The state of O.C. theater will only get rockier as the pandemic continues, but many forge on
In June, Nick Charles, the founder of Stage Door Repertory Theatre in Anaheim Hills, was on a Zoom panel with local producers about the future of theater.
It was part of a series of roundtable conversations that Gregory Cohen, education manager at the Discovery Cube Orange County and regular performer at the Long Beach Playhouse, has been hosting on his Facebook page.
For the record:
12:36 p.m. Aug. 3, 2020A previous version of the article referred to Amanda DeMaio as saying that $10,000 would be an insurmountable amount of back rent for a small theater to overcome, when it should be $100,000.
Joined by James Huffman of Attic Community Theater in Santa Ana, Amanda DeMaio of STAGESTheatre in Fullerton, Madison Mooney and Sean Gray of Long Beach Playhouse and Joel Roster of El Campanil Theatre in Antioch, Charles remembers everyone being very positive about O.C. theater’s future.
So when he heard in July that the Attic theater was closing, he was shocked.
Huffman said that he didn’t make the decision to close until the last month, but he had been thinking it was a possibility for longer than that. There was only $100 left in the Attic’s bank account. He said that he had a good, decadelong relationship with his landlord, who wanted them to stay, but it was too much rent, too much time and too much to ask.
He finally decided to let it go and try again after the pandemic is over. His wife is a hospice nurse who works in elder care facilities and with COVID patients. His daughter also works with COVID patients as an ICU nurse.
“Even if you could open, who’s crazy enough to go? I don’t think I’d go,” he said. “Most of the people that I know who go to the theater are older. I personally feel it’s completely irresponsible to have an assembly and have people anywhere near each other during this because you can’t be safe enough.”
David Carnevale is the co-founder and managing director of Orange County’s LGBTQ theater, Theatre Out, which closed in 2017. He recently created an “Orange County Return to Theater” survey, focusing on smaller O.C. theaters and asking survey participants questions about when they’d feel comfortable reopening.
About a third said they’d feel comfortable in September, while a third said they wouldn’t feel comfortable returning until there was a vaccine. The majority said they’d want special precautions including masks for all audiences and staff, sanitizing stations and deep cleaning in order to return, and that they’d feel more comfortable attending shows with small casts.
Carnevale also notes a bias that “a large number of actors, technicians and creators completed the survey and did so not as an audience member but focusing on their own role in the theatre.”
And since he shared the results of the survey, Carnevale said several major announcements were made from the unions, the Center Theatre Group, and Broadway producers about production delays into 2021. With instructions from health officials changing rapidly, he thinks if the survey were given out today, fewer would be comfortable returning in the fall.
Most theaters in Orange County, and around the nation, are in a similar position. Audiences are a fundamental part of theater, and the pandemic has made it unsafe for audiences to gather. Even if audience members could socially distance, there is the safety of actors and crew members to consider. Also, what is the cost of putting on a show, when the likelihood of making the money back is slim?
In the meantime, some are continuing their programming online to keep their members engaged. Some are hosting Zoom readings. But these efforts, for the most part, are more for community building and the opportunity for artists to hone their craft.
“There isn’t a whole lot that theaters can do to make any money right now,” Mike Brown, president of Costa Mesa Playhouse, said.
Some theaters, like Costa Mesa Playhouse, Newport Theatre Arts Center and the GEM Theater in Garden Grove are subsidized, either by their city, their landlords or their donors. But many theaters like Stage Door, Maverick, STAGESTheatre, Modjeska and more are at the mercy of their landlords and trying to make deals with them.
Larger theaters like Segerstrom Center of the Arts and South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa are also not immune to the pandemic.
“I really think it’s about the nature of the business, rather than the size of the business,” Casey Reitz, president of Segerstrom Center for the Arts, regarded as one of the most prolific, well-known and well-funded theaters in the county. “If you’re in hospitality, if you’re in air travel, it doesn’t matter what your size is. You’re significantly impacted.”
Seventy-five percent of Segerstrom’s budget comes from ticket sales. In June, the company furloughed and laid off over 60% of its staff.
South Coast Repertory, which operates on the same campus, furloughed approximately half of its staff in early April.
