Impresario Disillusioned by Poor Patronage at Theater for New Plays, Plans Closure

Jeffrey Ault knew it would be risky opening a theater in Orange County devoted to new plays by mostly local writers. But even now, with the tiny house expected to close by the end of the year, Ault is surprised by the outcome.

The 22-year-old Cal State Fullerton drama student envisioned Illusion's New View Theatre, a 39-seat playhouse in one corner of a Fullerton mini-mall, as filling a void in the local stage scene. South Coast Repertory does the major work, the Grove Shakespeare Festival handles the Bard and Alternative Repertory Theatre in Santa Ana revives rarely seen pieces. But none of these troupes consistently provides area playwrights with a forum.

"I really thought it would go because there is no other outlet in O.C. I thought it would be something they'd welcome," Ault said. "I was very wrong."

After about 15 months of meager attendance, the $12,000 in seed money long gone and his lease with the mall landlord in jeopardy, Ault said Illusion's will permanently close by year's end. At least one more show will be staged: Tom Rooney's romantic comedy "How To," opening Friday and continuing until Oct. 7.

The theater's latest offering of two one-acts has been drawing only 10 to 12 people a night, about half the number of people Ault would need to break even. As with earlier productions, there was a general pattern of decent sales in the first week or two, followed by a steady decline.

Why hasn't Orange County supported him? Ault isn't sure, but he points to the region's conservatism and its interest in art with a traditional focus as major obstacles.

"You'd think people would want to see fresh plays, like they can in Los Angeles, but I guess they're just not ready for this kind of thing."

That's true, to a certain extent. With the exception of SCR (and occasionally the Grove), Orange County is a land of revivals, where what is proven flies and what is unproven often dies.

Most community theaters flourish by offering playbills heavy with veteran hits. Many local stage fans want a guarantee on their tickets, and new works can't carry that promise. It's unfortunate that patrons aren't asking for more adventurous fare, that they aren't setting the trend toward challenges.

But if Ault misread the local audience, he also was naive in assuming that people would come simply because he took chances. Most of Illusion's offerings were experimental, quirky and often provocative, but most were also vague and messy in theme and content. Good writers and good plays are rare.

Still, even with the problems in play choices, the ideal Ault embraced is not only brave but justified. Within that framework, something powerful may have emerged. Without such an arena, that possibility is removed.

In one sense, Ault hasn't given up on Orange County. Although he has no plans to open another theater, he does hope to stage some productions, possibly in Irvine. Besides that, he will work as a free-lance set designer both here and in Los Angeles.

Ault insists that, even in hindsight, he would not have done anything differently.

Not even, say, toss in a Neil Simon comedy to plump up the receipts?

"Well, we thought about doing a revival but quickly abandoned the idea. We had an artistic direction, and we wanted to stick to it. If you start compromising, you just start having problems in the long run. Even though we're closing, I'm glad we stuck by that."

AND NOW, THE GOOD NEWS: Alternative Repertory Theatre, the 61-seat playhouse in an industrial mall in Santa Ana, announced that it has enough money to embark on a new four-play season, beginning Sept. 29 with Aristophanes' anti-war comedy "Lysistrata."

Producer Kathleen Bryson said a recent fund-raiser brought in about $4,000, 113 season subscriptions have already been sold, both of which will allow the theater to remain open for at least one more year. Bryson noted that the theater eventually expects to have more than 300 subscribers and will pursue nonprofit tax status as another way to trim costs.

"I think we have finally turned the corner," she said. "We had this wonderful parking lot sale where we sold stuff from plastic flowers for a nickel to a VCR for $100. That really helped, and with the public's support, I think we're going to do all right."

The theater still depends on walk-up ticket sales for each production, which costs about $6,000, but the $4,000 is "a nice cushion to have," she said. She added that ticket purchases have been rising as the playhouse becomes better known in Orange County and in Los Angeles.

Bryson said she never seriously considered closing ART. "When things were blackest, we took a long hard look at our future and decided this was something we had to do. Orange County needs a place to see the types of plays we want to produce."

As with Illusion's, stage reviewers haven't always been charmed by its productions, but there has been consistent respect for what the theater is trying to achieve.

Under the tentative schedule, "Lysistrata" will be followed with Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," then the West Coast premiere of Lorna C. Hill's "Yalla Bitch." A festival featuring segments of various plays will be the last offering.

TITLES BESTOWED: South Coast Repertory has named its first three associate artists, a new title given to playwrights, directors and designers with a continuing relationship with the Costa Mesa company. The associate artists join the existing categories for actors of founding artists and resident artists, according to SCR directors David Emmes and Martin Benson. The three are David Chambers, a director; Michael Devine, a designer, and Craig Lucas, a playwright. Although the new title carries no formal commitment, Emmes said, it does signify "a mutual respect and intention to continue working together whenever possible."

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