasn’t being served by a center still trying to forge an identity.

In hopes of attracting audiences more prone to club hopping or taking in a flick at the local multiplex, Broad Stage Director Dale Franzen came up with the Under the Radar series, which offers tickets at $20 each. Operating in The Edye Second Space, a small black box theater that can be configured a number of ways, the series offers what promoters are calling a “laboratory for mad talent and creative experiments.”

“I wanted to do a series in The Edye that would attract the audience that doesn’t normally come to a performing arts center,” Franzen said. “It’s an intimate space, more like a club. We hoped to get a younger crowd that would eventually move on to the bigger theater.”

Thus far, the 99-seat space has hosted electronic artist Daedelus in Under the Radar’s first show last Sunday and is preparing to present a night of Balkan and Eastern European folk music featuring Rade Sherbedgia and Miroslav Tadic this Sunday.

The eclectic mix of acts will continue through the final eight performances of the series’ inaugural season. Former Men at Work frontman Colin Hay is slated to play The Edye in March and the one-woman show “Mamarama” is scheduled to take place in May.

Ben Wendel, associate producer of the series, deliberately chose acts from a wide range of genres. Part of the thinking was that the series has yet to develop a fixed identity and response to each installment’s act would help shape a second season’s lineup.

“The goal of a lot of performing arts centers at this point is to have a broad range of music to present,” Wendel said. “To survive and thrive you have to be able to look at programming in new ways.

“We’re trying to draw younger audiences. They are our future.”

Wendel believes that today’s arts world dictates diversity in booking. He said that exclusively presenting symphonic works, theater pieces and ballets fall into an old formula that needs to be freshened up if performing arts venues are to maintain creative integrity.

But, he added that Under the Radar would remain a work in progress for the immediate future.

“It is important to bring in alternative programming,” Wendel said. “But, there is no specific focus besides attracting high-level art of any genre.”

Both Franzen and Wendel agree that the format for the series should remain fluid for now. The ability to draw from diverse groups of performers was considered key to the series’ success, which is why Franzen selected Wendel to head up booking.

Being a musician himself, Wendel was tasked with farming his considerable contacts in the entertainment industry to populate the series’ gigs. Some of the acts he knew personally. Others were referred to him by friends and colleagues. He even sifted through piles of press kits to select others.

“I had sort of a wish list for the first season,” Wendel said. “The main direction from Dale (Franzen) was that we wanted a real diversity of different genres and art forms.

“The first season is in line with that idea.”

While the first show was sold out to the point that people were turned away at the door, Franzen said ticket sales are just one indicator that determines success. The response to each show and the proclivity of audience members to return for following shows would factor greatly into any sense of accomplishment.

Another thing Under the Radar has going for it is ample funding. Donors Bill and Laurie Benenson have underwritten the series for the first five years, which gives Wendel and Franzen plenty of time to tinker with the format before having to fret financial realities that every performing arts center is forced to combat, seemingly at every turn.

Against the backdrop of a failing economy, vigorous fundraising and prudent fiscal acumen have helped the Madison Project remain in the black. Franzen said that donations continue to roll in, with the project’s net assets weighing in at $10 million. With a $3.2 million operating budget anticipated for the coming fiscal year, there seems to be a nice buffer in place to buoy the Broad Stage for the time being.

But, as Franzen said, it isn’t how much you have, it’s how much you spend.

“I feel deeply responsible to donors,” she said. “We care about this in a very deep way. We don’t want it to go away.

“We are trying to be practical, sensible and also dreamers.”

daniela@smdp.com

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