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To attract theatergoers, the Festival Amphitheater turns to the Bard

To attract theatergoers, the Festival Amphitheater turns to the Bard
Actor David Denman, right, will play the title role of Hamlet at “Shakespeare Orange County” at the Garden Grove Amphitheatre through July 23. The cast includes veteran actor Hal Landon, Jr. as Polonius. (Courtesy of Jordan Kubat Photography)

The story of the Festival Amphitheater in Garden Grove is almost as dramatic as "Hamlet," its season's second production — but without the ugly family dynamics and bloodshed.

The outdoor city-owned venue is in an idyllic setting for local productions, surrounded by towering trees and rolling hills, and it has showcased an award-winning arts organization's Shakespearean plays each summer.

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But early on it lacked the most important element in theater.

The audience.

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Since the late 1970s, the Garden Grove Amphitheater housed Shakespeare Orange County, a summertime theatrical festival formerly known as The Grove Shakespeare Festival, in its 540-seat Village Park.

The rustic setting, minutes from Disneyland and nestled among three freeways, quickly became a destination for artists, actors, directors, designers and audiences wanting to participate in the works of Shakespeare and other classic theater.

But here is where the story takes a turn.

The demographics shifted as the Vietnam War ended and Garden Grove became the location where many Vietnamese landed after emigrating. The amphitheater had been catering to an older, white crowd, and the new influx of residents found nothing there to identify with. And attendance, as the older crowd died off, fell.

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FOR THE RECORD

June, 29, 9:16 p.m.: A previous caption for a photo misidentified the actress as Young Hye Sohn, performing as The Player Queen. The actress is Tess Lina, performing as Queen Gertrude. The story has also been edited to reflect the correction.

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In the 1990s, Shakespeare Orange County founder Tom Bradac moved his company to Chapman University in Orange, where it remained for more than a decade — until invited back to the Garden Grove venue.

When the organization returned to its original home, it thrived with strong new ensembles and lead players joining the cast.

But this is not the end of the story.

A change in leadership came in 2013, when Bradac announced his intention to retire as producing artistic director. He got in touch with actor John Walcutt, who had appeared in the seasonal Shakespeare festival years ago, and told him the event would either be shut down or Walcutt could take it over.

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He agreed to take it on. And it was no easy feat.

The lack of cultural diversity, dating back decades, hadn't really been addressed, and he encountered a dearth of community involvement.

Walcutt, the festival's artistic director since 2014, says the group is now actively looking to appeal to new audiences and broaden its cultural reach.

"We were curious why people who could walk to the amphitheater didn't come and that the Vietnamese population never came," he said. "My first goal was to get young people in the community involved."

Walcutt, who has enjoyed a long theatrical career at The Old Globe, South Coast Repertory and La Jolla Playhouse, has also acted in movies, including "Titanic" and "Little Miss Sunshine."

When he stepped into the artistic director role two years ago, he looked at the festival's attendance records and recognized a telling observation.

The festival, now in its 37th season, attracted roughly 2,700 visitors and the majority of theatergoers were driving in from Orange.

He wondered: Where were the new theatergoers and why had cultural barriers remained?

He came up with Summerfest.

Launched in 2014, the offshoot of Shakespeare Orange County features Shakespearean productions and other classics produced in collaboration with local arts organizations.

Its inaugural production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was co-produced by world-renowned Polynesian dance troupe Hitia O Te Ra.

Vietnamese actor Trieu Tran, star of "Tropic Thunder" and "The Newsroom," brought a one-man show to benefit the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Assn., a Santa Ana-based nonprofit connecting communities through Vietnamese art and culture.

The lineup was a success, and festival attendance increased to 5,000 visitors.

Last year, it soared to over 9,000 people.

And this year, Walcutt expects 10,000.

That's because of Summerfest's latest production, "Hamlet," running on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings through July 23.

The famous Shakespearean play will mark the return of Shakespeare Orange County favorite David Denman, who has performed on stage and on television, including his recent recurrence on the NBC series "Parenthood" and his role on the Emmy Award-winning NBC series "The Office."

Denman, who graduated from Fountain Valley High School, went to Orange Coast College and transferred to Juilliard, said he always held the Garden Grove Amphitheatre in high regard. He said as he saw his first Shakespearean play at the Shakespeare Orange County.

After graduating from Juilliard, he auditioned for a role in "As You Like It" at the Garden Grove festival and eventually appeared in three following productions. He is fulfilling his dream of playing Hamlet.

"It meant so much to me as a kid to see professional theater and hear Shakespeare's words," Denman said. "There's a lot of people in the community who are seeing a play for a first time, and that to me is really exciting. 'Hamlet' is the most famous play in the world for a reason. The journey you go on is incredible."

The production features Hal Landon Jr., a founding member of South Coast Repertory.

Walcutt handpicked Landon, a beloved actor who has played Ebenezer Scrooge in the Costa Mesa theater's annual hit production of "A Christmas Carol" for 36 consecutive years, for the role of Polonius in the Shakespearean tragedy.

"I jumped at it," Landon said. "It's another really good part and has been a very satisfying process."

Walcutt, who will play King Claudius and jokingly referred to himself as "the old guy," said the production will feature Westminster's VietCam Performing Arts Group as the traveling company of players who come to visit Hamlet in Denmark.

The musical troupe will have about 15 minutes onstage. The woman who plays Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, is Tess Lina. She played Lady Capulet in the festival's past production of "Romeo and Juliet."

To appeal to the younger generations, Walcutt called the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana with an idea for an apprentice program involving theater students. The school hired Walcutt to lead an acting conservatory, and its 30 students work in the festival's theatrical production ensembles.

It's an exciting responsibility to be at the helm of the community theater that had been well-received for so many seasons, Walcutt said, adding that 2016 is a particularly celebratory year — marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

"During the curtain call at the end of show, there's always this feeling of 'we did it against all odds,'" Walcutt said. "A lot of people think a Shakespeare play is like taking medicine or going to school, but it's not. 'Hamlet' plays like a murder mystery, and it's alive and it's thrilling."

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What: Summerfest/Shakespeare Orange County's "Hamlet"

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from June 24 through July 23

Where: Village Park, 12762 Main St., Garden Grove

Information: (714) 590-1575 or visit shakespeareoc.org

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Kathleen Luppi, kathleen.luppi@latimes.com

Twitter: @KathleenLuppi

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