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Hey Brother, Can You Spare an Empty Space?

Checking in with Orange County’s theaters without a home.


"Something Rotten," an over-the-top musical goof on Shakespeare, was produced by the Camino Real Playhouse in September 2023. From left: Jeff Teerling, Kaie Baker, Robb Neale, Rachel Wilson, Garrett Claud, Jason Pascual, Kathy Villanueva, Winston Peacock, Jordyn Brady and Finn Reid. Photo courtesy of Leslie Eisner
 

Remove the high school and college theater programs, as well as those venues that mainly host and don’t create theater, and there are still more than 30 theaters, companies or groups producing live theater in Orange County.


That must be an all-time high, but so is this: About a third do not have a space to perform. Five years ago, of the county’s 27 producers, only two lacked spaces. 


Why such an extreme swing in five years? One reason is six established theaters have closed their doors since 2019, five permanently. Six new companies launched in that period, but only two have their own spaces. (The newest theater company, the Z Playhouse, opens its first show, “Cabaret,” March 8 in Aliso Viejo.)


That partially explains the high percentage of theaters without a home, as do exorbitant rents. But talk to enough of these vagabond theaters and another obstacle is that it doesn’t seem they are very important to those who hold the keys to their kingdoms: the local governments, property owners and managers who control the spaces they need.


Evidence?


  • The Bold Theatre was forced to shut the theater it launched in Los Alamitos last year after being informed the property wasn’t zoned for it–even though it was formerly home to the OC Children’s Theater. 


  • The Renaissance Theatre Company had verbal agreements with two South Coast property owners to take over sites in South Orange County, but “both times the deals disappeared with no explanation,” according to artistic director Jeremy Golden.


  • The Modjeska Playhouse’s lease on its Lake Forest building expired during the pandemic but the playhouse wasn’t even able to meet with the landlord. Instead, the property management group and commercial property real agent it did meet with said, “If we wanted to renew our lease, they were going to raise the rent by almost double and they wanted the entire lease term paid in advance,” according to company member Chris Sullivan. “As much as we wanted to stay in the space, and as much as we wanted to continue as a theater company, their terms weren't realistic, so we had to close.”


  • Jeff Lowe, artistic director of the Alchemy Theatre Company, which has been nomadic since its founding in 2012, said, “I am relentless with property managers in terms of finding a space, but invariably feel like I’m being given the cold shoulder or feel like I’m being ghosted. They don’t see theater companies as a viable business option.”


This isn’t new. After nearly 30 years in the city of Garden Grove’s Festival Amphitheatre and agreeing to cut its 2020 season from five months to two months, Shakespeare Orange County was offered two weekends, forcing it to shut down. For years, the Huntington Beach Playhouse dealt with a series of rent hikes imposed by the city of Huntington Beach and had to vacate the space it inhabited in the Huntington Beach Main Library in 2017.


Currently, the Camino Real Playhouse, a downtown San Juan Capistrano fixture for 35 years, can’t help but feel like it’s been treated as an afterthought in the long, complicated saga of what to do with the land beneath it. 


The Camino Real Playhouse, a two-minute walk from the Mission San Juan Capistrano, opened in December 1989. Photo courtesy of Camino Real Playhouse.

Existential Crisis

The Playhouse is a good entry point in a roundup of homeless theaters because it is trying to prevent itself from becoming one. Things were good its first 35 years; it paid $100 a year to the city to occupy a former Pac Bell building that the state had given the city’s redevelopment agency in the 1980s. In return, the playhouse paid for all improvements and maintenance. In 2012, the state dissolved redevelopment agencies; in San Juan Capistrano, part of that process meant the city would eventually have to sell the land that the playhouse’s building was on. But the playhouse had helped anchor downtown for 23 years, and even if the city sold the building, there was faith that the playhouse’s continued future would be addressed.


In 2017, that faith seemed to be rewarded. The council entered into an exclusive negotiation agreement with Dan Almquist, a developer whose proposal for the playhouse property and parcels around it included a 250-seat performing arts center, along with a smaller black box theater, shops, restaurants and an underground parking lot. However, by the time the final proposal was submitted to the city in 2020, the two spaces were no longer part of the proposal. Almquist assured everyone of his commitment to building a performing arts center near the new development and that the playhouse would be part of it.


But by 2022, when the city formally sold the property to Almquist, it had become clear to Leslie Eisner, the playhouse’s artistic director and president, that not only would there be no performing arts center for at least five or six years, but the playhouse wasn’t going to be part of it.


So she started looking for a new space, and for a city that understood the support a theater like the playhouse requires.


“We’d been very blessed with not having to pay rent,” Eisner said. “But most community theaters that are robust are supported by the city they’re in: Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Laguna Beach, all do it locally. It would be very difficult to pay full market value in rent and keep ticket prices at a reasonable level.”


Even with an anonymous donor’s pledge in early 2023 to buy the playhouse property as long as it was in the city of San Juan Capistrano, she has had no luck finding a space large and adaptable enough for a theater.