“The bigger the company, the bigger the financial hit,” said Craig Tyrl of the Wayward Artist in Santa Ana.
“Regardless of size, audience base or budget, the whole art form with live audience is not happening, and it’s a tremendous loss for everybody. Everyone’s working hard to survive this.”
TimesOC checked in with the owners and directors of 13 theaters in O.C.
Attic Community Theater
After a decade, James Huffman, owner of the Attic Community Theater, closed and moved out of its Santa Ana location in early July.
The theater shut down in mid-March anticipating to be closed for about a month. But soon it became clear to Huffman that the theater was going to be closed for a year or more.
He described the last four months as a “slow-motion train wreck.”
Huffman said that 2019 was the theater’s best year and the Attic was running its fourth show of sold-out audiences.
“Everybody’s just clinging on and draining any money they have and then going into their own pockets, which is what we all do anyway,” said Huffman. “I’m just trying to be a realist and say, ‘there’s no possible way.’ A landlord won’t pay my rent for a year, and I think it’s unreasonable for me to expect him to.”
Since the theater is volunteer-run for the most part, it didn’t qualify for a PPP loan. He thought it best to execute an exit strategy. The plan is to keep the essentials needed to reopen (seats, lights and sound system) and sell the rest in a rummage sale. He’s going to fundraise for, what he calls, the Attic 2.0 and expects to open in 2021.
Huffman and his business partners started the Attic after the last recession. There were many affordable spaces available at the time. With volunteer help, they turned a Santa Ana warehouse into a theater.
He predicts it will be a similar case post pandemic. Huffman has received an outpouring of support, including some who want to donate money. Although he said he wants business partners and volunteers, he wasn’t taking donations.
“If people are going to give money to the arts, it needs to go to the arts not towards trying to pay rent, to stay alive even though you can’t. I’ve told everybody I won’t accept any donations until we’re completely closed down … What I jokingly told people, we have to finish act one before we can start act two,” said Huffman.
The Modjeska Playhouse co-founder and artistic director Christopher Sullivan calls the Lake Forest-located theater a “baby” or “young theater of Orange County.”
And it’s struggling.
“We’re trying to hang on. That’s probably the best thing that we can say,” said Sullivan. “Any theater that says they’re doing well is probably fooling themselves a little bit unless they have major donors or corporate sponsorships or are funded by the city. We don’t have any of that.”
The idea for Modjeska Playhouse started with three friends who met at Trabuco Hills High School during the 1990s. They went on to have careers in the performing arts and decided to start a theater company in their local community once they moved back to south O.C.
They started putting on shows in outdoor spaces, theaters and libraries. Once they saved some money, they acquired their current venue, which they built out into a theater in 2014. Their season lineup is a mix of traditional plays and improvised theater.
It’s a volunteer-run nonprofit that also didn’t qualify for a federal PPP loan since it doesn’t have a payroll. The playhouse gets its revenue from ticket sales alone, and the money goes towards paying rent and producing the next shows.
The partners may try to fundraise to keep the theater open but are hesitant to do so if they will be forced to close.
“We’ve had a handful of people reach out to us. Super generous people that wanted to offer donations. But I think all of them together wouldn’t cover our rent for a month,” said Sullivan. “We would feel guilty if we raised money but weren’t able to raise enough money and then shut the door.”
Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble
Breath of Fire is a theater ensemble based in downtown Santa Ana. It is made up of resident artists in the Grand Central Arts Center in Fullerton and the only culturally specific theater organization in Orange County.
Founding artistic director Sara Guerrero remembers that when the theater started, it had no space or budget. Artists donated their time to teach, neighbors offered their backyards, and workshops were always filled.
The company is volunteer-run, though it provides small stipends to their ensemble members. But since COVID-19 hit, it has shifted its artist ensemble grant to an emergency fund, raising money for those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
Literary Director Diana Burbano said that the ensemble was one of the first in the nation to start doing virtual play readings when quarantine began in March.
“As a small theater company, we had more leeway to jump right in; we’re so used to being scrappy and doing things on a quarter that we weren’t afraid to do that,” she said. “And in some ways, we’ve been able to have a bigger impact than we’ve had before, because the virtual space is a lot more open to organizations that don’t have a lot of money.”
