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Chance Theater Gets to the Heart of the Matter to Find Its Voice

PART 2: Over 25 years, through trial and error, Chance Theater discovers the plays - and musicals - that connect to its community.

Alli Rose Schynert as Emma Borden in the Ovation-award winning premiere of "Lizzie," produced in 2019 by Chance Theater. Photo courtesy of Chance Theater/Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

If you think of a theater’s components as a human body – its bones the physical infrastructure, its blood the performers on its stage, its brain the management directing it, and its hands and eyes the people who build the sets, and design the lights, costumes and sound – then what is its voice but the plays that all those serve to communicate?

In 2023, Chance Theater’s voice is clear: It’s in big, bold and sometimes bizarre musicals as well as non-musicals that are more intimate and broach uncomfortable or sensitive subjects, like race, sexuality or mental illness; or more literary plays where what's said is less important than what's left unsaid.

But there was little in its first few seasons to indicate what Chance’s voice would sound like.

For part two in our look at Chance for its 25th anniversary, what could otherwise come off as formulaic – dividing those years into five easily divisible parts – makes sense. For the story of Chance’s art is one about finding and refining its voice, making some noise with it, developing harmonies, and finally reclaiming that voice through relying on the most essential organ of both the human body and a theater – its heart.

Program covers for early productions by Chance Theater: from left, "The Stroop Report" by Robert Preston Jones (2000), "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder (2001), "Three Days of Rain" by Richard Greenberg (2002) and "The Mikado" by Gilbert and Sullivan (2003). Images courtesy of Chance Theater
Discovering its Voice: 1999-2003

“I would say the first few years we were definitely experimenting,” says Casey Long, Chance’s managing director and, along with Jeff Hellebrand, Erika Miller and Oánh Nguyen, one of Chance’s founding artists.

Experimenting is one way of putting it; throwing a lot of stuff against the walls to see what stuck is another. Chance began, as Nguyen puts it, as a small group of theater artists who wanted to “explore and share our unique perspectives, through writing and telling stories in ways we weren’t getting at other theaters.”

But other than a strong commitment to new plays, there wasn’t much of a game plan for what those stories would be. After its first season of all world premieres didn’t draw as well as expected, and Chance’s debt ballooned from $50,000 to $75,000, Chance was forced to expand its programming. Fiscal necessity wound up yielding unexpected rewards.

“As the reality set in that relying solely on world premieres wasn't sustainable for us, we embarked on a journey to explore published works that resonated with us,” said Nguyen, Chance’s artistic director. “This search not only broadened our selection but also opened our doors wider to artists with diverse experiences and interests. It was a pivotal time of self-discovery and evolution for us as a theater.”

They started throwing stuff against the wall. Over the next four years, new plays would lessen in frequency (from seven full-length original plays in season two, to two in season five) and plays from Shakespeare to Samuel Beckett appeared. There were community theater mainstays, like Agatha Christie murder mysteries and “Steel Magnolias”; American canonical pieces, like “Our Town”; and more contemporary writers like David Mamet and Christopher Durang.

But none of those playwrights or genres stuck. What did were shows smaller in scope that tended to feature smaller casts and that either probed uncomfortable or complicated subjects or where language reigned. Two plays in season number four typified that: Neil Labute’s “Bash,” a series of monologues that examined the presence of evil in the lives of seemingly ordinary Mormons, and “Three Days of Rain,” a beautifully written play by one of South Coast Repertory’s favorite playwrights, Richard Greenberg.

What really stuck, however, were musicals–which was somewhat ironic as even though Chance’s founding artists were not anti-musical, the genre was not, as Nguyen carefully phrases it, “the first narratives we believed were lacking in the storytelling landscape.” 

But they would soon become the pivotal part of Chance’s storytelling. Kent Johnson, a legend of Orange County theater (another legend, long-time local newspaper critic Tom Titus, once described him as the  “monarch of musicals,”) who had written or directed some 200 musicals locally since 1965, pitched two Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in Chance’s second season. They drew the biggest houses that season, and each year until 2004, a G&S show was scheduled.

Those musicals would ultimately grow deeper, bolder and more resonant, as would Chance’s choices of non-musical plays. For Chance wasn’t just experimenting with shows that would draw audiences. It was also “trying to identify and refine our artistic approach to different musicals and plays,” Long said, and to discover “what people might be looking for that wasn’t offered at offered theaters. Gilbert and Sullivan definitely brought in crowds, but ultimately we decided to move away from that and focus more on contemporary musicals and plays that explored the human condition.”

