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Shakespeare Orange County goes all in on ethnic diversity. Will it work?

Shakespeare Orange County is betting heavily on shows aimed at diverse ethnic audiences

Like platinum and gold, Shakespeare’s plays can be stretched and twisted into any number of unusual shapes without losing their intrinsic brilliance.

To kick off its second season at the 540-seat Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove, the recently reconstituted Shakespeare Orange County will manipulate “Romeo and Juliet” (July 11-Aug. 1). The company is betting its survival on being able to turn its seasons into a cultural town commons where the area’s diverse ethnic communities can meet.

Vietnamese American actor Trieu Tran plays Romeo and Nikki SooHoo, a Chinese American whose screen credits include “The Lovely Bones” and “Bring it On: Fight to the Finish,” is Juliet.

The ball scene in which the star-crossed lovers become bedazzled with each other will be staged as a traditional Mexican quinceañera, featuring musicians and dancers from the Santa Ana folkloric group Relampago del Cielo (Lightning from Heaven).

Juliet’s mom, Lady Capulet, is a Filipina; Romeo’s folks, the Montagues, are Peter Chang and Gabee Sohm, who will say their lines in their native Korean because neither speaks much English.

Codirector John Walcutt says that Shakespeare’s text lends itself even to that, because playgoers who don’t speak Korean will get the gist of what they’re saying based on Romeo’s reactions.

Walcutt, who took over leadership of Shakespeare Orange County last season after the retirement of its founder, Thomas Bradac, promises that when Lord Montague delivers his grief-stricken last lines in halting, phonetically-learned English, it will be an emotional haymaker.

With 80 performers in the cast, this may be the most populous professional theater production of the 21st century to date in Southern California. It will take three fight choreographers to stage the rumble between Montagues and Capulets that will end badly for Mercutio, played by L.A. stage veteran Bo Foxworth.

Will the hardcore Shakespeare fans who had sustained the company since 1979, when Bradac launched it, remain loyal? Will new ethnic audiences come to shows even when they don’t represent their own culture? And will enough donors materialize to cover costs while keeping ticket prices down? These are the questions.

Walcutt says last season provided mixed answers. The company drew better than it had in many years, he said — including a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that was set on a tropical island and featured Hitia O Te Ra, a local Polynesian dance company.

“We had our first full houses in years,” Walcutt said, estimating the season’s draw at about 8,000, or more than 200 per performance. But, he said, there’s a limit to how much the company can reap at the box office. Tickets range from $15 to $40, with a pay-what-you-wish policy on Thursdays and unsold seats to other shows discounted to $7 an hour before a play begins.

Walcutt said that last season’s production of George M. Cohan’s 1920-vintage farce “The Tavern” was a box-office bomb at any price, and a three-night run of Troubadour Theatre Company’s disco-fueled “A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream” also fared poorly. In the end, he said, he and other actors who double as board members had to kick in extra contributions to make sure that the season met its $150,000 budget without incurring debt.

The coming season will cost about $100,000, Walcutt said, with the company hoping to show prospective funders that it can do better than break even. He thinks Shakespeare Orange County will be on good footing if it can muster annual budgets of about $200,000. 

“If I can hang in there for another season or two, I think some [donor] would say, `OK, here’s $1 million for the next five years, knock yourselves out,’” Walcutt said. Because performers only have to do three shows a week, Thursdays through Saturdays, for runs of a few weeks, “we could get A-list actors to come and play the leads.”

A grant from Macy’s will allow the company to continue the $7 rush ticket policy without robbing it of needed revenue, Walcutt said. But tapping charitable foundations and corporate philanthropy has been difficult because the revised Shakesepare Orange County doesn’t have the three-year track record that many prospective funders require.

While keeping the Shakespeare Orange County name and legacy (the name, in fact, has grown a bit, to Shakespeare Orange County — Summerfest Orange County), the organization is a new nonprofit entity with a completely reconstituted board.

“It’s going to take time to build the audience [Walcutt] is looking for,” said Jim Volz, a longtime Cal State Fullerton theater professor and Shakespeare expert who edits “Quarto,” a magazine for Shakespeare-centered festivals around the world.

While funders often are interested in supporting performing arts companies that reach out to diverse audiences, Volz said, “if there’s one thing we’ve learned in Amerian theater, it’s not quite that easy” to turn occasional theatergoers drawn by a show’s cultural milieu into habitual ones willing to take a chance on a full season’s range of productions.

“The potential is there to build a different audience for [each] show,” he said, assuming that corporations and other funders will step forward to subsidize them.

Besides “Romeo and Juliet,” the 2015 season includes a traditional “As You Like It” set in Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan England (Aug. 15-29) and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance" (Sept. 12-26). John Slade will star in “I Sing Walt Whitman,” a one-man show with music that dramatizes the life and work of the great 19th century poet (Aug. 23 and 30), and Tran will reprise “Trieu Tran (Unplugged)” (Sept. 20), a solo show he performed last season.

A season-opening fundraiser on Saturday stars Rene Auberjonois, John de Lancie, Joe Spano, Tamlyn Tomita and JoBeth Williams in a shortened, 1939 radio-play version of Kaufman and Hart’s comedy “You Can’t Take It With You.” It’s interrupted by interactive, ad-lib commercial breaks in which the actors will summon audience members to collect prizes and pose for pictures.

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