"A waitress at a coffee shop near campus overheard us talking about our show," says director Michael Nehring. His production of "Hair," the definitive hippie musical, openstonight at Chapman University.
"She said, 'You're doing "Hair" here?' "
He could understand her surprise. Drive through the Old Town section of Orange, where Chapman is situated, and you see nifty antique shops and quaint gingerbread houses--a nearly intact pre-'40s Midwestern veneer. It's as far from the East Village and Haight-Ashbury as one could imagine.
"And that's one big reason we're doing it," Nehring said this week, at a cafe in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, where he lives.
"The show is about peace and love," he noted, "but it's also about anger and revolution and confronting people with their fears." And that's one big reason why, from the start, he has insisted on a "Hair" as originally intended, including the group nude scene at the ritualistic end of Act I.
"Of course, the first question people ask me about the show is the nudity," said Nehring, 43, a theater department professor who also is a member of the Chapman-based Shakespeare Orange County troupe and Los Angeles' Friends and Artists Ensemble.
"We are still afraid of our bodies," he continued with all the frustration of a man impatient with glacial social change, "and of seeing bodies in front of us. But that sight is precisely the power and the beauty. We're using the group nudity as an offering to the character of Claude, who wants to remain with the hippie tribe and avoid the Vietnam draft. He is searching for human nurturing, not war, and this is a great theatrical expression of it.
"We heard about this recent version of 'Hair' (at Brea's Curtis Theatre), which promoted itself as 'Hair' with clothes on. I mean, doing 'Hair' without the nudity is like doing 'Equus' in underwear."
Things have not always been so liberated at Chapman. In the mid-'80s, a student protest erupted on campus after the administration closed a play by student Joel Moffet. "Joel's piece," recalled Nehring, "was a kind of valentine to the school and ended with a nude scene. The kids were very upset when the officials shut it down.
"Three (Chapman) presidents later, it's a different time."
Members of the student cast said two things have happened since the administration approved this production and rehearsals began in early February. First, students all across campus have been abuzz.
"This is definitely the most anticipated event at Chapman in some time," said Randy Anderson, 20, who plays the rowdy role of Berger.
"Everyone on campus can tell who's in the cast, because we've definitely let our hair grow," added Liz Maher, 20, who plays Sheila. "They'll wink at us and say, 'I'll be in the front row opening night.' "
Beyond that, Maher said, the actors have "become a tribe" themselves.
"You know, it really changed for these students--they truly became a tribe--the day they were sitting around improvising what they thought about each other," said Nehring. "When it came to Claude, everyone chimed in that they loved Claude. Then I interrupted and told them, 'OK, now you've heard that Claude went to Vietnam and just had both his legs blown off.' They started crying. They understood that this show is far beyond the level of love and flowers."
Cast member April Davis, 19, reflected what "Hair" has meant to her: "We're the children of (the hippie) generation, and they managed some really wonderful and really awful things, like the terrible drug abuse. But I sometimes feel we're a generation with no hope at all.
"I'm much stronger out of this experience--it's beyond just listening to the music in 'Hair' or Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix. I think we've all absorbed the anger and love of that time. I really, really feel like we can change things in the world."
* "Hair" opens tonight at 8 in the Waltmar Theatre at Chapman University, 310 Palm St., Orange. Continues Friday, Saturday and Wednesday through April 1 at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m., through April 2. $5-$8. (714) 997-6812.