Breath of Fire likely won’t produce another show until there is a vaccine.
“There are resources that smaller theaters just don’t have,” she said. “The idea of getting mikes for everybody onstage is already a prohibitive cost.”
Members say that in the past, they haven’t always felt included in the O.C. theater scene. But they’ve been able to find cohorts in Latino theater companies outside of O.C. as well as small women-led theater organizations across the country.
As protests spread across the nation and Orange County, members of the Breath of Fire ensemble thought hard about how the company could help.
It’s been regularly hosting “Staged Stories,” a live-streamed series highlighting plays, monologues, poetry and other new works of BIPOC artists, and it recently partnered with Garden Grove High School’s Black Student Union to offer their storytelling education workshops as well as help them fundraise for their organizing efforts surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We’re volunteer-based, so there’s only so much we can do, but it feels important to be accountable,” said Guerrero. “Moving forward, I think we need to partner with other organizations, but it’s important to think about how do bigger parties partner with smaller parties without turning them into workhorses?“
“There’s so many things up in the air,” Amanda DeMaio, executive director of STAGESTheatre in Fullerton. “Not unlike many theaters, we have rent and no income, and we don’t have a landlord clarifying whether payments missed will be dismissed as opposed to deferred.”
She explained that while landlords are being understanding now, “what nobody says is: what happens in a year when we reopen? If we reopen with $100,000 in back rent, that’s almost insurmountable for a small theater.”
Before the pandemic, STAGESTheatre rented three spaces: one for their theater, another for rehearsal space and a third for storage. In the meantime, they’re only holding onto their theater space.
On Aug. 8 and 9, from approximately 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., they will be having a big rummage sale of their props, costumes, furniture and scenery in the parking area behind their theater (400 E Commonwealth Ave, Fullerton) to raise money for the nonprofit to pay their debts and continue to cover future rent.
When the pandemic hit in March, they had three shows running simultaneously that were shut down early. Many small theaters only have a handful of shows in their entire season, but DeMaio said that in STAGESTheatre’s 28 years, they’ve always been “fast and furious. We want to create tons of opportunities for artists.”
DeMaio is also the president of the OC Theatre Guild, which was founded in 2015 by Sharyn Case and Brian Page but only became an official nonprofit in 2019. The goal was to create a more united theater community in Orange County, and the board started with creating regional auditions and the OCTG Awards Program.
The biggest issue, DeMaio explained, was the relative lack of publicity for the smaller theaters, with less than 100 seats, in Orange County.
Once theaters were shut down, the guild quickly created an artist relief fund. They were able to get money in artists’ hands before government programs kicked in.
In the meantime, as protests against the death of George Floyd spread around the nation and in Orange County, DeMaio said that the members of the OC Theatre Guild are thinking deeply about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity and anti-racism.
“At this level of theater, often it’s volunteer-based or there are one or two people who do a lot of the work,” she explained. “So often you’re trapped in the cycle of ‘I’ve always done things this way,’ without the time to really think about how we can be better, how to lay the groundwork so that when we come back, we can be a better, more equitable and transparent place.”
DeMaio thinks it’d be irresponsible to reopen before there is a vaccine. Plus, what kind of insurance would they need, and what is their liability if someone gets sick at their theater? These are some of the questions that so far don’t have clear answers.
What she hopes is that this shared experience will create a tighter-knit community among local theaters, and that even if the spaces need to shut down, the opportunities don’t disappear.
She said that STAGESTheatre often rented out its space to other theaters including Alchemy Theatre Company or Project La Femme. She hopes that in 2021, the theaters that still have space will reach out to those that don’t and work together to help fill the voids.
Oanh Nguyen, executive artistic director of Chance Theater, and Casey Long, managing director, remember clearly when the theater closed because it was Friday the 13th.
The day after, they were about to have a major fundraising event with about 1,000 people and 40 different performances, and they had to shut it down.
Looking forward, they know it won’t be financially viable for them to produce plays unless it’s safe for them to have their shows at 80% capacity, which means they are likely not going to be able to produce until there is a vaccine.
Their annual operating budget is about $1 million. About half their income comes from ticket sales, subscriptions and other earned income, while the other half comes from grants and donations.
