At play in Orange County

Times Staff Writer

Jesus and his apostles appeared as a brotherhood of gay men onstage in downtown Santa Ana. Elvis reclaimed his throne at the Block at Orange. The Demon Barber of Fleet Street terrorized a warehouse row in Fullerton. And Richard III? He's currently wreaking slaughter in an Anaheim office-industrial park.

These are not flashes from a drama teacher's fever dream, but vital signs from a promising small-theater scene in Orange County.

Though long overshadowed by the county's two big regional companies, South Coast Repertory and the Laguna Playhouse, the little stages in storefronts and industrial complexes are percolating. On some nights, especially at Rude Guerrilla Theater Company (which gave the gay Jesus of Terrence McNally's "Corpus Christi" his West Coast premiere), they take risks that contradict the community's reputation for conservatism, and place themselves on the edge of what theater almost anywhere is willing to dare. They regularly offer new works by local playwrights while staging stuff that's too experimental, or maybe just not common-sensical enough, for the big guys to touch.

The gathering energy has given birth to the Orange County Theater Festival, the first attempt to celebrate the county's small theaters as a cohesively linked movement. It starts this weekend and runs through September in the 246-seat outdoor amphitheater at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton.

But it's too soon to declare the triumph of a scene that still faces many of the struggles confronting small theaters everywhere. Production budgets typically come to $1,000 or less, while the sweat of volunteers -- including actors, who seldom are paid for Orange County storefront shows -- compensates for chronically scarce funding. Seating capacities range from 37 to 70, and playing to 20 or 30 pairs of eyes per night is often considered a solid achievement.

Nevertheless, Rude Guerrilla in Santa Ana, Stagestheatre and the Hunger Artists in Fullerton and the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills all have survived six seasons or more -- pretty good runs for as notoriously ephemeral an endeavor as small theater. Insurgo Theater Movement, noted for stoking "Richard III" and other Shakespearean history plays with heated battle scenes, and the Maverick Theater, which pioneered mall-theater in the Block at Orange, were launched in the last three years.

Maverick's impresario, playwright-director Brian Newell, has drawn attention with his fanciful musical, "The King," which imagines a cryonically preserved but now thawed Elvis trying to persuade the world that he's the real item and not just another impersonator. Featuring a live band, a white-jumpsuited King and about 20 Presley numbers, it has succeeded at three venues in the county and is headed for the Buena Park Civic Theater, en route to what Newell hopes will be its apotheosis in Las Vegas. Despite the play's word-of-mouth success, Maverick recently lost its shopping-mall home to a pet store that could pay higher rent.

Fullerton's Vanguard Theatre Ensemble can testify to the perils of changing venues. The eldest surviving sibling among O.C. storefront theaters is emerging this weekend from two years of suspended animation. Its members never thought it would take so long to find and finance the more visible downtown location the troupe decided it needed to survive.

Vanguard is dreaming large in its well-placed new spot -- while staring at the prospect of having to retire $50,000 in debt incurred in the move.

Growth phase

AS Vanguard returns, the youngest, most buzzed-about arrival is finding its footing. The Rogue Artists Ensemble, begun this year by eight recent graduates of UC Irvine, creates a theater of the fantastic out of puppets and masks. The current show, "Hyperbole: Changes," eschews dialogue while using songs, dance, shadow puppets and a vulture "emcee" to probe the subconscious of a troubled girl-puppet. The troupe has made a mark after just two shows, winning a late-night residency at Rude Guerrilla.

"We create shows for folks who have not stepped into a theater -- and will love it," says Sean T. Cawelti, at 26 the Rogue Artists' artistic director and oldest member. "Our goal is to make sure theater stays alive, to create something you can't get anywhere else, even in a film."

Rude Guerrilla, which has few peers -- anywhere -- in its willingness to take on harrowing subject matter replete with violence, nudity and sex, is currently moonlighting in Burbank with the second U.S. production of "Blasted," a landmark of boundary-pushing, antiwar themes and horrific imagery by English playwright Sarah Kane.

Times reviewer David C. Nichols lauded the show, writing that "unflinching viewers and every in-your-face entity from the Actors' Gang to the Zoo District should witness these Orange County renegades' first Los Angeles-area appearance." On the troupe's home stage is "Poona ... and Other Plays for Children," a risque comedy by Jeff Goode that isn't the first Rude Guerrilla title that can't appear in a family newspaper.

The fledgling Orange County Theater Festival hopes to spotlight the diversity and vitality of this scene. The initial goal is modest: just to avoid taking a financial bath and be invited back next year, says artistic director Joel Beers, a playwright and theater editor for the OC Weekly alternative newspaper.

The four-play festival is arriving when former barriers and rivalries on the scene are being replaced by cooperation, Beers says. The birth of more theaters has brought more plum roles, enticing actors to cross company boundaries. "There's more mice in the cage, and they're bumping into each other," he says. Richard Stein, the Laguna Playhouse's executive director who has been managing theaters in Orange County since 1987, says it's no surprise that a more layered scene has taken shape.

