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Small Wonder: It Doesn't Get Lost : Theater: The tiny Found in Long Beach has survived 20 years by offering irreverent, topical entertainment on a shoestring.

November 11, 1994|GERALD FARIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — 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 downtown street here.

"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.

"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 off-the-wall plays that the theater has presented for 20 years. The plays, most of them original, satirize political and social issues.

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 usually does so with an emphasis on laughter.

The company has lampooned the shoe fetish of former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, 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.

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

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 "Saturday Night Live"-like skit the next.

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

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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.

The theater's success is frequently credited to the tenacity of the 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 of devoted "foundlings," as company members are called, deserve the kudos. They perform without pay, rehearsing three hours a night, five nights a week for several weeks before a play opens. They paint, make costumes, handle lighting and sound.

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.

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Box-office revenue--admission to most plays is $10--covers a large chunk of the costs. The theater also conducts fund-raisers and receives donations and grants. During the past 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 to search for a new location after its 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.' " And she said, 'We play even if we have only one person.' "

It has become a Found trademark to combine live performances and video scenes projected on a wall. In some instances, plays incorporate video and live action, with actors on the video exchanging lines with performers on stage.

About 80% of the Found's plays are original. Even when established works are produced, they're adapted to such an extent that even their authors might have trouble recognizing them. In "Cinderella," the health-conscious heroine persuaded the prince to finance her health-food restaurant.

Galles launched the company in 1974 at the suggestion of a UCI teacher.

Galles and other UCI theater arts graduates staged the first play in a church. They gave the theater its name after they found their own space, a former Laundromat at 7th Street and Orange Avenue. After the rent was raised a few years later, they moved to the current site, a former printing shop, at 251 E. 7th St.

DeMoss is a free-lance editor and writer for trade publications. Galles works as a graphic artist and has some financial independence through her family that allows her to focus on the Found.

She writes the bulk of the plays, although they are polished during rehearsal, with performers contributing dialogue and ideas for stage action. Galles also directs the productions and often performs.

While Galles says she would like the Found to play to full houses all the time and enjoy more financial security, she expressed reservations about a larger facility.

"The kind of work we do is geared for a facility that's small," she said. "The intensity of the experience we give people would go down."

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