They’ve furloughed the whole staff, and so far, they have eight staff members left, all at 16 hours a week or less.
But they do have the support of their donors. They kicked off a $200,000 fundraiser when the pandemic started, and as of print time, they were at $199,244. But the $200,000 goal was just to get them through the summer, so they’re about to announce the next goal.
“In the world of midsize to larger theaters, we’re struggling because we don’t have the reserves and endowments,” said Nguyen. “In the world of small theaters, we might seem to be doing much better, but at the same time, we have a lot more costs. We pay our staff and artists. We have a larger amount of rent.”
In the meantime, they’re creating virtual programming to keep their community connected. “Chance Cyber Chats” is a virtual theater trip where they pick five theater shows available on BroadwayHD and other streaming platforms to watch and then encourage their members to join a panel through Zoom to discuss.
Long hosts these talks, and he said that while they’re scheduled for 30 minutes, many stay for over an hour. A lot of their members are used to seeing them on a regular basis.
They started “Some Good News OC,” inspired by John Krasinski’s popular quarantine series of the same name, where they share good news around Orange County and also give updates. They continue to hold workshops and develop other series where they bring back past cast members and catch up.
“At this moment, the feeling is optimistic,” Nguyen said.
“Cautiously optimistic,” Long said.
“We have to be; we have no choice,” Nguyen said. “We have no idea what tomorrow’s going to be like, but there’s a belief that we’re going to get through this.”
Costa Mesa Playhouse
Founded in 1965, the Costa Mesa Playhouse is at the Rea Elementary School campus, in a facility that’s rented out to them and organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
“We are very fortunate because our landlord is the Newport Mesa Unified School District, and they give us a very reasonable rent, so we are able to keep paying our rent throughout the year that we’ll be shut down,” said Mike Brown, president of Costa Mesa Playhouse.
The theater also had a patron that recently passed away and left it a large donation, which Brown said will be helpful.
“I know a lot of theaters are not as lucky financially as we are; a lot of them are struggling,” he said.
Costa Mesa Playhouse is an all-volunteer organization. It pays directors, musical directors and actors a small stipend, but with no shows in production, it doesn’t have to pay anyone.
The theater rents two storage facilities but decided to shut one down during the pandemic and store costumes and furniture in the theater while it isn’t operating. Operators are also storing some of the Attic Community Theater’s costumes and lights as the Santa Ana theater shuts down and hopes to find a new space in 2021.
“Some of [the theaters] are a lot more hip on what to do,” said Brown, pointing to creative ways his fellow theater directors have fundraised and created virtual programming during the pandemic. “We’re not very good at that but fortunately our financial situation is such that we don’t have to worry too much about it.”
3-D Theatricals closed aftee its “Kinky Boots” production run, but executive producer and artistic director T.J. Dawson said it’s surviving.
“I believe we will come out of this pandemic swinging hopefully,” said Dawson. “We were among the businesses that were able to get the PPP loan, which allowed us to be able to continue to employ our staff and keep people on payroll, which is a huge blessing.”
In the meantime, the theater is working on developing its educational branch through the 3D + U program. It has offered free classes ranging from pilates, dance and drag makeup to round-table discussions. The classes drew in local and international viewers. It will continue through Aug. 14.
Since the teaching artists leading the classes are donating their time, Dawson said it doesn’t feel fair to ask them to continue working for free or to charge people when most don’t have an income.
The virtual experiment allowed them to play with a masterclass idea they’ve wanted to do in person. Once it’s safe to open for group gatherings, Dawson expects to provide in-person and virtual classes while compensating teachers.
He also predicts auditions will be conducted online in a permanent way, saving actors money by not having to drive or print resumes and headshots.
“It’s been the most exciting thing to kind of come from the challenges of how do we stay relevant and how do we stay a part of this community,” said Dawson. “While [COVID-19] has been devastating, we’ve been given the gift of time to figure things out. I think it’s going to change our industry forever.”
3-D Theatricals may start programming small scale or single-performer shows in a drive-in concert set up as a temporary solution. But Dawson doesn’t see theater coming back until next year.
The theater opened its first season in the Orange County Pavilion and moved to other venues in Fullerton and Redondo Beach over the years. Now, they are housed in Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts while holding rehearsals in their Anaheim studio.
