Listening to the idealistic impresarios behind Orange County's newest small theaters--the Second Stage in Santa Ana and the Chance in Anaheim Hills--confirms that there really is no business like show business.
It qualifies as one of those public realms in which people press on eagerly despite a baptismal year that brings frustration, debt and obscurity and no real chance for national fame as the ultimate payoff.
Chris Berube, founder of the Second Stage and leader of the Berubians, its in-house playwriting-and-acting company, fronted about $10,000 of his own money last year, with no hope of a payback, to establish theater in a makeshift quarters on the second floor of a nondescript industrial park.
Complaints from other tenants prevent him from hanging Second Stage's only marker--a huge, red-lettered canvas banner--except at showtime. Demands from the landlord threatened, at one point, to leave the Berubians with a ceiling-to-floor support pole occupying the middle of their stage. The problem of the pesky pole solved itself when Berube, told not to remove it because the ceiling might fall, flung a hammer at it in a fit of frustration. The tool punctured the hollow pole, he said, proving that it wasn't holding up anything except his progress in turning an office suite into a theater.
The theater has 50 white plastic patio chairs and a sound system that consists partly of a used karaoke machine from a defunct nightclub. Berube remodeled the space himself, with help from the 15 or so other Berubians.
The five young partners, ages 22 to 30, who launched the Chance Theater in April, took a comparatively royal road to storefront play production. Two of them signed for a $38,000 bank loan; Jim Book, a Fullerton College instructor who is an expert in the technical aspects of theater, signed on as a consultant.
They scavenged 54 red-upholstered seats (with plastic drink holders) when the Century Cinedome in Orange was sentenced to demolition. Placing the chairs on steel risers in a steep vertical slope, they created a space with a broad, deep stage and professional theatrical lighting and sound equipment. It feels quite major league for a fledgling theater operating out of the rear unit of a blank rectangular building in a suburban office/industrial park.
Spare Change Productions, as the Chance partners dubbed themselves, presented 11 plays in 1999 that nobody had seen or heard of before. On three nights, nobody--not a soul--turned up to see and hear what was being offered. On average, the Spare Change partners said, the Chance drew about 15 playgoers a night.
What sustains these two theaters, besides the substantial sums their principals shell out to keep them alive, is not the hope that their investments will yield a big payoff. It's the kick they get out of putting on plays and the sense that the places they have built will emerge as stable, welcoming homes for people who know they have something to express and create--and for people who think they might--but need a first chance and some nurturing guidance on how to do it.
Berube has been through this before. In 1996, he founded the Next Stage, a small theater in Hollywood with its own set of Berubians. The name, he said, originated not out of egotism, but from practicality: Berube and a group of friends who did improvisational comedy in L.A. noticed that once they made some headway in comedy clubs, other groups would steal their name to get bookings.
"I said, 'Berubians.' Let's see somebody try to steal that one."
The impetus for that first theater was frustration. Berube, who hails from Houston, got a job as a "script doctor" hired by film producers to flesh out scenes, stories and dialogue after the credited writers have done their work. Immersion in a world where stories and characters are tailored to meet their marketing potential left him needing an antidote.
"I decided I would create an environment where an artist can come in and present a script the way he or she wrote it and envisioned it," he said.
Berube still works as a script doctor, earning what he says is a good living by "making very bad movies just bad." His passion goes into his theaters.
Both offer ongoing classes in writing, acting and comedy. From those classes emerge all the plays the Berubians present. So far, the Orange County venue has developed two original sketch comedy productions, and has presented "A Question of Faith," a Berube-penned, Berube-starring courtroom drama in which a blindly careerist lawyer is hired to defend an honest-to-God angel from a slander suit by a Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker-like team of sleazy televangelists. One recent performance, on a Sunday evening, attracted an audience of nine--all of them friends or relatives of the actors.
Berube, 33, expanded into Orange County at the request of 10 Berubians who were commuting from O.C. to L.A. The Next Stage had grown to a 60-member group and was approaching the break-even point, so from a fiscal standpoint it made sense--or at least, seemed less preposterous.
Berube, whose theater is near the old Crazy Horse Steak House country music nightclub and nowhere near the aspiring-to-hip Artists Village district of Santa Ana that is home to three small theaters, says that being in Orange County brings him closer to an innocent, grass-roots vision of theater that he cherishes.
"With L.A. actors, it's, 'We gotta be famous within five years, or else.' They get upset about the littlest things. Out here in Orange County, people already have jobs or lifestyles and [theater] is more, I guess, a cleansing of the soul or a hobby or a creative outlet. They tend to see the fun."
Each Berubian is supposed to ante up $50-a-month dues, which entitles members to attend as many classes as they want in either location. Berube says he cuts slack for those who are strapped. Whatever isn't covered by dues and box office receipts comes out of his pocket. Berube said expenses at the Second Stage were $20,000 for 1999--and that he covered half.
