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Stage Notes

Kojac's Exit Line: 'It's Win-Win, Baby!'

Founder of Stages in Fullerton hands over the reins after eight years, but he'll be back to act and direct now and then.

August 11, 2001|BY MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the founding force behind a storefront theater company decides it is time to get a life, it can be the death of the troupe itself.

That was the fate of Alternative Repertory Theatre in Santa Ana last year when its two founders called it quits. There was no one able or willing to carry on, and ART was kaput.

Now Brian Kojac has hit the same sort of wall, but Stages, the company he started in 1993, will outlast its founding visionary, thanks to Kojac's philosophy of running the troupe as a training ground.

A committee of six company members is taking over leadership of the Fullerton theater. Kojac's duties end with the Aug. 18 closing of Natural Selection."

Patrick Gwaltney, who has been with Stages since the beginning when he was a 19-year-old acting student at Fullerton College, is the new managing director. Gwaltney said that Kojac's policy of assigning various company members to serve as producers of individual shows has set up Stages for a smooth transition.

"Brian created that opportunity, and what he did prepared me for this," Gwaltney said.

At 37, Kojac said it was time to consider his long-term future, and he didn't see it in the warehouse shipping and receiving job he has worked to allow himself the time and flexibility to run Stages.

"As much as I love theater, at this level you can't make a living doing it," Kojac said. "It was sucking away my ability to earn a living and have a comfortable future."

Kojac just began a new job selling houses for a large real estate company. He will remain a company member and creative force at Stages, he said.--The transfer of leadership includes a guarantee that he will have one slot a year to pick and stage a play as director and producer.

Kojac said that the company's debt of about $20,000, which he had been carrying on his credit cards and with a personal loan, is being transferred to individuals on the new leadership committee. He had borrowed about $40,000 to move Stages from its original quarters in Anaheim and outfit the new space in a Commonwealth Avenue strip mall.

If the company continues at its current pace, Kojac said, it will be debt-free within two years. The plan then calls for Stages to secure nonprofit status, which would allow it to seek tax-free donations instead of relying on the box office to stay afloat.

"I'm not going to miss any of it," Kojac said of his decision to step down as Stages' leader. "It's a janitorial job in a lot of ways, and I mean that literally as well as figuratively. All I'm doing is handing over the dirty work to people who are willing to do it. I'm keeping the best part of the job--acting, directing and occasional producing. It's win-win, baby!"

Kojac said he had this sort of transition in mind from the beginning more than eight years ago. "I only wanted to create a company that I would want to be a member of, develop people, keep them attached and challenged."

To create learning opportunities, Kojac pursued a feverish production pace; "Natural Selection" is the company's 187th play. He instituted secondary, late-night shows as a way to give actors, writers and directors a chance to experiment and gain experience.The next three shows at Stages were chosen by the new leadership, Kojac said, and they reflect a continuation of the company's programming for diverse audiences. "The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940," a farce popular on the community theater circuit, opens Aug. 31. Following in October will be "Quills," a hard-edged, sometimes harrowing, Obie Award-winning play about the last days of the Marquis de Sade that includes nudity and gore. For Christmas, Stages will offer an irreverent, holiday-themed show written by company member Joel Beers. Kojac expects to select a play for the February-March slot and both direct and appear in it.

An assortment of lavender roses and hydrangea and a bottle of Dom Perignon arrived at the Waltmar Theatre in Orange last month on the opening night of Shakespeare Orange County's production of "As You Like It." The recipient was Elizabeth Taheri, who has garnered rave reviews as Rosalind, the play's comedy heroine.

The sender was Dustin Hoffman, who doesn't know Taheri but evidently liked what he read and saw in a Times article about her. The note said: "Dear Elizabeth, enjoy this with your cast. Have a great run," Taheri said Thursday. "Everybody was so excited; that was the best part. They were teasing me that I just wrote the card out myself."

But the gift was legit; Hoffman also spoke to Taheri on the phone. There had been no Hoffman sightings in the audience as of Thursday as the show entered its final weekend. The final performance of "As You Like It" is tonight at 8. (714) 744-7016.

Joe Lauderdale, who has directed the Laguna Playhouse's Youth Theatre since 1990, has won a national award for his work. The American Alliance for Theatre and Education honored him as Youth Theatre Director of the Year.

Lauderdale has produced more than 50 shows at the playhouse. He directs most of them and has written stage adaptations for five of the works presented.

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