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A Healthy Alternative

Theater: The small Santa Ana company opened with offbeat fare and dim prognoses. It enters the 10th season still kicking.

September 27, 1996|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — The first preview of Euripedes' "Medea" tonight at Alternative Repertory Theatre ushers in the storefront company's 10th anniversary season.

It is a milestone that few observers familiar with Orange County's theater scene would have bet on a decade ago. Even today, with so much hard-won experience behind it, ART's plucky survival seems difficult to believe.

When the company was launched in 1987, a year after the opening of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, its founders promised: no Neil Simon and no Rodgers and Hammerstein. Instead, they would offer plenty of Pinter, Albee, Cocteau and Ibsen.

That sort of agenda held scant promise of longevity. Given the county's bread-and-butter love affair with light comedy and Broadway musicals--to say nothing of South Coast Repertory's longtime monopoly of the regional audience for serious theater--it seemed a recipe for failure.

"When we started out and people heard we were going to do [Sartre's] 'No Exit,' they said, 'You must be out of your mind. You'll open and close,' " ART's founding artistic director Patricia L. Terry recalled in a recent interview.

But, she added, "We felt we were going to fill the niche between SCR and the community theaters. We were something new and different. There wasn't another theater in the county like us then."

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In fact, by the end of its second season, ART appeared destined for no niche at all. Because of poor attendance, the fledgling troupe was on the verge of going belly up after its first seven productions.

If it had, that would not have been unusual. Other storefront-style theaters launched in the wake of ART have disappeared: Way Off Broadway, the Backstage Theatre, Lilliput Players Repertory, Illusion's New View, to name a few.

But ART weathered its financial crisis with an emergency parking-lot sale of donated items and a grass-roots telephone campaign for subscriptions.

Then it turned calamity into success with the first two productions of the third season--Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" and Beckett's "Waiting for Godot"--proving that an ancient Greek classic and an absurdist 20th century comedy could find an audience. Both shows not only became hot tickets but also remain ART's highest-grossing shows.

When the fifth season (1991-92) yielded two more of its biggest hits during a terrible recession--Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" and Shakespeare's "The Tempest"--the company gained a much greater measure of confidence that it had indeed found a niche.

Still, Terry said, "it's never easy. You must absolutely commit 100% to doing a theater, or it doesn't happen. You can't ride the success of a previous show or a previous season. You have to be on top of it every second."

Artistically, ART has come in for its share of praise and criticism. Reviewers have called its productions everything from provocative, stylish and riveting to anemic, reductive and amateurish.

Terry cites a handful of productions, in addition to the four top grossers, among ART's artistic best: Edward Albee's "Seascape" (1988), "Brecht on Brecht" (1992), Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" (1994), Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and Noel Coward's "Private Lives" (1995).

However, ART has never produced an original play and has been chided for not providing alternative theater so much as alternative atmosphere.

Terry concedes the point. "We've been sucking the system dry by using works that one way or other have proved themselves," she said. "We do need to pay the system back."

ART "is in the process of looking at new scripts," she noted, adding that the theater hopes to collaborate with the Orange County Playwrights Alliance on readings of unproduced plays.

In the meantime, Terry and associates will continue putting on Greek and American classics, modern standbys and the occasional lesser-known contemporary pieces, exemplified by the upcoming five-play season.

Luis Santiero's "Our Lady of the Tortilla" will follow "Medea"; rounding out the season will be Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," Laura Shamas' "Portrait of a Nude" and Georges Feydeau's "A Flea in Her Ear."

With an annual budget that has doubled from its earliest years--$30,000 to $60,000--the not-for-profit ART has staged 37 productions (a total of 935 performances with attendance of 30,805). According to company figures, it has brought in total income of $430,000, 85% in earned income ($256,000 in single ticket sales and $110,000 in subscriptions) and 15% in contributed income ($64,000).

ART producer and co-founder Gary Christensen, who runs the theater with wife Terry, and assistant producer Joel T. Cotter, who joined them in the second season, estimates that this season's drive will yield about 350 subscribers.

"That's better than last year and closer to the level we've been averaging," Christensen said.

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