(photo credit Patrick Chavis)
Written by Patrick Chavis
A few years ago, I met up with two of the founders of Modjeska Playhouse, Christopher Sullivan and Joshua Stecker. In the interview below, we discussed the founders’ history and how they decided to start the challenging — especially in an area with very little theatre presence — endeavor of creating a theatre. Even now the Modjeska Playhouse stands as the only performing arts theatre in the city of Lake Forest. Despite these challenges, the Modjeska Playhouse has consistently released a wide variety of scripted and unscripted shows for Lake Forest and the surrounding communities.
The beginning –
Christopher S: We were founded in 2008 (Theatre company), and our first show was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged. We did that show at our high school alma mater, and we sold well. 200 seat house and we did it [for] four nights and sold out most of it, so we said to ourselves:
“This is cake man. This is easy.”
We made a good chunk of change and donated a bunch of the money back to help the theatre [program] fund their musical. Then we did two more shows at the high school. We did The Odd Couple and then an evening of short Christopher Durang plays which we called Durang and Tang, and [at] every single play we found a way to add the astronaut beverage Tang into the play. So, the waiter would come in and ask if you wanted some wine. and the girl would likely have Tang. At intermission, we would serve Tang to the audience. After that, we become a part of the Mission Viejo cultural arts committee, and we brought the complete works back and brought it outside. We did it [for] two nights, and we had 600 people show up. People brought picnics, they probably snuck wine in. I can’t guarantee that. They brought their dogs, and it was crazy.
We toured a show called the Frog Prince from David Mamet. We had shadow puppetry in that one — live puppetry and a guy on the side playing ukulele. The show toured in Mission Viejo, Dana Point and Santa Ana.
We sold a good amount of the shows, and our board of directors said it’s about time you find a space.
Finding the space –
Christopher S: That’s when the hunt began. It was like a year and a half hunt just to find a building. We always said we wanted to be in the Saddleback Valley. That was one of the reasons we named it Modjeska Playhouse because of the mountain Range named after Helena Modjeska, the actress. We wanted to be in the shadow of the mountain. There aren’t any theatres out in this area.
When we were drawing out business plans in the surrounding communities, there [was a] little over 400,000 people in the surrounding communities — that’s not counting Irvine. That’s just Mission Viejo, Lake Forest, Laguna Hills, Rancho Santa Margarita and Aliso Viejo. There is no working everyday theatre company. So, we thought for ourselves this is nice. We can build a theatre where we grew up.
“What we didn’t know is it would be hard to find the right space.”
It was my job to find the space. I had created this check list of things we had to have to even be considered a space. If it had everything on this list, we would visit the location to see if it would work. Every time we found a location that worked we would put an offer in, but sometimes we would be beat out by other people.
But then we found this space. We had put offers on other places in this center, but they kept getting beat out. Then this one came up and we put an offer up, and they accepted it. Then the city said we needed a conditional use permit because it wasn’t zoned for a theatre. So, we had to file a permit, and we had to go to the city council — all these different things. One of their problems was parking. We are only around 8 parking spaces because of our square footage, but the code requires at least 17 parking spaces.
I had breakfast with the mayor. I had bagels with city council members. We had to go through a process to get a code changed so that they could even make it a theatre.
At one point, there was a table upstairs at Lake Forest City Hall where the property manager and the city manager and the city attorney [and us] all talked together to make it work. Everyone wanted the theatre here. We needed a code change, so we sat on the building for like 8 months, paying rent on an empty building. But It passed, and we got to build out in February.
Joshua S: I think we are coming here from a sincere place because there is a dire need for theatre in this area, especially, [for] the youth of South Orange County. When we were going through the motions of putting this thing together, that was one of the number one reasons they were backing us. Even they saw that this city lacks cultural arts. They felt like we could fill a gap.
“Theater saved our lives. Theatre in high school for us was our saving grace.”
If we didn’t have it, I don’t know where we would be. It was the one thing we grasped on to. We had theatre, and we were so grateful for that. Live theatre is a beautiful thing. When you tell a story on stage it’s exciting; it’s fun. I want to challenge our audiences and makes them think. Theatre is the only art form that’s still doing that right now. We’re getting fed films with the same stories and tropes. Theatre is the only art form where artists are challenging their audiences.
You can keep up with the Modjeska Playhouse :
Founding directors of Modjeska Playhouse :
Joseph Alanes, Joshua Stecker and Christopher Sullivan