It's possible that in its previous 25 years the Segerstrom Center for the Arts had attracted a patron dressed in purple sneakers, glittery eye makeup, a lacy black skirt and vest, fingerless black gloves and a big white cloth floral-type pin in her hair, all recalling Cyndi Lauper, circa 1984. But then again, maybe not.
"She texted me: 'Dress steampunk,'" explained 19-year-old Elaina Perpelitt, nodding toward Joni Renee, her 21-year-old friend who had turned up in a black dancer's leotard and a corona of red curly hair.
It was opening night of the Off Center Festival, a bid by the Costa Mesa performing arts destination to stretch its appeal to a younger crowd for whom the regular diet of Broadway musicals, classical music, jazz, cabaret and touring ballet companies and contemporary dance ensembles might not provide a ready point of entry.
Perpelitt, a sophomore at Chapman University in Orange, had been to the center once before, but not exactly in it — her lone show had been the 2010 computer-graphics-laden British production of "Peter Pan" that had camped out in a tent on a lawn outside.
But on Friday night she was standing on a riser inside the Samueli Theater, waiting for a curtain made of burlap Idaho potato sacks to go up on "Chautauqua!," the festival-opening show by New York City-based National Theater of the United States of America. Renee was one of 12 young local performers the center had enlisted, per the experimental theater company's request, to help create a dance piece as part of what turned out to be a jaw-dropping finale.
The Off Center Festival continues with "ReEntry" (Wednesday to Friday, Founders Hall), a touring documentary drama about returning Iraq war veterans and their families; "The Word Begins," a hip-hop-inflected theater piece by Steve Connell and Sekou Andrews (Thursday to Saturday at South Coast Repertory's Nicholas Studio); "The Car Plays" (Friday-Saturday), short dramas performed by acting duos in the front seat of 15 autos parked outside the center, and seen by playgoers in the back seats; and "Ten Tiny Dances" (Friday-Saturday, Samueli Theater), modern pieces choreographed for a 16-square-foot stage. Electronica band Mexican Institute of Sound and Nancy Sanchez play Saturday in Founders Hall.
The Off Center Festival's budget is $250,000 to $350,000, Terrence Dwyer, the center's president said; among its attendees will be prospective donors he hopes to cultivate as funders who can help ensure there will be an encore in 2013.
Dwyer had caught "Chautauqua!" a few years ago at PS122, a leading experimental performance space in New York. He'd made a mental note about booking it as part of the center's bid to offer alternatives to its bread-and-butter programming. Now here it was, launching Off Center, for which Dwyer had enlisted Mark Russell, a founder of New York's Under the Radar Theater Festival, as creative consultant.
Youth must be served, Dwyer says — not just because it's important to cultivate the next generation of performance-goers, although that's certainly a big part of it, but because the center, where attendees over 45 predominate, wants to engage a wide spectrum of the community. "We want to make sure we get on their radar screens, and we believe this festival will be a great step in that direction."
"Chautauqua!" brought to mind a lightly refereed clash between "A Prairie Home Companion" and the Dada movement, with free rein given to silliness, irony and a postmodern yen to scribble outside any lines of genre or consistency of tonality and mood.
It resurrects and makes a metaphor of the historic Chautauqua movement that lasted from the 1870s (hence the appropriateness of dressing "steampunk" — a style that takes its cues from the Victorian era) to the early 1900s. Chautauquas were variety shows that barnstormed rural America, aiming both to entertain through song, dance and humor, and to illuminate with lectures by the distinguished likes of William Jennings Bryan. The National Theater of the United States of America customizes the show for each stop, incorporating guest lecturers (in this case, OC Weekly editor and columnist Gustavo Arellano discoursing on OC's contributions to Mexican cuisine), and providing glosses on local history. This was its debut on the West Coast — or, for that matter, in any performance center that also books "Cats."