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Entering the Next Stage : It’s Not as Bard as Some Think as Grove Theater Center Kicks Off Its 2nd Season

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When one restaurant closes and another opens in its place, nobody expects the food to be the same, right?

How about theater companies? One closes; another opens in the same building, and everybody expects a new menu, right? Wrong, says Charles L. Johanson, executive director of the Grove Theater Center.

Even after a full year of operation, some patrons come to the GTC expecting to see nothing but Shakespeare. Yes, the GTC does some of the Bard’s works on the same stages that once were home to GroveShakespeare: the city-owned Gem Theatre and Festival Amphitheatre.

But the GTC’s repertory ranges from new and contemporary plays to children’s productions.

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“It’s very hard to make people realize we’re in the same buildings but we’re a completely different organization,” Johanson said recently.

The lingering image problem hasn’t, however, terribly handicapped the GTC, which launched its second, expanded season late last month upon completion of a successful inaugural year that closed with a small budget surplus, according to GTC and city officials.

“It’s hard to restart a theater when one’s gone under,” said City Manager George Tindall, “but they’ve done an excellent job.”

The GTC took over management of the 187-seat Gem Theatre and 550-seat Festival Amphitheatre in August, 1994, with a three-year agreement with the city that called for 175 performances a year, including at least six full theatrical productions.

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The company exceeded the requirement last season with a total of 195 performances and seven full productions, Johanson said. About 65 of those shows were produced by the GTC, headed by Johanson and artistic director Kevin Cochran.

The rest were presented by community groups such as the Garden Grove Gardettes drill team or by the three GTC “companies-in-residence”: Broadway on Tour, a children’s theater troupe; the Musical Theatre Company, which produces musicals; and Pacific Standard (formerly Basic Insanity), a comedy ensemble.

Still, ticket sales could be better, admitted Johanson, former GroveShakespeare general manager.

“The children’s theater is doing phenomenally well,” he said during a joint interview with Cochran at the GTC. “They are averaging 20% to 30% more than they ever did at their old venue,” a storefront in The City mall in Orange.

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But average paid attendance to the GTC’s four plays last season was 65% of capacity, he said. By comparison, average paid attendance to 31 performances produced by the Irvine Barclay Theatre last year was 81%. (216 events were presented at IBT during that season.)

Still, only about halfway through its run, this season’s GTC opener, “Noises Off,” already had “done twice the sales [of last season’s opener], ‘Dracula,’ ” Johanson said. “And I think there’s a lot of wait-and-see” keeping even larger crowds away.

Subscriptions have nearly tripled to 503 this season; 85% of those are renewals, Johanson added, and that’s without a subscription campaign.

He and Cochran didn’t want to lead GroveShakespeare subscribers--who were left holding worthless tickets when the troupe went belly up in February, 1994, for lack of funds--to think that they were being asked to resubscribe to the defunct company. They wanted to prove their artistic mettle too.

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Said Cochran, who served as consultant, then interim producing director, at GroveShakespeare: “We felt that it really wasn’t going to be productive to put a lot of effort into a subscription campaign . . . until we’d been able to prove ourselves.”

The private, for-profit GTC, which had a $183,000 budget in 1994, ended the year with a surplus of roughly $2,000, Johanson said, by keeping expenses to a minimum through low overhead--only Johanson, Cochran and an assistant work full time.

Also helping was roughly $15,000 in annual assistance from the city’s Art Fund, amassed through fees imposed on developers. So has flexible budgeting, allowing for adjustments if revenues don’t meet expenses.

“We won’t continue to spend if income doesn’t continue to go forward,” he said, adding with a laugh: “For instance, if we’re not hitting our projections, then [the upcoming] ‘Romeo and Juliet’ will be very conceptual.”

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The company has increased its annual operating budget to $245,000 this year and expanded its season to 225 events, which will include five instead of four GTC productions.

Good reviews have proved the theater’s artistic strength, city officials said. Actors working at the GTC have included renowned performance artist John Fleck (currently a regular on the TV series “Murder One”) and Mink Stole, who has been featured in several films by John Waters.

Johanson also noted that Samuel French Inc. plans to publish David Paterson’s “Finger Painting in a Murphy Bed,” which the GTC premiered last year. Paterson’s “Pieces of the Sky,” is scheduled to receive its premiere in January.

New plays or experimental work aren’t the GTC’s priority, however. More avant-garde work may be down the line, but so may musicals or a Neil Simon play.

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“I love all types of theater,” Cochran said.

“We’re not a theater that’s about any specific thing,” Johanson agreed. “We’re not political, clearly; we’re not a new-play theater. The Grove Theater Center is about having a good time; it’s about the whole experience of going out.”

Indeed, on Dec. 18, the center plans to christen a 50-seat “cafe-cabaret” for smaller events on the Gem’s second floor. The project is part of an ongoing renovation, paid for with $400,000 in city redevelopment funds, that has included new offices and a rehearsal space. Restrooms are now being refurbished.

“Our slogan . . . is ‘sophisticated fun,’ ” although that doesn’t necessarily mean lightweight, Johanson said. He cited such upcoming shows as “Pieces of the Sky,” a drama set in World War II that deals with anti-Semitism, and Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine,” a “1920s expressionistic comedy” about remaining human in the face of an ever-mechanized world.

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“Fun can be getting moved to tears or being [ticked] off,” he said. “So it’s not a lightweight season, but it’s [about] putting people in a place where they can really have a good time.”

* “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn continues Thursday through Saturday at the Grove Theater Center’s Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Curtain: 8 p.m. $14.50 to $24.50. (714) 741-9550.


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