"You have a confluence of lots of people moving in, and residents becoming less L.A.-centric in terms of cultural activities -- partly due to the miserable traffic, and partly because everybody was looking around and seeing that the talent was all here to make it happen."

Future vision

Orange COUNTY's collection of storefronts clearly is dwarfed by the teeming Los Angeles scene. L.A. Stage Alliance, an umbrella organization that doesn't include every company, has more than 200 members. By very rough comparison, octheater.org, an online resource for Orange County theater, has links to 29 companies of all sorts -- including community theaters, dinner theaters and itinerant production companies. (Somehow, it omits a 30th, South Coast Repertory.)

In L.A., the film and TV industry towers above small stage companies but also provides economic sustenance for those who do theater for love, exposure or some combination of the two. But Orange County, though pop culturally hip, is no entertainment mecca. Its storefront scene is largely a homegrown movement rooted in college drama departments -- especially Orange Coast College, Fullerton College and Cal State Fullerton.

"That's what excites me most about Orange County theater," says Steven Sonderson, proprietor of octheater.org. "Those who do theater here aren't performing to keep busy while they wait for something better or more lucrative to come along."

Among the challenges faced by the county's small theaters is putting on high-quality productions without casting members of Actors' Equity. In L.A. County, the union allows members to perform for a pittance in theaters with 99 seats or less, on the assumption that exposure in a show-biz capital could boost their careers. The dispensation stops at the county line.

On the Orange County side, the unsurprising consensus among small-theater producers is that there's a sufficient pool of good, professionally minded, non-Equity actors.

Orange County's small theaters share a dream that they'll grow big enough to offer actors union wages and their core members a chance to make a living unencumbered by day jobs. It's a difficult path that can be traveled only by raising and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars annually -- far beyond the current capability of any of the storefront theaters. But there is a bit of history that legitimately inspires big thinking.

"I love the idea that South Coast Repertory started as such a small entity, literally in the back of a van," the Rogue Artists' Cawelti says.

The legend is readily invoked by Orange County theater artists: SCR's "Tartuffe" of 40 seasons ago, trucked around not in a van, actually, but in co-founder David Emmes' 1960 Studebaker station wagon. The years of putting on plays in a tiny storefront in Newport Beach, then in a Costa Mesa strip mall -- until, after 14 years of mastering the art of enlisting wealthy patrons, SCR emerged as a major regional theater. Today the company has three stages, a $9.2-million budget and a national reputation as a cultivator of top-of-the-line playwrights.

For a long time, apart from South Coast Rep, new theater developments occurred at a glacial pace. It took 15 years after SCR's debut for a second theater with big dramatic aspirations to arrive: Thomas F. Bradac's 1979 launch of the Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove. But in 1991, Bradac decamped, then started a rival company, Shakespeare Orange County, based at Chapman University; Grove Shakespeare succumbed soon after. Today's small-theater movement didn't begin until SCR was nearly a quarter-century removed from its storefront beginnings. The first latter-day storefront with staying power was the Alternative Repertory Theater, which endured in Santa Ana from 1987 to 2000.

Its successors struggle too. Next season's goal at Insurgo, artistic director John Beane says, is to be "not on the verge of death." Prosperity will come, he says, if small theaters can find the "untapped audience."

"We're talking about a group of theaters developing in what could be the place with the largest disposable income in the world," Beane says. "There's a huge market out there."

So far, that has remained elusive. But Orange County is, at least, a place where young, ambitious theater folk now think it's worth the effort.

Shannon Flynn, co-founder of the Hunger Artists, returned to Orange County in 2002 after a three-year absence while earning a master's in directing from the Yale School of Drama. She says it's a different world from the one she grew up in during the 1980s, when any young person with artistic aims "wanted to get the heck out of here."

"I don't think that's the case anymore," she says, "because there are reasons to stay."

*

Orange County Theater Festival

* "Rube!": Fullerton playwright Joel Beers' comedy about Rube Waddell, the brilliant but manic pitcher who was baseball's first Hall of Fame flake. Co-produced by Stagestheatre. July 15-25.

* "The Taming of the Shrew": Shakespeare informed by circus-style clowning and TV's "Laugh-In." Co-produced by March Hog Theater Company, originally seen at Insurgo Theater Movement. Aug. 5-15.

* "The Rivals": Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 18th century English comedy updated to 1930s New York. A March Hog co-production, originally at Insurgo. Aug. 26-Sept. 5.

* "The Importance of Being Earnest": An all-male, gleefully gay staging of Oscar Wilde's comedy, set in the swinging London of the 1960s. Co-produced by Hunger Artists Theater Company. Sept. 16-26.

Where: Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton

Price: $10 to $15

Contact: (714) 441-2381; www.octheaterfestival.com

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