From left, Casey Long, Nghia Luu, Beach Vickers and Dimas Diaz in Chance Theater's 2005 production of "Porcelain." Photo courtesy of Chance Theater
Refining its voice: 2004-2008

By 2004, Chance had turned nonprofit and it could finally slow down its breakneck pace, which had seen it mounting up to 14 mainstage shows a season. Anticipating a new revenue stream of donations and grants, it could now also tackle pieces that were less about “filling seats,” Nguyen said, and more about “prioritizing storytelling that mattered.”

That was exemplified by two shows in 2005,Chay Yew's “Porcelain”and Moisés Kaufman's “The Laramie Project,” both directed by Nguyen and both dealing with the murders of gay men, the first of which was one of the first Chance shows that garnered attention from critics and award-bestowing bodies outside Orange County.

The relaxed pace also allowed Chance to begin exploring more challenging musicals. In 2004, Martie Ramm Engle directed Chance’s first Stephen Sondheim piece, “Company.” The next year, Nguyen staged “Cabaret,” followed by three consecutive Sondheim shows.

He had also found his voice, both in the more sophisticated musicals but also in riveting small-scale dramas like 2008's “Rabbit Hole,” David Lindsay Abaire’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama originally commissioned by SCR. 

“He makes people feel,” said South Coast Repertory co-founder Martin Benson, who first saw a Chance show in 2009 and joined the board in 2012, about Nguyen as a director. “He knows how to hit the emotional points. Some directors are really slick, and can just dazzle you with their footwork, right, but you don't really care. And he can make you care. And I just admire that about him so much. “

But to get people to care, you need to make them listen. And while Chance had caught the ear of the Southern California theater community (its 2006 season earned a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s award for best season) its next phase would establish it as one of its premiere small theaters.

Amber Snead in "Hair," a 2009 musical at Chance Theater. Photo courtesy of Chance Theater/Doug Catiller, True Image Studio
Making some noise. Lots of it: 2009-2013

The theater’s third five-year period started with two explosions, both directed by Nguyen. First was Wayne Lemon’s 2005 dark comedy “Jesus Hates Me.” Chance’s production was hailed both for the cast’s ability to wring three-dimensional characterization of its down-on-their-luck Texas riffraff, as well as its “visually striking” production elements. It would become the first Chance show to transfer to South Coast Repertory.

But the next show, “Hair” was Chance’s first bonafide hit. 

“‘Hair’ was huge,” Long said. “We had to extend it and people were so blown away by it because of the quality of the production but also by the final projection listing the names of every Orange County resident who died in the war. That was an incredible experience, still one of my favorite moments we’ve created over the years.”

“Hair” earned 25 nominations from LA awards bodies, including six from the LA Drama Critics Circle, and five Ovations, LA theater’s version of the Tony Awards.

The next year, Chance claimed its first Ovation for best musical, courtesy of the Trevor Biship-directed ”Jerry Springer: The Opera.” It was easily Chance’s most controversial show, if thousands of letters and phone calls to Chance can be termed controversial.

In 2011, “The Who’s Tommy,” also directed by Nguyen, picked up another 24 nominations outside Los Angeles and transferred to the Segerstrom Center the next year. In 2012, Chance received its first NEA grant of $10,000 to help fund the West Coast premiere of  “Triassic Parq - The Musical,” which ran in 2013 and earned Chance its second Ovation Award for best musical.

Robert Stroud as Newt Lee in Chance Theater's 2017 production of "Parade," a Kari Hayter-directed show that drew three Ovation nominations. Photo courtesy of Chance Theater/Doug Catiller, True Image Studio
Developing Harmonies: 2014-2018

This period saw Chance introduce new elements to its voice, including launching its Theater for Young Audiences series in 2015 along with its resident playwright program, as well as augmenting its On the Radar new play series which debuted in 2011.

But it was also the first time since 2005 that Nguyen didn’t direct multiple shows a season. 

The rest of the directing was distributed to directors both familiar, such as Chance stalwart Jocelyn Brown, who had been Chance’s associate artistic director since 2011 and first joined in 2001, Biship and Mayra Mazor, who had first directed an Edward Albee play at Chance in 2010.

Mazor was a prime example of the top-shelf talent Chance was starting to attract. A show director at Disney, Mazor had come from the small New York City theater scene and heard from a Disney colleague about this small theater in Anaheim. 

"I was looking for a similar spirit of risk taking. I found it! It's right in the company's name. They are all about taking chances," said Maznor, who has also directed at the Geffen Playhouse and some of Los Angeles' top small theaters.  Next year will mark her ninth time directing a Chance mainstage production.

