Experimenting at the Lab : Theatre District Takes Its Quest for Passion to the Anti Mall in Costa Mesa


On a recent evening, the alternative record stores and coffeehouses of the Lab Anti Mall off Bristol Street were full of people searching for CDs or sipping latte as they kicked back in chaise lounges. The voice of Alanis Morissette blared from a speaker somewhere, blending in perfectly with the Anti Mall’s design, a look that might be called Casual Apocalypse.

So what was being served up at the Theatre District, a playhouse on the Lab’s southeast fringe? William Inge’s solid, old-fashioned “Bus Stop”--not exactly fodder for the Trent Reznor crowd.

If the anachronism struck visitors to the theater as less odd than charming, that is just the sensibility the Theatre District’s founders are after. Artistic director Mario Lescot says he cares less about this year’s model than about what he sees as the classic theater verities: “passion, truth, passion, human relationships, and more passion.”


All of which certainly were evident in Lescot’s revival of “Bus Stop” and are at the heart of his staging of Sam Shepard’s volatile, absurdist brother versus brother drama “True West,” which opened Friday (see accompanying review).

The rock ‘n’ roll nature of “True West” would seem a natural draw for Anti Mall denizens.

“Yeah,” says Lescot, who has the unshaven, puffy-eyed look of a director frantically racing through last-minute rehearsals. “But we don’t have much to do with them over there. If they come, great.”

Producer Bonnie Vise, who co-founded the Theatre District with Lescot and his wife, Joan, notes that “we get some walk-ups from the Anti Mall but we’re not dependent on that. I think we already built a support base before we moved here.”

Indeed, the move to the current home--a rust-colored barn-like structure with a tin roof (“we have to cancel shows when it rains; it’s so loud we can’t hear ourselves,” says Vise)--was Phase Three of the company’s development.

Phase One was Lescot Actors Workshop, which opened in 1992 in a storefront space in Costa Mesa, at 18th Street and Newport Boulevard. “The work is bigger and the pace is faster now, and I miss those days,” says Lescot. The workshop had sprung from his desire to expand beyond the acting classes he’d been teaching. Instead of aiming for the usual goal of putting on a show, Lescot and his group--a corps of actors drawn from Los Angeles and as far south as Del Mar--would spend a week working on one line from, say, a Chekhov play. “We didn’t know where it was going to go, and we had to let it grow organically.”

With just a few rules to follow--be serious about theater art, don’t yell, explore your emotions without hurting someone else--Lescot’s group moved into Phase Two when another space in Costa Mesa, formerly occupied by the Back Stage Theatre, became available in 1994.


“We had a real production space at last,” Lescot recalls. Adds Vise: “It had a lobby, good seats, high ceiling, everything we could hope for.” Except, perhaps, location (it was wedged in an easy-to-miss office complex on Superior Avenue) and quiet neighbors (instead of folks fond of whaling away on electric guitars while the actors were rehearsing).


A fairly safe programming schedule including “Steel Magnolias,” “Same Time Next Year” and “The Gingerbread Lady” helped build an audience, but Phase Three was coming.

“The need,” says Vise, “for working in a free-standing building became obvious” and one day, when she and Lescot were having coffee in the Anti Mall, they noticed the large structure in the corner. After a city approval process that took six months, and despite rent that is triple what they’d been paying on Superior Avenue, the Theatre District moved to its present home in January.

The company is an odd duck in Orange County--neither a community theater of amateurs, a storefront theater, nor under an Actors’ Equity agreement. While they await results on their application for nonprofit status, neither Lescot nor Vise conceals the fact that the company is struggling to cover expenses and resisting the temptation to build a yearlong season and a subscriber base to support it.

“Bonnie, Joan and I are philosophically against getting too far ahead of ourselves,” says Lescot. “Now, Bonnie thinks there are right shows for certain seasons and I don’t get that. She thinks I’m nuts to want to do ‘Cabaret’ at the start of next year. But how do I know what I’ll be passionate about in six months’ time? I can’t, and I won’t harness this group into something that’s not right.”

In fact, the only show scheduled after “True West” is “Dracula,” which opens Oct. 20.


Lescot did “Bus Stop,” he says, because he will direct anything by Inge. Plus, “everything I do as a director is based on relationships, and I love material that sets you up to expect one thing but gives you something else. And that’s why we’re doing ‘True West.’ I’ve had to be very careful, though, not to let my own life infect my staging of it.”


Lescot says he is the child of a Mexican vagabond and a Belgian prostitute who met at the height of World War II, and that he endured his parents’ extremely volatile marriage and, later, guardians who raised him in “crazy” surroundings in San Gabriel--mere miles from the setting of “True West.” He says he learned theater on the streets of Tijuana (“we had a group called ‘Teatro de Cartones,’ or Theatre of the Boxes”) and with a group of Cuban exiles in San Gabriel. Then came a stint in the Air Force, and the opening a hair salon that he and Joan have operated in Costa Mesa for 20 years.

In “True West,” Lee, a kind of desert rat, has come in from the Mojave to visit his screenwriting brother Austin. “Lee is so much like my father,” says Lescot. “He knows no boundaries. And Austin still loves Lee, despite his crazy acts, which I find beautiful. My own brother has done some terrible things I can’t really talk about but I still want to be with him. It may look strange to an outsider but for me, it’s the honorable thing to do.”