"I've never disputed Chris on [the dues policy]. It's a fundamental part of getting it off the ground," said Eric Halasz, a founding member of the Berubians Second Stage. Halasz teaches classes in improvisation at the theater and directed one of its productions.
"None of us are getting any money, but the opportunity to perform and showcase ourselves," Halasz said. "It's a school--a school that gives you all the opportunity to learn what you want, to the extent that you want to."
Learning by doing is also the ethic for Spare Change Productions, a group of friends who coalesced around executive producer Oanh Nguyen.
First they wrote plays and rented venues--an art gallery in Laguna, a small theater in Orange--to produce them. They made enough money to pay for pizza-and-beer celebrations at the end of the runs, and gained enough confidence to open their own theater. They settled in Anaheim Hills when they couldn't find anything affordable in their first choice, the Artists Village district.
Their original mission was to stage nothing but new, previously unproduced plays.
"It's called the Chance Theater for a reason," Nguyen said last week after overseeing a rehearsal for the company's first play of its second season: "The Stroop Report," a dramatization of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in which doomed Jews fought back against the German extermination machine during World War II.
"When we started, we thought there was no reason why theater can't pay for itself," Nguyen said. A year later, Nguyen and his partners--Chris Ceballos, Erika Ceporius, Fred Hatfield and Jeff Hellebrand--estimate that they each have to kick in $200 to $300 per month to keep the theater going.
When it became obvious that a series of all-original plays would not pay for itself, Nguyen said, "We all sat down and said, 'We are not going to buy a new car like a lot of our friends. We'll put the payments into this.' "
To build an audience, the Chance, like all small theaters, relies on a homey circle of family and friends of cast and crew members, plus whatever walk-ins they can generate with free newspaper listings and extensive leafleting. They tried advertising in a newspaper once, but it didn't work. Some of their shows were reviewed last year, but, as Nguyen puts it, "they were not kind for the most part."
One problem was that the Chance had to go mainly with second-string material. After choosing a season from among 80 new-play submissions generated largely via the Internet, they found that they didn't have enough actors, or the right actors, to produce them. So they went with the next best scripts.
For its 2000 season, the Chance will offer 14 productions (six of them "Midnight Madness" late shows staged after the evening's main event). The partners have retreated a bit from their all-originals policy, scheduling Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado" and an oft-produced repertory piece, "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday," to the mix. They also will stage adaptations of Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales."
Still, that leaves them with an ambitious schedule of 10 original plays by unknown playwrights--chosen from 200 submissions and, Nguyen promises, reflecting a solid improvement over the '99 fare that the critics dismissed.
Chance Theater Hopes to Build Attendance
Staging familiar works should help the theater grow its audience. The goal is to double the average attendance to 30 or 35 per show. Equally important, the partners say, the chance to play proven roles will attract actors and build a big and skilled company of players to tackle a wide repertory.
So far, Nguyen said, most of the Chance's actors have come from Los Angeles. Like the Berubians, Spare Change asks its company members to pay monthly dues of $35 to $50--or to contribute an equivalent amount of time working at the theater.
"The Orange County actors seem to be waiting before deciding about vesting their time here. No one [here] is an established artist in Orange County. People are waiting and holding back and seeing what we're capable of," Nguyen said."
The Second Stage and the Chance Theater have entered a local small-theater landscape in which even long-established companies still struggle.
After eight years, the Vanguard Theatre in Fullerton still exists hand-to-mouth, said Wade Williamson, artistic director. "We're in a routine now where we have enough to pay the rent and mount the next show. We're still broke, but we're happy. If we get lean times, we go to benefactors or friends of the theater and say, 'If you're thinking of making a donation, now would be a good time.' "
Williamson doesn't see the arrival of new theaters as an unwelcome encroachment, an attempt to poach a limited audience. "I've found that if one theater is successful, then theater in general is successful."
Most of the small theaters have been able to hang in there, said Roosevelt Blankenship Jr., who has been producing plays in Orange County since 1987--including the past eight years at the Ensemble Theatre in Orange.
"I think as more of them open up, it's going to get better. People get the theater bug and start wanting to go."
Beyond survival, the leaders of the Chance and the Second Stage say, their chief aim is to be artistic seedbeds.
"We're creating a place for people to do their work," Nguyen said. "That's what's important to us. The visionary goal would be that a lot of people would use it."
"In a land of such broken dreams, everyone has that creative urge," rhapsodized Berube. "They need to express themselves or tell their story. The main [purpose] is to serve those people. Even if it's [a performance] for 10 of their friends, they can say, 'Look, this is my story.' "
"The Stroop Report," by Robert Preston Jones, Friday through Feb. 6 at the Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. $10-$15. Also playing through Feb. 6 is "The Stop My Insanity Trilogy," by Chris Secor. Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30 p.m., Sundays at 4:30 p.m. $5-$7. (714) 777-3033.
* "A Question of Faith," by Chris Berube, at the Berubians Second Stage Theatre, 2122 S. Grand Ave., Suite C, Santa Ana. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. $10. (714) 545-3852.