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Chance Theater is Built to Last

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

PART 1: The Anaheim stage finds balance and support at the intersection of art and commerce.


"Triassic Parq: the Musical" was the first show thatpatron Bette Aitken attended at her now namesake theater venue. From left, T-Rex 2 (Kellie Spill), Mime-a-saurus (Alex Bueno), Velociraptor of Science (Camryn Zelinger), T-Rex 1 (Micaela Martinez), Velociraptor of Faith (Jackson Tobiska) and Velociraptor of Innocence (Keaton Williams). Photo courtesy of Chance Theater/Doug Catiller
 

In January of this year, Chance Theater in Anaheim reached a milestone shared by few comparable theaters in Orange County: It began its 25th season. Among local stages that began as storefront theaters producing some new or non-mainstream fare and occupying a rented space, only two others can say the same: South Coast Repertory, which in September started its 60th season, and STAGES Theatre, which still occasionally produces but closed its physical theater space in 2020 after 28 years.


What makes Chance hitting the quarter-century mark even more significant is that it hasn’t just survived; it has thrived, evolving from a 49-seat theater that opened with its founders nearly $50,000 in debt, into a full-fledged professional theater in a complex that cost nearly $900,000 and includes two stages.


And you can read all about that, as well as its lean early years, some of its major milestones, how it weathered the 16 months without live performances during the pandemic,  some of its major Los Angeles awards from 2011, 2019 and 2020, its recent dominance of Orange County theater awards, its youth theater programming, community outreach to teens and expansive new play development initiatives elsewhere.


Part 1: Chance and Commerce

This two-part series on Chance is an anniversary story, but it’s less concerned with documenting what’s happened along the theater company’s road for 25 years than with how it's managed to stay on that road for so long. Because the road a theater travels, especially if that theater is formed by people with a passion and the desire for it to stick around a while, is a toll road requiring constant payment of two fares: one to commerce, one to art. Come up short on either and you’re in trouble because while they often clash, they must co-exist. To do the work you have to pay the bills, and to pay the bills you have to do the work.


Those theaters that dissolve most likely do so because the art in the work dried up, or there wasn’t much to begin with, or that’s all there was and no one remembered to pay the landlord.


The first part of this series looks at Chance and commerce, and how a group of artists with no business background figured out how to build the chassis surrounding what part two examines, the art, or work, that is the engine that has kept Chance moving down that road.


Advisory warning

Chance Theater's artistic director Oánh Nguyen. Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory

The advice artistic director Oánh Nguyen wishes he’d been told before going into debt in order to open a theater in 1999? “Start as a nonprofit.”


The advice he wishes he hadn’t followed? “Build it and they will come.”


Nguyen, along with some cohorts he’d met doing the audition circuit in Orange and Los Angeles counties built it – a 49-seat stage that fit inside an Anaheim Hills space they were set to open as their theater in January 1999.


It opened.


No one came. Well, an average of 15 a night over the 11-play first season for the Chance. Instead of making some money to pare down a huge deficit, the Chance was sinking more in the red. Getting out of debt was now the priority because, they believed at the time, any debt on the books would mean a delay in turning nonprofit, which was now seen as the key to moving into the 250-seat theater they envisioned.


To start attacking the debt, Chance developed two attributes that would come to typify the theater through the years: doing something new and building relationships.


The new was opening up the programming for the second season to include plays more recognizable than the new plays by unknown writers it had produced in the first season, particularly musicals. The relationships came from reaching out to theaters in Orange County, San Diego and Los Angeles and seeking out anyone with experience operating a theater and running a nonprofit.


“I think part of their (success) is they had a vision and a team of founders that were committed to that vision,” said Richard Stein, former executive director of the Laguna Playhouse and currently president of Arts Orange County, the county’s nonprofit arts council. ”And they went in search of advice from people who knew.”


Within five years, Chance was a nonprofit with no debt and had moderately expanded into a space a few doors down with a 75-seat theater. By 2009, it had tripled its gross revenue from the nearly $102,000 it reported in 2003, including about $81,000 in donations.


"Hair," a 2009 musical at Chance Theater, was its first breakthrough hit, earning 25 Los Angeles-area awards nominations, including Chance's first Ovation Award as well as Los Angeles Drama Critic Circle nominations. Photo courtesy of Chance Theater/Doug Catiller
 

And it had a bonafide hit on its hands, a Nguyen-directed production of “Hair.” Maybe it was time to start seriously thinking about making an even bigger move. And who better to invite than the two people who knew more than anyone about starting a theater in Orange County and moving it into the big time?


Maybe it was time to invite Babe Ruth.


Not Babe Ruth

“It was like Babe Ruth, this legend in front of you. The air went out of my lungs,” said managing director Casey Long when Martin Benson walked into the lobby of his theater for the first time. Benson and David Emmes, the co-founders of South Coast Repertory, had been invited by Nguyen to see “Hair.” Both were impressed. It was the start of a relationship that would change Nguyen’s life, and Chance’s trajectory, and add another chapter to Benson’s legacy.


The influence of Martin Benson on Chance, my directorial career, and my personal life is beyond measure,” Nguyen said via email.


Martin Benson, co-founder of South Coast Repertory, joined Chance's Board of Directors in 2012. Photo courtesy of Chance Theater/True Image Studio

Benson is a bit more modest.


“They already knew everything I knew, and then some,” he said. “They are so far out there in knowing how to communicate with their audiences and how to reach people. They knew that for a theater to survive you have to get young people in there. They just really know how to run a theater.”


