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COVER STORY : Small Wonder : Tiny Found Theatre in Long Beach Has Survived 20 Years by Offering Irreverent, Topical Entertainment


Susan Malmstrom admits that she was nervous the first time she attended a play at the 40-seat storefront Found Theatre, which sits between a sandwich shop and a bridal store on a drab, busy street in downtown Long Beach.

"It's really a tiny alternative theater and you don't know what you'll get into," she said. "If you leave, you almost have to cross the stage and everyone will notice you."

But her reticence quickly vanished. Malmstrom loved the production, "Bus Trip to Vegas," in which a group of bizarre characters journey to the gambling Mecca for a few hours to try to strike it rich. Among the passengers were a mother-daughter country duo dubbed The Juggs, a beauty queen and a Barbie doll clone.

"It was absolutely hysterical," said Malmstrom, who reviews applications for arts grants for the Public Corp. for the Arts in Long Beach. "It made fun of our materialistic culture."

The production was typical of the wacky, off-the-wall plays that the theater has presented for 20 years. The plays, most of them original, satirize and provoke thought about political and social issues of the day.

The Found is unabashed about being a "message" house, touching on themes ranging from hucksterism and corporate greed to spousal abuse and AIDS. But it's hardly preaching. Instead, audiences laugh their way to enlightenment.

The Found has lampooned the shoe fetish of former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, even covering the theater walls with shoes for the play. It has poked fun at coupon-clipping, coffee-drinking, soap-opera-watching housewives, and parodied telethons and America's obsession with fast food.

"It's fun, fresh, low-cost experimental theater that's not excruciating to sit through," said Malmstrom.

At the Found, performers rarely sit. They walk, march, roll, stand on chairs, do reverse somersaults and jump in and out of barrels as they mine a rich vein of vigorous, physical theater. The actors usually play multiple roles requiring quick costume changes.

The audience might see high drama one moment and something resembling an irreverent "Saturday Night Live" skit the next.

"We're either subtle or right out there, in your face," says Joyce Hackett, a Found actress who first came to the theater 18 years ago.

In the competitive and fragile world of live theater, where even major companies can falter, the Found has endured on a shoestring budget and modest ticket prices.

Observers attribute the theater's success to the tenacity of the two women who lead it: Cynthia Galles, 42, who started the Found in 1974, and literary director Virginia DeMoss, 46, who signed on a year later. Galles and DeMoss "keep it going," said Dorothea MacNeil, who has been attending Found plays almost since the theater opened.

But Galles insists that a core group of devoted "foundlings," as company members are called, deserve the credit. They perform without pay, rehearsing three hours a night, five nights a week for several weeks before a play opens. They paint walls, make costumes, and handle lighting and sound. When the theater was created they built the stage and even searched for used theater seats.

"We were fortunate to have wonderful, generous, talented people willing to do everything," Galles said. "People care about this theater."

The reliance on volunteers allows the Found to stage five plays a year on a $15,000 budget earmarked mostly for rent and utilities. The Found's choice of material also has permitted it to exist on a pittance. Original plays and public domain classics such as Shakespeare don't require royalties.

The box office, which charges a $10 admission for most plays, covers a large chunk of the costs. The theater also conducts fund-raisers and receives donations and grants. During the last two years, the Public Corp. for the Arts has given the Found a total of $6,875, according to Malmstrom.

The theater has no advertising budget, relying on word of mouth and press releases of upcoming performances to draw audiences.

Galles acknowledges that it has been a struggle to keep the Found afloat over the years. "We've never been off the edge," she said.

The theater closed for a few months at one point to search a new location after the rent was increased. And at some plays, the actors have outnumbered the audience.

Dorothea MacNeil recalls one night when she was the only one in the audience. "I said, 'Cynthia, you don't have to put the play on.' " MacNeil recalled. "And she said, 'We play even if we have only one person.' "

Marking its 20th anniversary, the theater is staging "Hot Flash Backs," a collection of scenes from more than 20 plays that have been performed at the Found since it opened its doors. In the show, which plays at 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 5, Galles, DeMoss and Hackett juggle 40 different roles with speedy costume changes and quick changes of character and mood.

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