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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

Two new Orange County play companies don't hope to find fortune or fame. They in it for ...

The Thrill of Theater

January 10, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Listening to the idealistic impresarios behind Orange County's newest small theaters--the Second Stage in Santa Ana and the Chance in Anaheim Hills--confirms that there really is no business like show business.

It qualifies as one of those public realms in which people press on eagerly despite a baptismal year that brings frustration, debt and obscurity and no real chance for national fame as the ultimate payoff.

Chris Berube, founder of the Second Stage and leader of the Berubians, its in-house playwriting-and-acting company, fronted about $10,000 of his own money last year, with no hope of a payback, to establish theater in a makeshift quarters on the second floor of a nondescript industrial park.

Complaints from other tenants prevent him from hanging Second Stage's only marker--a huge, red-lettered canvas banner--except at showtime. Demands from the landlord threatened, at one point, to leave the Berubians with a ceiling-to-floor support pole occupying the middle of their stage. The problem of the pesky pole solved itself when Berube, told not to remove it because the ceiling might fall, flung a hammer at it in a fit of frustration. The tool punctured the hollow pole, he said, proving that it wasn't holding up anything except his progress in turning an office suite into a theater.

The theater has 50 white plastic patio chairs and a sound system that consists partly of a used karaoke machine from a defunct nightclub. Berube remodeled the space himself, with help from the 15 or so other Berubians.

The five young partners, ages 22 to 30, who launched the Chance Theater in April, took a comparatively royal road to storefront play production. Two of them signed for a $38,000 bank loan; Jim Book, a Fullerton College instructor who is an expert in the technical aspects of theater, signed on as a consultant.

They scavenged 54 red-upholstered seats (with plastic drink holders) when the Century Cinedome in Orange was sentenced to demolition. Placing the chairs on steel risers in a steep vertical slope, they created a space with a broad, deep stage and professional theatrical lighting and sound equipment. It feels quite major league for a fledgling theater operating out of the rear unit of a blank rectangular building in a suburban office/industrial park.

*

Spare Change Productions, as the Chance partners dubbed themselves, presented 11 plays in 1999 that nobody had seen or heard of before. On three nights, nobody--not a soul--turned up to see and hear what was being offered. On average, the Spare Change partners said, the Chance drew about 15 playgoers a night.

What sustains these two theaters, besides the substantial sums their principals shell out to keep them alive, is not the hope that their investments will yield a big payoff. It's the kick they get out of putting on plays and the sense that the places they have built will emerge as stable, welcoming homes for people who know they have something to express and create--and for people who think they might--but need a first chance and some nurturing guidance on how to do it.

Berube has been through this before. In 1996, he founded the Next Stage, a small theater in Hollywood with its own set of Berubians. The name, he said, originated not out of egotism, but from practicality: Berube and a group of friends who did improvisational comedy in L.A. noticed that once they made some headway in comedy clubs, other groups would steal their name to get bookings.

"I said, 'Berubians.' Let's see somebody try to steal that one."

The impetus for that first theater was frustration. Berube, who hails from Houston, got a job as a "script doctor" hired by film producers to flesh out scenes, stories and dialogue after the credited writers have done their work. Immersion in a world where stories and characters are tailored to meet their marketing potential left him needing an antidote.

"I decided I would create an environment where an artist can come in and present a script the way he or she wrote it and envisioned it," he said.

Berube still works as a script doctor, earning what he says is a good living by "making very bad movies just bad." His passion goes into his theaters.

Both offer ongoing classes in writing, acting and comedy. From those classes emerge all the plays the Berubians present. So far, the Orange County venue has developed two original sketch comedy productions, and has presented "A Question of Faith," a Berube-penned, Berube-starring courtroom drama in which a blindly careerist lawyer is hired to defend an honest-to-God angel from a slander suit by a Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker-like team of sleazy televangelists. One recent performance, on a Sunday evening, attracted an audience of nine--all of them friends or relatives of the actors.

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