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Venturing Into a Brave New World : After Tempests, GroveShakespeare's Forecast Is for Diversity and Broader, Sunnier Horizons


W. Stuart McDowell might have received a clue of the uphill climb he has as artistic director of GroveShakespeare when he learned that none of the baby-sitters for his 4-year-old daughter had heard of GroveShakespeare.

"And one of them," he adds, pointing out the window of the upstairs lobby in the company's Gem Theatre, "lives four blocks from here."

He adds, with a little understatement, "We have some audience development to do."

Yet after a few winters, and summers, of company discontent and clashes between former artistic director Thomas Bradac and a Garden Grove City Council reluctant to pour money into the company's coffers, McDowell is reporting that the skies are beginning to clear as he inaugurates his second year at the helm with Noel Coward's "Private Lives" (opening today in the Gem).

It has been stormy in Garden Grove, with a number of resignations including those of chief staff administrator Barbara Hammerman and, just last month, education outreach director Michele Roberge, plus a budget deficit, which McDowell estimates remains above $100,000 despite recent debt-restructuring payments that cut about $20,000 from the red ink.

Plainly, the two-theater complex on Main Street has been more a center of bad news than world-beating theater.

And yet, if theaters reflect the plays they put on, then "Private Lives" could not be more apt for GroveShakespeare. On one hand a roundelay of snarling cat fighting and perpetual backbiting, Coward's comedy is also a bubbly, elegant piece of frothiness.

On this warm afternoon in the lobby, McDowell feels especially bubbly. Hardly moving during conversation, McDowell talks on constant fast play, speeding through thoughts like an uptown New York subway. His tempo, no doubt, is something he carried with him from the East Coast, where he was a writer since 1985. That was the year he left the New York-based Riverside Shakespeare Company he founded in 1977--a year before the birth of what was then the Grove Shakespeare Festival.

But he also seems determined to inject some of the Riverside's scrappy reputation for bringing Shakespeare to the people.

McDowell's goals have been boosted, he said, with a $31,500 grant passed last week by a now-friendlier Garden Grove City Council to fund the theater's marketing program. This includes a glossy color season brochure and a "Shakespeare 400" program to raise $400,000 (so dubbed to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's first work for the stage, "Henry VI"--although most scholars agree that the most likely date is 1591). Season subscriptions, he reports, are ahead of last year for this period (1,300 and counting), and the first show in the company's family theater series, "Cinderella Caterpillar," which closed March 27, was generally sold out.

"The city is committed to our success, no doubt about it," McDowell says. "They gave us $70,000 in 1992 for Gem Theatre restoration, as well as $26,000 in production money. We have been talking with the council. I think they realize that our success will enhance the city."

Ever the diplomat, McDowell notes that the Grove's fund-raising efforts before his arrival were "modest," but the pressure he applies is really to himself.

"We have hardly tapped into the ethnic diversity of Garden Grove. It is, by far, the most diverse community in Orange County.

"In New York, we did 'Comedy of Errors' for kids who could barely walk or talk, and the audiences consistently ran the gamut from poor to blue-collar to people of color to yuppies with candelabrum and picnic baskets to octogenarians flipping through their First Folio copies to check what we cut from the text.

"The potential here, and for all of Southern California, is unlimited. If you do good, exciting productions, people will come."

Citing the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the Oregon-based Ashland Shakespeare Festival as crowd-pleasing examples, he insists "you can never saturate the need for well-done Shakespeare. Ashland and Utah, of course, draw the tourist trade, but you wouldn't believe how far people drive to see our outdoor summer Shakespeare. Above all, though, I'm determined that the Grove's attraction will be its diversity."

A look at the season lineup makes that clear. The family series includes a Japanese tale, "The Fisherman and the Koi" (July 3 through Aug. 7), and "Dream Street" (Oct. 10 through Nov. 20), about a girl in a wheelchair.

The Grove summer might become a new "Summer of Love" with all the 1960s-themed work going on, directed by Jules Aaron. First, the musical "Suds," (just rescheduled to open July 10 and continue through Aug. 7), then a psychedelic "Midsummer Night's Dream." (July 31 through Sept. 4).

Ron Campbell's upcoming solo performance in Carol Wolf's "Monsieur Sheherazad" (April 23 through May 15) is praised by McDowell as "a tour de force for Ron, who brought it to us. It wasn't my choice to place it late nights after 'Private Lives,' but it was the only chance for us to do it."

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