BROAD STAGE — When Oscar-winner Helen Hunt stepped into Santa Monica College’s Broad Stage to enjoy a performance by the graceful ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, she was somewhat shocked to see such a state-of-the-art venue located so close to her home on the Westside.

“I couldn’t believe that in my neighborhood we have this exquisite place to work,” said the beautiful blond known for her role as Jaime in the hit sitcom “Mad About You.”

Hunt was so excited about the $45 million, 499-seat performance space that she struck up a conversation with the director, Dale Franzen, and the two quickly bonded. Their mutual love for the performing arts and Hunt’s appreciation of The Broad are the reasons why the space will be physically transformed come January, as it will host the critically-acclaimed production of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Our Town.”

Hunt, having starred in the central role of the Stage Manager in director David Cromer’s Barrow Street Theatre run, felt compelled to bring the emotionally compelling and nourishing “Our Town” to the West Coast, specifically The Broad. She will once again star in the production and Cromer will reconfigure the main stage, cutting down the number of seats so that the actors and audience come closer together.

Hunt, who also is the proud owner of an Emmy, is just one of the stars who will be performing or directing during the fourth season of The Broad and its sister venue, The Edye Second Space, Franzen announced Tuesday during a press conference attended by Hunt and Tony Award-winning theater composer and playwright Jason Robert Brown, who will bring his eight-piece band to The Broad in March of next year so that he can perform hits from his shows.

Other stars featured in The Broad’s 2011-12 season, which kicks off in July, include jazz legend Pat Metheny, neo-soul diva India.Arie, and actor Neil Patrick Harris, who will make his directorial debut.

The state-of-the-art modernist arts complex on Santa Monica Boulevard, which opened in October 2008 thanks to $40 million in taxpayer bonds and a $10 million endowment from philanthropist Eli Broad, will also become the new home for productions coming out of London’s Menier Chocolate Factory and the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and will transform itself into the “biggest small opera house in the world,” featuring some of the best in the business, including Grammy-winner Piotr Beczala, Franzen said.

Another highlight is the return of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, now in its third year at The Broad, and the arrival of National Geographic Live, a high-definition, multi-media series featuring some of the world’s most talented nature photographers. There will also be two screenings of the documentary “Troubadours,” which tackles the singer/songwriter scene in Los Angeles during the 1960s and early ‘70s. A live performance will follow each screening.

“As always we try to do new things each season,” Franzen said Tuesday.

While there have been jazz performances before, this season represents a stronger commitment to the great American art form.

“We are taking a big step forward in making The Broad the Westside jazz theatre,” she added. “This is the place to hear jazz in L.A.”

The number of performances during season four increases to 174 (there were 40 the first season), something that couldn’t have happened without the support of Santa Monicans and other fans of performance art, Franzen said. So far, The Broad and The Edye have hosted roughly 80,000 visitors, 15,000 of which are students, many from Santa Monica College. By the end of season four, Franzen expects those numbers to grow to 140,000 and 25,000 respectively.

“The support of the community has allowed us to grow,” she said. “I now get calls from all over the world. It wasn’t long ago that I was making those calls and people weren’t taking those calls, so this theater is building a reputation around the world.”

Austin Beutner, chair of The Broad’s Board of Directors, said the performance space has become a “truly remarkable place for our community to come together,” and talked about the important role art and self expression play in society.

“Art makes us whole,” he said.

For more information on the upcoming season, visit www.TheBroadStage.com or call (310) 434-3200.

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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