He'd been through worse. Nguyen was just 2 when Saigon fell in 1975, and his father, an officer in the South Vietnamese navy, barely got him and his mother out by boat; his infant brother was separated in the chaos and didn't re-join the family for nearly 30 years.
Nguyen grew up in the nascent Vietnamese community of Little Saigon in north-central Orange County, where his parents, who went into the insurance business, insisted that he only speak English at home.
The Chance drew poorly in 1998 and 1999 when it stuck to an initial mission of staging only new or little-known plays. The founders ran up credit card debt keeping it afloat, then grew more practical about play selections. A series of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the early 2000s brought the hoped-for solid box-office returns, along with the unanticipated artistic satisfaction of seeing how a familiar show could gain fresh vitality in an intimate space.
One condition of expanding, Nguyen said, will be finding a flexible space that can be configured so that the audience is immersed in the action.
Benson isn't the only person in SCR's orbit who's pulling for the Chance. Also sitting on its board is the established theater's controller, Terry Schomburg. Sophie Cripe, vice president of South Coast Repertory's board, was holding a clipboard and sitting in the front row at a recent rehearsal of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"; as the show's dramaturge, she'd compiled a 50-page information booklet for the cast on Jackson and his times. Her husband, Larry Cripe, is a Chance trustee.
Miller, who's in charge of fundraising for the Chance — and is married to Nguyen — said that another South Coast Rep board vice president, Tod White, recently donated $30,000 to the Chance with his wife, Linda, to establish an endowment.
After several unsuccessful tries, the company landed its first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, $10,000 for the West Coast premiere of "Triassic Park: The Musical" early this year. The show, loosely based on the "Jurassic Park" film franchise, is populated by romantically involved dinosaurs; a Times reviewer found it "bracingly dirty" but "surprisingly poignant."
Nguyen's formal association with South Coast Repertory began when he became the big theater's full-time producing associate for 18 months starting in 2010, funded by an $80,000 grant from Theatre Communications Group, a national association of nonprofit theaters that wanted to place young theater leaders under experienced mentors — in Nguyen's case, Benson.
He remains a part-time SCR staffer, in charge of Studio SCR, an annual series in which smaller Southern California companies stage four-day runs of their productions in the 95-seat Nicholas Studio. The Chance's connection with SCR had begun in 2009, when it was invited to restage a brief run of one of its raunchy items in the Nicholas Studio — "Jesus Hates Me," Wayne Lemon's sendup of religious zealotry in small town Texas.
Kari Hayter is making her Chance directorial debut with "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" after assisting Nguyen on last year's acclaimed revival of "West Side Story," which transferred to Founders Hall, a 250-capacity venue at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
She thinks audiences "should expect something different and bold" at the Chance. To deliver on that promise — and a $35 to $40 ticket price that's high for small theaters — she said the "Bloody Bloody" cast rehearsed six times a week for seven weeks, with five preview performances before this weekend's opening to allow for continued fine-tuning.
"The actors who come to this theater understand it's very demanding," Hayter said. "They want that creative process and are willing to work these hours." They don't get paid for rehearsals, but earn $100 a week once the run begins — a shade under $17 for each performance.
The Chance spent $412,000 in 2011, according to its most recent tax return; Nguyen, Miller, Long and longtime production manager/technical director Masako Tobaru each earned about $400 a week for 65-hour work weeks.
East West Players in L.A. and International City Theatre in Long Beach, two companies that graduated from small-stage beginnings to midsize status, have reported expenses of $1 million or more in recent years; Burbank's Colony Theatre Company, which made the leap in 2000, has had financial difficulties since the recession, but a $500,000 "Save the Colony" fundraising drive that began last fall kept it going and allowed the Colony to recently announce a four-play season for 2013-14.
Economic issues the Chance might have to address in a bigger space include whether to negotiate an agreement with Actors' Equity on conditions for hiring actors and stage managers who are union members. Like all small Orange County theaters, the Chance now makes do without Equity actors; a special dispensation that allows them to perform in L.A. for scant pay but potentially helpful exposure at theaters of up to 99 seats doesn't extend past the county line.
The Chance leaders declined to provide financial details of their expansion hopes. Arts Orange County, a service group for nonprofit arts organizations, conducted a feasibility study, paid for by a grant from the Orange County Community Foundation.
"Our board has helped us believe we could be a professional mid-sized theater," Nguyen said. "We have a game plan. Hopefully we'll be able to talk about some really exciting news in a few months."
Might a more muscular Chance Theater become a potential competitor for South Coast Repertory? Benson thinks just the opposite: "It would be a great complement" to the flagship theater, he said. "It almost feels like inspiring others is incumbent in achieving our goals," he said.