The Cerritos-located venue announced it would be dark through August 2021. It gives the theater the flexibility to move its scheduled next show, “Newsies,” as early as February or push back to August, depending on whether the government and health officials allow large-scale gatherings to resume.
“I’m just hoping that in 2021, [theater] will be responsible, caring and careful. We all want to come back to work,” said Dawson.
The Wayward Artist
Santa Ana theater The Wayward Artist closed in the middle of producing its third season and canceled shows for the rest of the year, including Michael Mejia’s “Feliz,” which it was in the middle of rehearsing.
Artistic director Craig Tyrl said he believes the theater can financially weather the storm. Though the nonprofit theater company pays artists, it’s a volunteer-run performance space. Ticket sales are a huge part of its budget.
“Luckily we have strong donors who believe in us and want to support us during the difficult circumstances,” said Tyrl. “Every theater is different. Some theaters have outrageous rents, other theaters have more reasonable rents.”
The theater has a space in Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center, which is currently closed.
The Wayward Artist started in 2017 with Tyrl and managing director Kristin Campbell.
“One positive [of these times] is that it forces artists how to express their art in this new environment,” he said.
Tyrl said he anticipates that The Wayward Artist will reopen in summer 2021, “if we’re lucky.”
“It’s really a question of how long one can survive. If this thing goes on for two years, who knows where we’ll be,” said Tyrl.
“It’s still out of our control,” said Brian Newell, founder and artistic director of the Maverick Theater.
The small Fullerton theater which opened in 2002 is known for its cult hits including “Plan 8 from Outer Space,” “Night of the Living Dead” and “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”
It was about to open its production of “The Crucible” when the shutdown happened in March, and Newell said that the cast has been rehearsing lines on Zoom since, hoping it can open.
“We all know it might not happen this year, but the cast enjoys the break and having something to focus on,” he said.
The Maverick Theater often produces larger-than-life shows, like “King Kong,” in a small space.
“The biggest challenge is not social distancing audiences but social distancing performers on stage with mask coverings,” he said. “With a cast of 19 on a 23-foot by 21-foot stage, it’s very problematic. But even if we could somehow pull off a live performance, would an audience even show up? I don’t believe the public has the confidence yet to stay indoors with a small crowd for 2½ hours.”
“So now we just wait and hope we can continue to cover rent until we reopen.”
Newport Theatre Arts Center
“We have city of Newport Beach support on the facility, and we have been thrifty over the years so we have some funds to help tide us over,” Rae Cohen, president and executive producer of the Newport Theatre Arts Center, wrote in an email.
The company operates with mostly volunteers and only one employee on payroll. Actors are also mostly volunteers, though staff are paid honorariums.
The company had hoped to open in the fall, but are now looking at 2021. They have the rights to “It’s Only a Play” by Terrance McNally — who died from coronavirus complications in March — that they hope to be able to open March 2021.
“If we open earlier than that, we will try to get rights to a small cast show,” she said. “While we are closed, we are doing some updating and repairs, organizing of the theatre and lobby area.”
South Coast Repertory
After furloughing and reducing hours for about 33 of their employees, South Coast Repertory‘s remaining staff returned to their offices with social-distancing measures in place in June.
The pandemic hit when the company was about to begin the run for John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar.” The show’s final performance was a preview on March 12 before social-distancing guidelines were ordered. Because the company had coincidentally filmed it, it offered a link to stream the performance.
As the months passed, South Coast Rep eventually canceled the rest of its season, including theannual “A Christmas Carol” show that has run for 40 years and has never been canceled until now.
In the meantime, it’s been creating videos on its YouTube page including a “At Home With Ivers” series where Artistic Director David Ivers gives updates and interviews artists during the quarantine.
Also, on Aug. 17, the company will launch a new, free online community-based storytelling series called SCR community with “MASA,” a live reading of four plays that explores Mexican food. Curated and directed by Juliette Carrillo, the plays include “The Gardens of Aztlan (An Acto Hecho A Mano)” by Luis Alfaro, “El Maiz” from Café Vida by Lisa Loomer, “Tejuino” from Tejuino by Amilcar Jauregui and “The Path to Divadom, or How to Make Fat-free Tamales in G minor” by the late Diane Rodriguez.
