Virtually a year to the day since he was ousted as artistic director of the Grove Shakespeare Festival (since renamed GroveShakespeare), Thomas F. Bradac sat back and beamed with pleasure in the air-conditioned comfort of Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre in Orange.
"I'm really proud of what we're doing here," he said last week as he watched "The Winter's Tale" being rehearsed by the band of professional actors that has helped him form a new classical theater company, Shakespeare Orange County.
"We're producing value on a level way beyond what we're spending," said Bradac, 44, the troupe's producing artistic director. "We're also creating something real, something that has meaning for us personally and, I hope, for others."
Just what meaning SOC's maiden season is likely to have for summer theatergoers bent on an evening's entertainment will be determined in large measure once "The Winter's Tale" opens Friday at the 256-seat Waltmar (there will be a preview performance Thursday).
But it was evident from a pre-opening visit to the SOC scene shop, where an Italian Renaissance-style wardrobe was being created from scratch, that formation of the new company already has meant a chance for costume designer Lyndall Otto and her half-dozen assistants to keep practicing their craft.
They had done the costumes for all six outdoor Shakespeare productions at the Grove in 1990 and '91, Otto said. But she and her team found themselves out of jobs when Grove managing director Barbara G. Hammerman decided not to have costumes made in-house this season, but to rent most of them from England's Royal Shakespeare Company and elsewhere.
"Here we're starting from ground zero, and we're not renting," Otto said as tailors cut, sewed and pressed yards of richly patterned cloth to match her pastel-colored drawings. "We have no stock to pull from, so building all the costumes is a big, big deal." A robust woman with a cheerful manner, Otto first worked for Bradac in 1989 at the Grove, on his hit production of "Cyrano de Bergerac."
The cost of wardrobing the 18 or so characters in "The Winter's Tale," one of Shakespeare's less frequently staged plays, comes to about $12,000, Bradac said. But the investment will be maximized by recycling the costumes in August for "Hamlet," SOC's second offering.
Similarly, a $14,000 investment in scenery will cover a single-unit set for both productions, Bradac noted, with the basic design by E. Scott Shaffer accommodating "two different looks."
The founding actors said in separate interviews that SOC means the chance to participate in making theater policy, not only on artistic matters but also on administrative issues like marketing and fund raising.
"It's been eye-opening for me," said Elizabeth Norment, who was a founding actor of Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theatre on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., 12 years ago.
"All the 'founding' at American Rep was done by the staff there. Here I have an active role in the decisions. It certainly has put me closer to an understanding of the economic pressures in cultivating an audience. As an actor you're generally quite protected from that."
Norment, who will play Paulina in "The Winter's Tale" and Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, also noted that she had the rare actor's opportunity to sit in on auditions and provide her opinions on casting to the directors (John-Frederick Jones, who is staging "The Winter's Tale," and Bradac, who will stage "Hamlet").
Another SOC founder, Kamella Tate, who will play Hermione in "The Winter's Tale," agrees that the new company is "a laboratory where actors can be part of a free and creative environment. We're able to explore Shakespeare in a way that enriches our art and the art of theater in general."
Although unintended, her comments were implicit reminders of the backstage acrimony last season at the Grove in the wake of Bradac's surprise ouster by the Board of Trustees over a combination of managerial and artistic disputes.
Tate, like Norment, played major Shakespearean roles at the Grove in recent seasons and defected along with such longtime Grove stalwarts as Daniel Bryan Cartmell and Carl Reggiardo, both of whom also are SOC founders.
Reggiardo, who will play Leontes in "The Winter's Tale" and Claudius in "Hamlet," put his feelings diplomatically, perhaps taking a cue from Polonius in the latter play. "A change is always nice," he said.
Others participating in SOC's maiden season who formerly were associated with the Grove include lighting designer David C. Palmer, composer Chuck Estes (who is still working at the Grove), choreographer Linda Kostlik and Wayne Alexander, who will play Polixenes in "The Winter's Tale" and the title role in "Hamlet." (Alexander played Hamlet at the Grove in 1984.)