Written by Scott Keister
Like many of us in the OC, local theaters are often forced to seek out new nests for any number of reasons. Sometimes they sadly become homeless and fall away into the abyss, and sometimes they move on to bigger and brighter homes.
The Mysterium has recently found a new home at the La Habra Depot space after five years in two previous spaces. Having begun in a tiny book store size space and most recently at a chapel belonging to the Church of the Foothills where they had a successful run for four years, staging shows simultaneously, both outdoors on the lawn and indoors in the chapel. Marla Ladd, co-founder, producer and director is looking forward to a healthy new future in La Habra. The space had been dark for several years and the city was searching for someone to take over and Mysterium stepped up and won the space. Other theaters have not been so lucky. Vanguard Theater opened up in a small industrial park on State College between the railroad tracks, in 1992, one of the very first storefront theaters in Fullerton, and was very successful there initially, then, as often happens, audiences started to drop off and they sought out another space closer to the action in downtown Fullerton. Landlord troubles lead to them having to bail after a year and they ceased to exist. Hunger Artists and Monkey Wrench both had to close their doors in the past few years, after lengthy runs. Hunger Artists moved into the Vanguard space on State College and did well there initially, but like Vanguard, after a period of successful years, the programming of unknown and experimental plays lead to smaller and smaller audiences until, after sixteen years of existence, they could no longer afford to keep the doors open. Rude Guerilla, similarly, was in existence for twelve years, primarily in a space in the Santa Ana arts district and did very well, mostly with avant garde and political plays. After some board member shake-ups, director Dave Barton moved into a smaller space in downtown Fullerton under the name Monkey Wrench and continued with a similar brand of British and experimental plays. However, a small house that could only seat 25 at best is a tough sell with DTF rental prices, so after two years they closed shop and now Barton is in the process of continuing the brand in various venues, including Los Angeles.
Maverick Theatre in Fullerton
On the flip side, the Maverick Theater is celebrating its tenth successful season at its new home in downtown Fullerton, just across the track from the train station. Having begun at the block of Orange, they were more or less forced out by the landlords who couldn’t understand what a theater was doing there in the first place. Now the Maverick is the only theater around that can boast two performing stages in one space, which affords them the ability to have no dark weekends, and occasionally run a show, like last year’s The Sting, utilizing both spaces. The Maverick’s unique take on theater is to primarily run shows with major title recognition, having had some existence in film at one point or another. Their two long-running season ending shows, Night of the Living Dead and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, frequently sell out the entire run before they even open, and generally run for six to eight weeks.
StagesTheatre in Fullerton
StagesTheater has also had a good long run, just outside of downtown Fullerton on Commonwealth in a small industrial/business park. They have been successful by concocting an audience-friendly mix of well-known standards along with original and little-known pieces. By running two shows in repertoire, both a matinee or late show as well as a standard evening show, they can afford to have an off show now and then. They too have a couple of reliable seasonal cash cows in their Twilight Zone series and the Christmas standard radio play of It’s a Wonderful Life. Stages is one of the few local theaters that has the benefit of life on a main thoroughfare with an actual marquee above the door.
Theatre Out in Santa Ana
Theater Out, having started out by renting various stage spaces at Stages, Hunger Artist and the Maverick for a few years, finally found a home in the old Rude Guerilla space in Santa Ana and were very successful there with their calendar of generally LGBT plays and musicals, really the only theater of its kind in OC. Last year, due to landlord problems, they moved into a slightly larger space close to 4th street in Santa Ana and have continued their success. This is a theater that knows its audience well, but they reach out to a larger community that isn’t just LGBT. The challenge for local theaters is built on finding their audience and running with a solid business plan. We in the theater world want more than just musicals.
The Curtain Call Theatre/ Encore Theatre in Tustin, FCLO ( Fullerton Civic Light Opera)
The Curtain Call Theater in Tustin was successful for years running nothing but standard musicals, but their audience got older and eventually died away until the theater went under. The Encore, which took over the space, has failed to find any success as of yet. Similarly, FCLO (Fullerton Civic Light Opera) ran for many, many years at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton, also by staging well known musicals, but they too found their audience dwindling away into the ozone of age until they had to close up shop as well. They now stay alive with set and costume rentals, for which they still have a thriving nation-wide business. It’s painfully clear now that a theater must reach out to a wide audience. You can’t stay afloat with merely popular musicals or a steady dose of daring theater — a little of both is called for in some kind of mash-up that can seek out a wide spectrum of theater-goers, of all ages and tastes.
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