Little space, big ideas

Times Staff Writer

Oanh Nguyen sits at a table in the middle of a bare-floor playing space that he and his friends and colleagues have washed with years of sweat. As he gives his account of the Chance Theater, the Anaheim storefront company he has led since 1999, he pauses to apologize that the tale isn't coming out more colorfully.

"I think I've always been a storyteller, although you probably can't tell that from this interview, because I don't do interviews well," says the stocky actor-director. He's wearing a business suit with an open-collared dress shirt, and though his conversation is amiable, there's a guardedness that runs counter to what others say about him: that when kicking back, he is a life-of-the-party raconteur, and when engaged in watching or directing a play, he's a passionate philosopher of the theater who can talk aesthetics tirelessly for hours and sometimes irk the thin-skinned with his incessant Socratic questioning of their premises.

If Nguyen (whose name is pronounced "on win") summons different, seemingly contradictory, qualities for different occasions -- well, so does his theater.

The 70-seat Chance has been one of the most prolific small companies in Southern California, staging seasons of 12 or 14 productions, usually with two shows running concurrently. The Chance prides itself on having brought scores of unseen works by unknown playwrights to first life, and Nguyen, 31, also has directed well-received stagings of dark, tough contemporary plays by established writers, including "Tape" by Stephen Belber and Neil LaBute's chilling "Bash." He's now in rehearsals for "Porcelain" by Chay Yew, which revolves around a murder in a trysting place for gay men in London.

Before classifying Nguyen and the Chance as young-and-edgy types, one must consider that two years ago he co-directed "The Fantasticks." And during the 2004 season, the Chance struck up a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue, "A Grand Night for Singing," right after it had closed Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus," a challenging leap into ancient Greek drama. The Chance has staged Chekhov and Beckett. It also has done "It's a Wonderful Life" and made a cottage industry of putting on pocket versions of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, including "The Mikado," twice.

One of its two current productions splits the difference: "Closer Than Ever" is the latest Chance dip into that crowd-pleasing form, the musical revue. But it features little-known material by a lyricist-composer team, Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire, that isn't bankably famous. To make things fresher, Nguyen extracted six consistent characters and a simple plot line out of Maltby and Shire's late-'80s song sequence relating emotional bumps on the path from youth to middle age. "Closer Than Ever" previously had been staged as a collection of song-and-dance numbers; Nguyen's innovations were a few words of added dialogue and a great deal of visual storytelling.

The Chance started doing musicals and adaptations of hit films out of necessity, after an opening season of 10 new shows by unknown writers left the company's founding partners $75,000 in debt, most of it on Nguyen's credit cards. But what began as sheer economic prudence has, the artistic director says, turned into a test of artistry.

"Now it's about finding a new way into it; it's about taking a chance with not just the edgy pieces, but also with the well-known pieces." Nguyen adds that even "The Fantasticks" proved susceptible to tweaking, as he turned the musical's conspiring fathers into a father and a mother, aiming for a more wistful hint of balked romance.

Jocelyn Brown, now the company's producing artistic director, came to the Chance in 2000, having apprenticed as an unpaid assistant director on three shows at South Coast Repertory. Her initial aim was to sell the Chance on a never-produced script by a fellow alumnus of the UC San Diego theater department.

"I was struck by their professionalism," she says. "The whole thing felt as if they were [a major] theater, even though they didn't have the finances yet."

In the early days, the Chance's stake came mainly from Nguyen's modestly successful acting career -- which he limits to film, television and commercials, having never performed on his own stage because he doesn't want to be distracted from his directing and managerial duties. Now, he says, the company is debt-free after paying off that initial $75,000, and an additional $50,000 invested in 2003 when the Chance found a bigger, more visible and less noisy spot in the suburban office and industrial park where it first took root.

Nguyen earns his main living as a Web designer, a skill learned as a do-it-yourselfer hoisting the Chance onto the Internet. He and five other company members share a rented house 10 minutes from the theater.

With a budget that Nguyen places at more than $150,000 a year, the Chance has begun to get grants and receive donations -- and recently began paying its nonunion actors $150 each for the run of a play. Ambitions are large: to raise $3 million over the coming three years and, by 2008, establish the Chance as a 250-seat professional company for inland Orange County.

Nguyen sometimes gets recognized from a popular Sprint commercial that ran last year, and he recently received his first-ever fan e-mail, from somebody who enjoyed his turn as a complex Cambodian prince driven to prove his manhood by abusing the feline heroes of "Two Brothers," Jean-Jacques Annaud's 2004 film about the adventures of sibling tiger cubs.

Nguyen, a Vietnamese American, has stayed outside the orbit of identity-based theaters and plays. "Porcelain," about a gay Chinese man, will be the first Chance show with an Asian protagonist, "The Mikado" notwithstanding.

He was 2 years old when Saigon fell and he fled with his mother and his naval officer father. In the chaos, they were cut off from his infant brother; the family did not reunite for nearly 30 years, when that brother finally was able to emigrate.

His parents, who now run an insurance agency, insisted that Nguyen speak only English at home. The Chance grew out of friendships from high school and junior college; he never had experienced a play until he arrived at Anaheim High School and saw the drama department's adaptation of "Rebel Without a Cause."

As a child, Nguyen stayed home a lot while his parents worked six or seven days a week. "All through summer, my little brother and I would be locked up in the house. A lot of the time, I'd sit around and imagine things."

The plays that capture his imagination as a director often revolve around war -- among them last spring's staging of Richard Nelson's "Goodnight Children Everywhere," about English siblings scattered during World War II, and the 2000 world premiere of "The Stroop Report," a play about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that was the Chance's first box office hit.

"It's absolutely personal," Nguyen says. "Everything I do is."

The Chance's highest-profile moment to date was especially personal: Nguyen directed his wife, Erika C. Miller, a Chance co-founder and core actress, in the 2003 world premiere at the Getty Center of "Lee Miller: The Angel and the Fiend," the story of Erika's great aunt, a fashion model, photographer and war correspondent. The play, by Miller's son, Antony Penrose, ran in conjunction with "Surrealist Muse," an exhibition of the art she created and inspired.

Nguyen would also like to tell stories from the community he grew up in, -- but he says he hasn't found anything compelling yet. Last summer, he went on a Little Saigon cable TV show to promote "Two Brothers," was chided for declining to speak Vietnamese on the air, and fielded pointed questions about why his theater hasn't programmed plays about the Vietnamese and Vietnamese American experience. "I have to say, 'Get me a script that you truly believe in,' " Nguyen says. "I'm definitely interested."

*

'Closer Than Ever'

Where: Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Feb. 20

Price: $17 to $20

Contact: (714) 777-3033, www.chancetheater.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday February 11, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction Chance Theater -- An article in Monday's Calendar section about the Chance Theater said the company recently began to pay actors $150 each for the run of a play. The pay rate is $120 to $140 for the company's main-stage plays.
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