"Directors come back to the Chance repeatedly because of the profound commitment of Oánh Nguyen, Casey Long, the fantastic board and the entire staff to supporting the work," she said. "Running a theater company is incredibly challenging, especially in the current environment; the economics of it are crazy, and yet the Chance team always brings infectious positivity and tireless dedication to that task. They are just very, very good at what they do."

There were also new directors making their debuts during this period, most  notably Kari Hayter, who directed two Ovation Award-nominated musicals, 2014’s “Lysistrata Jones,” and 2017’s “Parade.”

“Lysistrata Jones” also earned an Ovation Award for Kelly Todd’s choreography. Todd, a theater professor at Pepperdine University, choreographed most of Chance’s major musicals from 2005-2019.

Dagmar Marshall-Michelson and Jared Machado in Chance Theater’s 2022 production of “Green Day’s American Idiot.” Photo courtesy of Chance Theater/Camryn Long
Reclaiming its voice: 2019-2023

Things couldn’t have started more promising in its final fifth period: 2019 saw Brown direct a feminist retelling of the Lizzie Borden-inspired “Lizzie,” which won Chance’s third Ovation for best musical, followed by its first production of 2020, the Mazor-directed “Fun Home,” based on the Alison Bechtel graphic novel, which earned it another Ovation for best musical.

And then?

Five days after “Fun Home” closed in 2020, a national emergency was called across the United States. Like all live theater, Chance went dark. It found creative ways to stay busy during the pandemic, so the danger wasn’t losing its voice but something even more critical.

There was something conspicuously lacking from the theater-as-human-body metaphor that began this piece, the one part that without a body nor a theater cannot survive. For bones can atrophy, hands can grow feeble, eyes can dim, the voice can go silent, even a brain can be declared scientifically dead. But life remains as long as there is a heartbeat.

Unlike a human heart’s four chambers, a theater has three, the same three essential things that make theater. Two of them the theater provides: an empty space and a performer to do something in that space. But the third is external: at least one person to observe. 

“When we were forced to shut our doors, our main question wasn’t just how are we going to survive, it was how do we continue to serve our community,” Long said.

It did so by relying on everything it had built during its first 21 years: audience engagement, its board, telling stories. And it discovered something: yes, it needed its audience, but the audience also needed Chance.

“When we started streaming performances and having talkbacks, we were hoping that supporters would pay some attention,” Long said. “But what we found is how appreciative they were of having some way to socialize, and talk to our artists and feel like a community when everybody was shut in. They were asking for more.”

Since reopening to live performances in July 2021, 508 days after its last live performance, Chance’s momentum hasn’t slowed. It has presented major hit musicals like “Next to Normal” and “Green Day’s American Idiot,” as well as non-musicals, like the wrestling saga “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” 

Ticket sales have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, though Long reports they are getting closer, and there are new challenges such as the added increase of payroll taxes due to California Assembly Bill 5 (AB-5). But the support of its patrons showed “how invested our community is in what we do and who we are,” Long said. “And we will continue to focus on the two guiding principles we’ve always had, of telling stories that we think people are going to be impacted by and want to talk about and serving our artists by giving them the opportunities to tell those stories.”

Looking Ahead

Based on Chance’s plans for the future, its story doesn’t look like it’s ending anytime soon.

The ideal, Nguyen said, is Chance owning its own venue, which would include a 250-seat mainstage with fixed seating and a 150-seat flexible space.

“Having our own theater would be a game-changer,” he said. “We (could) finally start thinking in terms of periods instead of ellipses because we would have the freedom to make long-term commitments to programs, equipment purchases, and facility choices that would allow us to more effectively create art and serve our community for decades to come.”

Beyond that, Chance is looking to expand its connection with its community, particularly in reaching out to local public schools and universities, as well as possible collaborations with other theaters, such as the rolling world premiere of Dustin Chinn’s “Colonialism is Terrible, but Pho is Delicious,” which it co-produced this year with the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, and the Oregon Contemporary Theatre in Eugene, Oregon.

More short-term, in its 26th season, which begins in January, Chance will be doing something it first achieved in its second season when it partnered with STAGES Theatre for a production of Amanda DeMaio’s “Unrelenting Relaxation,” which had premiered at that theater. In 2024, it will partner with Katie Chidester,  the co-founding artistic director of Project La Femme, a collective of artists that focus on amplifying the female voice, as well as Sara Guerrero, artistic director of Santa Ana’s Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble. Chidester will direct “Tiny Beautiful Things,” an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book, in April; Guerrero is directing the Orange County premiere of Fullerton playwright Benjamine Benne’s “Alma.

“We still have a lot of stories to tell and artists that we’re excited to work with,” Long said. “We’ve got plenty left in the tank.”


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