Allen Moon is eager to show off the venue for his upcoming production, "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart," the latest venture by an arts initiative that prides itself on choosing odd locations around Santa Ana to stage its various works.
Here, at 202 N. Broadway, it takes a strange undoing of a bookcase to get inside.
Just through the front doors of the Empire Market Building, Moon points the way past a pair of naked female mannequins in the window to an entrance typical of hidden drinking spots. A section of the bookcase, stocked with old volumes and ads for beer and tobacco, opens to reveal a long, narrow room that a crew is busy transforming into a makeshift set.
"Nobody in the community even knew this was here," Moon says with an impish smile.
Well, some in the community did, of course. The Empire Market Building dates to 1933, and a former tenant, according to owner Jack Jakosky, had begun to transform the room into a tavern that was ultimately left unfinished. But some people might be surprised when that bookshelf swings open, though it's a perfect illustration of how Santa Ana Sites, which Moon co-founded three years ago, places value on the unexpected.
The arts initiative, which puts on shows sporadically, has no fixed performance space. Instead, it makes use of private and public locations around the downtown that viewers might not always associate with the arts. The Santa Ana Sites website says the aim is to provide "the community shared artistic experiences" and encourage "the discovery of diverse environments and architectural space."
"The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart," a touring National Theatre of Scotland production written by David Greig and directed by Wils Wilson, is the 12th undertaking by Santa Ana Sites. With some theater companies, counting the number of shows might require poring through archives with a calculator, but not so with Santa Ana Sites. Moon's company promotes the new piece as "Santa Ana Sites #12," and its website lovingly catalogs previous productions with their numbers, titles and locations.
In the past, Moon has presented the Bang on a Can All-Stars at the eSports Arena. He's lined up a "sound performance" by Steve Roden on a neighborhood racquetball court. The venue listed for the first two Santa Ana Sites shows is the most modest of all: "Allen Moon's downtown Santa Ana loft home."
"In a theater environment, you know exactly what you're going to get, and most shows are built to tour in standard proscenium theaters," Moon says. "They have the lighting and the seats all there. They have their marketing department. They have it all at their disposal.
"And when we do these things, they have to be reinvented anew each time. They can be a little rough around the edges, but I think people like rough around the edges."
It was a show more than a little rough around the edges — and a ways out of Santa Ana — that first inspired Moon to launch his endeavor.
In 2012, Storefronts Seattle, a series that lined up performance art in public spaces, put on Spectrum Dance Theater's interpretation of "The Miraculous Mandarin," a ballet by Bartok whose content proved too raunchy for public tastes. Opposition to the piece, which was performed in hotel windows, led to its cancellation after a single performance.
Moon, who works as a touring director and artist manager for David Lieberman Artists' Representatives, knew a member of the "Mandarin" creative team. When he returned to Orange County soon after, he joined with Grand Central Art Center director John Spiak and began laying out plans for a series that similarly took art out of the museum and theater.
The first Santa Ana Sites effort was decidedly more low-key than Bartok. Moon invited David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet to his loft to give a quasi-lecture on music and play CDs of his favorite recordings. Still, Moon recalls, about 80 people packed the room to listen to Harrington, and he sensed that he was onto something.
"Prudencia Hart," the story of an academic who sets out to attend a conference in the Scottish Borders area of Scotland and finds herself plunged into a surreal odyssey, came to Moon's attention when he read accounts of it in the media and finally caught a live performance. He also felt a kinship with National Theatre of Scotland, which prides itself on seeking unconventional performance spaces (the company's website lists "airports, schools, tower blocks, community halls, ferries and forests" among its sites over the years).
Director Wilson, who has studied the floor plan of the Empire Market room, says "Prudencia Hart" was conceived specifically to be performed in bars. That, of course, means making adjustments when needed.
"Every room brings its own character to bear on the piece, and we love to explore the idiosyncrasies of each venue," Wilson wrote in an email. "When we arrive in each location, the actors have a rehearsal where we shape the play to the new space. The fact things are always slightly different is one of the things which keep the show fresh for the audience and an interesting challenge for the actors."
So what will the Santa Ana Sites version of "Prudencia Hart" be like? Moon, like any showman eager to thrill his audience, won't say too much.
He will point out that the bar, which occupies a large portion of the performance space, factors into the plot. He will say that audience members and actors will mingle close enough to rub elbows, and that the show will make its way around the room — with special tables being constructed for actors to mount.
As for the birdcages that the crew has hung from the ceiling and the nautical steering wheels that adorn the walls? You'll have to wait until opening night to see how those factor in.
In constructing that off-kilter atmosphere, Moon got assistance from a fellow Santa Ana artist: sculptor Diana Markessinis, whom he ran into on the street one day after exiting the Empire Market Building and hooked into collaborating on "Prudencia." Markessinis has served as art director for the production and worked with Santa Ana College and South Coast Repertory to use props and scenery from their collections.
"I just ran into him downtown when he was coming out of the space, and he said, 'We have to make this space into a bar! Would you be able to help me with that?'" recalls Markessinis, who has worked with Santa Ana Sites in smaller capacities in the past.
Overall, Moon and Markessinis sought a pub-like ambience for the play, and their concept went beyond simple scenery. The bar will serve pints of beer during the performance, and every audience member who desires a complimentary shot of whiskey will receive one.
Do the beer and whiskey themselves factor into the narrative?
"Not into the storyline," Moon says. "But certainly the experience."
IF YOU GO
What: "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart"
Where: Empire Market Building, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday (bar opens an hour before show)