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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

Berube, 33, expanded into Orange County at the request of 10 Berubians who were commuting from O.C. to L.A. The Next Stage had grown to a 60-member group and was approaching the break-even point, so from a fiscal standpoint it made sense--or at least, seemed less preposterous.

Berube, whose theater is near the old Crazy Horse Steak House country music nightclub and nowhere near the aspiring-to-hip Artists Village district of Santa Ana that is home to three small theaters, says that being in Orange County brings him closer to an innocent, grass-roots vision of theater that he cherishes.

"With L.A. actors, it's, 'We gotta be famous within five years, or else.' They get upset about the littlest things. Out here in Orange County, people already have jobs or lifestyles and [theater] is more, I guess, a cleansing of the soul or a hobby or a creative outlet. They tend to see the fun."

Each Berubian is supposed to ante up $50-a-month dues, which entitles members to attend as many classes as they want in either location. Berube says he cuts slack for those who are strapped. Whatever isn't covered by dues and box office receipts comes out of his pocket. Berube said expenses at the Second Stage were $20,000 for 1999--and that he covered half.

"I've never disputed Chris on [the dues policy]. It's a fundamental part of getting it off the ground," said Eric Halasz, a founding member of the Berubians Second Stage. Halasz teaches classes in improvisation at the theater and directed one of its productions.

"None of us are getting any money, but the opportunity to perform and showcase ourselves," Halasz said. "It's a school--a school that gives you all the opportunity to learn what you want, to the extent that you want to."

Learning by doing is also the ethic for Spare Change Productions, a group of friends who coalesced around executive producer Oanh Nguyen.

First they wrote plays and rented venues--an art gallery in Laguna, a small theater in Orange--to produce them. They made enough money to pay for pizza-and-beer celebrations at the end of the runs, and gained enough confidence to open their own theater. They settled in Anaheim Hills when they couldn't find anything affordable in their first choice, the Artists Village district.

Their original mission was to stage nothing but new, previously unproduced plays.

"It's called the Chance Theater for a reason," Nguyen said last week after overseeing a rehearsal for the company's first play of its second season: "The Stroop Report," a dramatization of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in which doomed Jews fought back against the German extermination machine during World War II.

"When we started, we thought there was no reason why theater can't pay for itself," Nguyen said. A year later, Nguyen and his partners--Chris Ceballos, Erika Ceporius, Fred Hatfield and Jeff Hellebrand--estimate that they each have to kick in $200 to $300 per month to keep the theater going.

When it became obvious that a series of all-original plays would not pay for itself, Nguyen said, "We all sat down and said, 'We are not going to buy a new car like a lot of our friends. We'll put the payments into this.' "

To build an audience, the Chance, like all small theaters, relies on a homey circle of family and friends of cast and crew members, plus whatever walk-ins they can generate with free newspaper listings and extensive leafleting. They tried advertising in a newspaper once, but it didn't work. Some of their shows were reviewed last year, but, as Nguyen puts it, "they were not kind for the most part."

One problem was that the Chance had to go mainly with second-string material. After choosing a season from among 80 new-play submissions generated largely via the Internet, they found that they didn't have enough actors, or the right actors, to produce them. So they went with the next best scripts.

For its 2000 season, the Chance will offer 14 productions (six of them "Midnight Madness" late shows staged after the evening's main event). The partners have retreated a bit from their all-originals policy, scheduling Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado" and an oft-produced repertory piece, "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday," to the mix. They also will stage adaptations of Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales."

Still, that leaves them with an ambitious schedule of 10 original plays by unknown playwrights--chosen from 200 submissions and, Nguyen promises, reflecting a solid improvement over the '99 fare that the critics dismissed.

Chance Theater Hopes to Build Attendance

Staging familiar works should help the theater grow its audience. The goal is to double the average attendance to 30 or 35 per show. Equally important, the partners say, the chance to play proven roles will attract actors and build a big and skilled company of players to tackle a wide repertory.

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