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Chance Theater might risk bigger digs

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It's rare for small theaters in Southern California to grow into midsize theaters because of the expense and risk that come with expanding from a storefront to a house of 100 seats or more.

But the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills, among the smallest at 49 seats, is contemplating a leap that would live up to the company's name. The Chance, which started in 1998 as Spare Change Productions in wry acknowledgment of its then-minuscule resources, is thinking of tripling its seating in the near future.

The nonprofit Chance enjoys support from a quarter that might surprise people who think Darwinian struggle is how the world works. Leaders of Orange County's flagship theater company, South Coast Repertory, have been giving advice, encouragement and even money as the Chance considers taking a giant step while remaining in Anaheim Hills, about 10 miles from Disneyland and 20 from SCR's three-stage, multimillion-dollar complex in Costa Mesa.

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"They really remind me in a large way of SCR in its younger days," said Martin Benson, who launched South Coast Rep in 1964 with co-founder and co-artistic director David Emmes, starting with a traveling production of Molière's "Tartuffe" packed into Emmes' station wagon.

Benson discovered the Chance several years ago, began formally mentoring its artistic director, Oanh Nguyen, in 2010, and joined the Chance's board of directors about a year ago.

"I liked the work they were doing," he said. "I liked the people there and their spirit, their professional way of connecting with an audience. They're not looking to get a part in a TV series."

"The Chance," Benson said, "has a chance to become much more than a 50-seat storefront theater."

Nguyen and his three co-founders, Jeff Hellebrand, Casey Long and Erika C. Miller, help lead a company that has developed two complementary aesthetic signatures while winning consistently good reviews. One is exploiting its intimate, adjustable space to give a high-energy jolt to mainstream musicals, such as "The Who's Tommy," "West Side Story" and titles from the Stephen Sondheim canon, staged to unfold almost in the audience's lap.

The other is a raunchy streak, seen in play selections such as Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" (a respected architect's life shatters when he falls carnally in love with a farm animal) and "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues" (Jeff Goode's ribald Christmas play, a holiday season perennial for the Chance, concerns Santa Claus standing accused of sexually abusing one of his sled-pullers).

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While the Chance was earning an L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation Award for best small-theater musical for its 2011 Southern California premiere of "Jerry Springer: The Opera," conservative Christians were picketing outside, protesting what they considered blasphemy.

"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," running through Aug. 4, continues along the raunchy path while giving the Chance another shot at packing high energy into a small black box.

The emo-rock musical by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, having its first Southern California revival since its 2008 premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, burlesques America's seventh president by presenting him as a crudely profane, dimwitted frontier equivalent of a contemporary rock star.

But the show eventually grows quieter, and more disquieting, examining the moral contradictions and limits on democratic decision-making that rise from Americans' craving for wealth, security and national grandeur.

"It's not like we're looking for raunch," said managing director Long. "We just don't shy away from it."

Though their slim beginnings may have echoed SCR's, the Chance founders said in a recent interview that they can't lay claim to anything like the ambitious founding vision that spurred Benson and Emmes, who stepped down as SCR's artistic directors in 2011 but remain active as board members, artistic advisors and play directors.

"We just wanted to tell good stories well, and hope it worked," said Nguyen. When it came to institution-building, said Hellebrand, who began working with Nguyen when they were drama students at a community college in Santa Ana, "we didn't even know what questions to ask."

The founding lore of South Coast Repertory includes noodle casseroles cooked and consumed in the company members' first communal home. The Chance founders recall subsisting on even less fancy fare while sharing a rented house in Anaheim. Their pantry was a food bank in Covina.

"They always had one or two items special to that week," Nguyen said. "Our favorite was this really soft baked pretzel. That was just heaven."

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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."

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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.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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