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Among the untold thousands of actors who've tackled the title role of "Macbeth," John Walcutt may have been the first whose director instructed him to think of himself as a legitimate heir to the throne.
But it wasn't the throne of Scotland director Thomas F. Bradac was talking about last summer; for that, he wanted Walcutt to be as murderously usurping as he could be.
Instead, the throne Bradac had in mind for the actor to inhabit was the one he himself was about to abdicate as the longtime leader of Shakespeare Orange County in Garden Grove.
After 34 years of mounting Shakespeare plays in the heart of the county, the Chapman University professor, who'd turned 65, had decided to step down rather than resume the annual wear and tear of raising money and facing all the other logistical hassles that come with putting on professional theater under less than amply-funded conditions.
It was uncertain, at first, whether new artistic leaders and board members would step forward to keep the company alive.
"We were all floored" by Bradac's unexpected exit, Walcutt, a veteran L.A. actor with many classic stage roles and scores of network television performances to his credit, recalled recently. "There was a hue and cry from all of us who loved the place. I asked Tom, 'Why would you throw it away?'" He said, 'It's just too hard. But would you want to do it? You're the only person I think I would like to do it.'"
With that, just like the weird sisters in the opening act of "Macbeth," Bradac had stirred the pot of ambition and cast a spell.
"I was moved and challenged," Walcutt said, "and I thought, 'Maybe I can do it. I have a vision of what I want it to be, and this place has so much potential.'"
So here he is, the newly-anointed successor to Bradac as producing artistic director of Shakespeare Orange County, but with a markedly changed approach, including lengthening the name to Shakespeare Orange County-Summerfest Orange County to reflect programming that will branch beyond the Bard.
Walcutt, who first performed for Bradac's operation in a 1982 production of "Twelfth Night" that proved pivotal in catapulting his acting career, said he's committed to keeping the company's Shakespearean tradition alive while retooling it on the fly as a more diversified, communitarian -- and potentially bigger-drawing -- organization than in the past.
While most of the former board resigned, having served mainly out of personal loyalty to Bradac, Walcutt and others who are fond of the company are rebuilding its underpinnings.
He said that South Coast Repertory co-founder David Emmes and Richard Stein, the former Laguna Playhouse executive director who now heads Arts Orange County, a support organization for the county's nonprofit arts groups, have been helping with advice, introductions to potential donors and, in the case of Arts Orange County, a modest grant.
Now Walcutt, Bo Foxworth and David Denman, two of his actor friends who feel strongly about the need to keep Shakespeare OC going, are calling in some heavy fundraising artillery to help boost the company toward its projected season's budget of $125,000.
James Cromwell, Rene Auberjonois, Robert Foxworth, Gregory Itzin and Robert Hays will headline a "Night With the Stars" on Saturday at the Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove, performing a 1940s-style radio show along with musical attractions.
The strategy for the season that will begin at the amphitheater in June includes drawing on the performance and audience-building help of two established arts groups anchored in central OC's substantial Asian and Pacific Islander community.
Walcutt hopes to retain the core Shakespeare crowd that he said had averaged about 250 attendees per performance in recent years at the 540-seat outdoor venue. But he's banking on adding playgoers from the nearby ethnic communities who may not have even known about the theater, and drawing a good number of their kids to a newly-launched theater education and actor training program.
Hitia O Te Ra, a Polynesian dance organization, will co-produce and provide the music and choreography for the season-opening "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (June 21-July 19). The Vietnamese American Assn. of Arts and Letters will co-produce a multicultural "Romeo and Juliet" (Aug. 30-Sept. 20).
Also scheduled is "The Tavern," a 1920 George M. Cohan musical that will star Walcutt and Bo Foxworth, (Aug. 7-23) and three-night southward excursions by two very different L.A. companies.
The Antaeus Company, a distinguished classical theater ensemble based in North Hollywood, will perform Kenneth Cavendar's "The Curse of Oedipus" (July 31-Aug. 2). The Troubadour Theater Company, no stranger to Garden Grove's amphitheater in past bookings by a different producer from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s, will return with one of its pop-music infused spoofs on the Bard, "A Midsummer Saturday Night's Fever Dream" (July 24-26).
Rounding out the season are two one-actor shows: Michelle Krusiec's "Made in Taiwan," Sundays only Sept. 14-28, and Trieu Tran's "Treiu Tran (Unplugged)" on Aug. 17. The Orange County modern dance troupe backhausdance performs Sept. 25-27.
Bradac, it turns out, is not disappearing, but merely switching roles, in a somewhat amusing way. After all those years as the top dog among Orange County Shakespeareans, he'll play Bottom in the season-opening "A Midsummer Night's Dream," his first acting part in 16 years.
And Walcutt, who's been based in L.A., said he's going to be a year-round OC presence, having recently accepted an offer to become director of the acting program at Orange County High School of the Arts in Santa Ana.