“MASA” is the first of three events curated by Carrillo in a series titled “El Teatro de la Comida (Theatre of Food)” and the next two events will take place on Aug. 31 and Sept. 14.
Segerstrom Center of the Arts
A recent transplant from New York to Orange County, Casey Reitz started his role as president of Segerstrom Center for the Arts last December and only had a few months to get to know the staff, board members and audiences before everything closed down.
Though it’s not the easiest beginning, Reitz tries to see the silver lining. If he was still in New York, navigating the pandemic would have been even harder, he said.
Segerstrom Center of the Arts is a unique space in Orange County, because it has multiple venues that are categorized in different ways.
The outdoor George Argyros Plaza is in Stage 2, the Samueli Theater is in Stage 3, whereas the larger concert halls that seat thousands are in Stage 4.
“We don’t really know what the protocols are,” said Reitz. “Everyone kind of thinks they know what they are … the Performing Arts Coalition is using information from the CDC to come up with guidelines, but we don’t know how it’ll align with the state’s guidelines.”
But even if the center came up with good staging plans for Argyros Plaza and the Samueli Theater, Reitz said a lot of performers unions haven’t agreed to what protocols would be necessary for performers to come back to work.
“Even when we can open, we’re challenged by what kind of performance we’d actually have,” he said. “There’s issues on all sides.”
He thinks whenever the center can start having shows again, it will reopen in stages. It will start with the outdoor venue and start small: solo singers, stand-up comedians, quartets, small jazz bands and speaker series. Before it’s safe to travel, local performers will be highlighted.
Technically, the center is already allowed to open the George Argyros Plaza, but Reitz thinks just because it’s allowed to, doesn’t mean it should.
Meanwhile, they center is continuing its education and community engagement programs, like classes through the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School and school of music and dance for children with disabilities, online.
And Reitz is trying to learn from other businesses that are opening, from restaurants to museums.
The center plans to release its 2020-21 Music Series schedule in a couple of weeks, which is planned for January and February but could be postponed.
It is also collaborating with performing arts centers around the nation to release a virtual concert on Aug. 15 by Christopher Jackson, of “Hamilton” and “In The Heights” fame. Ticket sales will go to production, with any additional proceeds directly benefiting the individual centers.
“This is a painful time, but I think the silver lining is that it’s very clear that once people feel safe, they will come,” Reitz said.
“During this time of isolation, people want social interaction, they want connection, they want live performance. When we come back, I think we’re going to come back strong. It’s just a little bit of a question of when.”
Stage Door Repertory Theatre
Nick Charles clearly remembers the full moon on the Friday the 13th that Stage Door Repertory Theatre opened its production of “Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits.”
At the time, the theaters had been asked to cut back on attendance, so they only allowed about 35 people in, and the company rearranged its seating to table seating, so groups would be properly distanced.
After one weekend, it shut down, with hopes of coming back in two weeks, then a month, before realizing the hiatus would likely last until 2021.
In the meantime, Charles is working on theater repairs and renovations.
“The theater is the most organized it’s ever been,” he joked.
Charles has been negotiating with the landlord.
“When we told them [the situation], they almost flipped,” he said. “Nine months without paying rent? Yes, nine months without running our business and all the people we are letting down. Imagine how we feel.”
Stage Door hasn’t been told to move out yet, and in the meantime, Charles is applying for grants, small business loans, collecting everything he can here and there, just in case.
He said years earlier, he had looked around neighboring cities to see if he could find a space with more affordable rent.
“Everything is the same, so there’s no point in moving,” he said.
At the moment, the company has already paid royalties for the shows it planned to do in 2020, so instead of asking for the money back, Charles hopes it can just erase 2020 and continue as planned in 2021.
“I’m not that worried yet,” Charles said. “I think if all these other theaters start saying, I think it’s time for us to close. Then I’d get real scared.
“As long as the theater community is staying strong and saying, hey we’re going to come back and be better than ever, it kind of gives you that hope.”
That said, he said if the company can’t open in 2021, then “all bets are off. I can’t see holding on indefinitely. I just can’t.”
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