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A Home 'on Broadway'

Rude ('We're Not Really') Guerrilla Finds a Storefront Stage in Santa Ana

November 06, 1998|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They're often called "storefront theaters." But in truth, the small, professionally based theaters in Orange County that fit that description--from Orange's Ensemble Theatre to Fullerton's Vanguard Theatre Ensemble to Anaheim's Stages--actually lack storefronts.

Typically, groups like the Vanguard or Santa Ana's Alternative Repertory Theatre have long been in the kind of industrial parks that abound in the county. They are in quiet, safe enclaves devoid of night life or anything like the buzz of a city--traditionally, the kind of atmosphere in which exciting theater thrives.

"Storefront theater" was a euphemism--until now.

The first impression of Rude Guerrilla Theatre Company's Empire Theater in Santa Ana is startling and maybe just a little gratifying.

After more than a year of vagabonding from space to space, pinching pennies and losing and gaining company members, Rude Guerrilla opens tonight in its new, permanent home with a '90s-style revival of Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days."

That home isn't tucked away in suburban slumber, but in an actual storefront space at the corner of Broadway and 2nd Street in the heart of downtown Santa Ana's burgeoning Artists Village district. Cars and pedestrians move past the high-windowed entrance, and inside is a spacious lobby of burgundy walls and a checkerboard floor.

"We can now say we've made it to Broadway," cracked the company's business director, Michelle Fontenoy. But beyond the group's ever-ready quipping, there's a resolve to serve something nearly unique in Orange County: serious, affordable theater in a bustling cosmopolitan setting and in a facility designed to be both accessible and theatrically versatile.

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But, first, what about that name?

"We're not rude, really," said a slightly sheepish Dave Barton, the group's artistic director and director of "Happy Days."

"We have been and will continue to push the artistic envelope," he said, "'and I guess compared to a lot of the boring theater that goes on around here, with endless revivals of Neil Simon, that's rude."

Barton formed Rude Guerrilla in 1997 with fellow Orange Coast College grad Lee Margrave. He says it was to be a means of combining his training in theater at OCC's Repertory (where students can experiment, and where Barton staged a striking version of Jean Genet's "The Maids") with a passion for political activism (he founded the Orange County chapter of Act-Up, a national AIDS activist organization).

They hit the pavement running with "In the House of the Lord" at Huntington Beach Arts Center, but Barton so reeled from the negative reviews that he contemplated quitting. Joel Beers, a fellow director and theater critic at OC Weekly (where Barton contributes theater reviews and where, ironically, the show received one of its negative reviews), reminded Barton that "it's about the work. He urged us on, and amazingly, crowds actually grew during the run."

"They couldn't believe the show was as bad as the critics had written," added Fontenoy, standing outside the theater's glass entrance, "and came to see for themselves."

Margrave soon left Rude Guerrilla, and Fontenoy aided Barton's search for a permanent home.

Subsequent shows included Charles Busch's camp-a-thon, "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," and Terrence McNally's "A Perfect Ganesh" in various venues including the Grove Theatre Center's Gem Theatre.

"We've had help all along--the higher-ups in the city of Santa Ana are being really helpful and nice to us right now--but we kept running into the kinds of restrictions you get into when you don't have your own space," said Fontenoy, a theater graduate of Fullerton College.

Scheduling a season proved impossible at busy facilities like the Huntington Beach Arts Center, while production runs had to be curtailed and rehearsal time was typically a rush job.

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Barton surveyed a swath of the county from Fullerton to Tustin, but encountered snags with code problems or deep-pocket rents. While Fontenoy liked the safety and utility of industrial park locations, Barton insisted on a storefront space. Fontenoy, in turn, insisted on a wheelchair-accessible space because "my mom has been in a wheelchair and I know the obstacles you can encounter."

They settled on Santa Ana's fledgling arts district, the urbanized, Latino-rich community that's also now home to the Hunger Artists (whose members also came out of OCC Rep) and Alternative Repertory, whose season will open in January.

With the technical and financial support of friend Don Hess, now the company's production director, Barton and Fontenoy hit upon their ideal venue, the southern half of a former furniture store.

The troupe's next-door neighbor is the Aman Folk Ensemble, the Los Angeles-based dance company that recently opened office and rehearsal space there, while upstairs are visual artists' studios. Coffeehouses and more arts-related businesses are due to open in the surrounding blocks within the next year.

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