Benson joined Chance’s board in 2012; two years after he and Emmes had stepped down as SCR’s co-artistic directors into the less time-consuming roles of founding artistic directors. Chance’s board was also transitioning from “mostly family and friends to including leaders in their communities who believed in us and our mission,” Nguyen said.


New board members included bankers, attorneys, people with expertise in real estate, corporate finance and human resources, some were board members at SCR and other nonprofits. The expanded board became an invaluable resource in strategizing and professionalizing the Chance. 


One contribution that “may have helped them,” Benson said, was his suggestion to streamline the board meetings.


“It was more like a cocktail party where people would show up around 6 or 7, have some hors d'oeuvres,  a couple of drinks. Then someone would say maybe we should talk about the theater. By that time, these people wanted to be home. These are important people who know how to run businesses and you’ve got to get them when they’re hot, right after work.”


Beginning in 2013, when Chance’s IRS filings reported $377,000 in contributions, the theater raised nearly $3 million through the end of 2020.


Making the theater personal

Benson said the key to a theater finding money isn’t the money; it’s finding people willing to give that money. And for that, you need people who care about the theater. Chance already had that foundation in place, he said.


“All in all, they do everything right,” Benson said. “They really know how to manage a theater, from the marketing to making the audience feel welcome.”


From its customary welcoming speech before every show, to post-show talkbacks involving cast, crew and audience members, to having an extra staffer in the lobby during pre-show, intermission, and after the show, meeting, greeting and hearing feedback from patrons, making personal connections has been a trademark of the theater since its earliest days.


Over time, Benson said, audience members begin to take a vested interest in supporting Chance in more ways other than just ticket sales.


 They get this “feeling that when they go to Chance, they will have a really good experience in a very small space and (in turn) they want to help support Chance,” Benson said.


Long said connecting with the audience stems from one of Chance’s fundamental principles.


“It all goes back to one of our core beliefs from the beginning,” he said. “That the theater experience doesn’t begin when you are in your seat and the lights go down. It begins the minute you walk into the space.”


Actually, Long may want to amend that sentence. Sometimes, the theater experience begins before the audience even pulls into the parking lot.


Chance Encounter 

“I was waiting in the lobby to go on to do my curtain speech,” Long recalled. “I heard Jeff (Hellebrand, the mostly unsung hero of Chance, a founding artist who has run the box office since day one) ask her name. My first thought was, ‘Of course, this is the first show Bette Aitken will see at the Chance.’”


Long knew the name as a prominent patron of the arts in Orange County. But he had never met her. Turns out, they were neighbors of a sort. Aitken lived in Anaheim Hills. But it wasn’t until an early Sunday evening in early 2013, while she was driving on a quick errand to Armstrong Garden Center, that she noticed the marquee on La Palma Avenue immediately after the Imperial Highway intersection.


It was for a theater she’d never heard of; intrigued, she pulled into the parking lot.


"Triassic Parq: The Musical," a 2013 world premiere at Chance Theater, earned the theater its first NEA grant, an Ovation Award for best musical, and at least one new fan. Photo courtesy of Chance Theater/Doug Catiller
 

The show was “Triassic Parq: The Musical,” written by Bryce Norbitz, Marshall Pailet and Steve Wargo and directed by Pailet and it was getting its West Coast premiere as Chance’s first show of the 2013 season. It was a smart, sassy and sexy satire of “Jurassic Park,” featuring transgendered dinosaurs wrestling with identity and spiritual crises. And Morgan Freeman. 


Long’s apprehension about Aitken seeing the show had some merit. She and her husband, Wylie Aitken, a civil attorney who had represented clients who won mega-million-dollar settlements in personal injury cases against heavyweights like Disney Corp, Toyota and the federal government, had Big Money and Big Influence. And although Long knew they were big patrons of the arts, you never quite know how anyone is going to react to a musical about transgendered dinosaurs. And Morgan Freeman.


“She thought it was utterly fantastic, just loved it,” Long said. “She went home and told her husband, who had no idea she’d be gone so long, about this incredible theater company” right down the hill.


That love would soon prove to be more than a crush.


PHOTO 1: In 2013, Chance Theater received the largest donation in its history: $250,000 from Bette and Wylie Aitken. Photo courtesy of Chance Theater/True Image Studio. PHOTO 2: In 2014, Chance Theater expanded from a 75-seat theater to one that could hold up to 150 seats. Later in the year, it expanded again and acquired room for a 49-seat theater. The Chance named the entire.complex after its most generous benefactor, Bette Aitkin. Photo courtesy of Chance Theater/Doug Catiller

 

Later that year, Chance announced it was doubling in size and would soon have a 150-seat theater, the biggest expansion of a theater space in Orange County since South Coast Repertory in 1967 moved from a 75-seat theater into a 276-space. At the opening ceremony in January 2014, Wylie Aitken surprised everyone, including his wife, by announcing he was donating $250,000. That fast-tracked the second phase of the expansion, which would add a 49-seat theater.


To say Chance has benefited greatly from the largesse of its board and patrons would be an understatement. Its success in audience engagement and fundraising is apparent. But the key to fostering the first and tapping into the second has nothing to do with anything coming into the theater, but with everything happening inside the theater.


“None of it happens without the work,” Benson said.


We’ll examine that work in part two.


 

Richard Stein, who is quoted in this story, is member of the advisory board for Culture OC.

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