“The last thing I want to do is leave San Juan Capistrano,” she said. “We’re as much part of the city as the swallows and the parade. And it is such a fantastic location and has become a second family to so many patrons and that's why it’s so sad but if it’s a choice between staying here or ending the theater, there is no choice.”


The where is a major challenge facing Eisner and the playhouse, but so is the when. According to city documents, construction on the new development must begin this year and the theater can retain occupancy of the building until 30 days before that starts. But, according to Eisner, no date has been communicated from the city. Its website shows productions running through May 19.


The irony, Eisner said, is that the playhouse is “firing on all cylinders,” selling out every show and she is amazed that cities aren’t lining up to recruit the playhouse.


“You can’t recreate this,” Eisner said.  “It has to be built from scratch, from the ground up and we have already done it. So all I can do is to keep looking and keep hoping somebody will see one of these articles and realize what a gem they could have and ask us what we can do to have you in our city?”


Looking to Quit the Nomadic Life

Both the Alchemy Theater Company and Renaissance Theater Company have proven that you can sustain a theater for multiple years without a space. And both are over it.


Alchemy launched in 2013 and has managed to gradually develop a patron base even while being nomads. It has performed at most theaters in North County, staged shows outside, on a slab of concrete in Santa Ana and, every Tuesday,  it performs “Drinkspeare” at Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza in Placentia.


Without a space of its own, the Alchemy Theatre Company has staged productions in some unlikely venues, such as the Lone Wolf Brewing Company in Placentia. Here, Brutus (Brandon Sanchez) gives his reasons for stabbing Caesar to the tipsy senators in Alchemy's production of "Drinkspeare: Julius Caesar." Photo courtesy of Katelyn Abaya
 

Being without a space has forced Alchemy to learn how to do more with less, but Lowe says Alchemy is ready to settle down.


“But finding an affordable space that isn't also in a back room in a business park has been difficult,” he said. “But we WANT our own physical space, and we're ready for it. All in all, we are trying our best to survive, stay relevant, and find a home. Right now, we are doing a lot for a company that doesn't have a home, and I feel like we would thrive if people knew where to consistently find us and support local theater.”


Renaissance started in 2015 and is ready to move into its own space. It’s had plenty of promising leads fall through and Golden isn’t sure that non-theater business owners always have the firmest understanding of all the moving parts that a theater needs to function. He remains committed to finding a space in South County and presenting classic theatrical works to audiences that can’t get them anywhere else.


“There is nothing else out here where people can get that kind of theater regularly,” Golden said. “This area needs it.”


 At the moment, Renaissance is producing at Aliso Niguel High School, where Golden also teaches. It will hold a fundraiser on March 9 to raise funds for a permanent venue that he’d like to see in either Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Lake Forest or Laguna Niguel.


Los Alamitos in the House Twice

Launched in August 2021 in a Los Alamitos industrial park, Bold Theatre’s debut production in its 37-seat theater was Neil Labute’s “Bash,” a play that probed the nature of evil. it was one of the adventurous plays that founder John Pistone staged before running afoul of zoning regulations last summer. But Pistone says he’s eager to pursue his vision of a theater designed to challenge people to think; but he’s still in “very, very” early in talks with the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos about the possible use of the Liberty Theatre, one of the last remaining World War II-era military base theaters.


Also based in Los Alamitos, Mid-World Players launched in 2019 and did so much to help keep Long Beach’s nearly 50-year Found Theater afloat in 2020 that the Found wound up giving its space to the company. But less than two years later, the building was razed to build condos. Mid-World then partnered with Bold and was going to split the costs for the space, but that ended with the zoning issues. 


“Right now, we are seriously interested in a space, but after actively looking but finding nothing, we have slowed down,” said artistic director Jesse Seann Atkinson.


Ace Christensen, left, and Amara Phelps display the Modjeska Shakespeare Players' aesthetic approach of throwing layers onto street clothes and using simple props and staging to lessen the intimidation factor of Shakespeare. Photo courtesy of OC Parks

In No Hurry for a Space

Neither the Modjeska Shakespeare Players nor Stages Theatre are looking for spaces. The former is more of an acting troupe than a theater troupe and does its thing at the historic Modjeska House in Santiago Canyon when invited. Performances are lightly produced scenes and monologues with minimal props and costumes and no major tech, so while the Players would love to acquire a space down the road, it’s not a priority at the moment, said company manager Nicholas Thurkettle.


As far as Stages, after grinding for 28 years, that old bird seems to want to do more nesting these days. But, it has partnered with the Brea Curtis Theater four times over the past three years, so it’s staying a bit limber; more importantly, perhaps, those productions have given the company’s large extended family a reason to gather.


Quiet but Still Here

Neither the Unnamed Theater Company, which launched in 2021, nor Project Le Femme, which formed in 2017, responded to emails requesting information for this story. But on its website, the former’s artistic director explains Unnamed is taking a hiatus this year to “reflect and prepare for the years to come.”


And though it has been mostly quiet for the past couple of years, one of Project La Femme’s founding members, Katie Chidester, runs the art gallery opposite the front door of the Brea Curtis Theater, which was the site of a remembrance in early February of longtime local theater stalwart Wade Williamson.  When asked that night whether Le Femme considers itself a homeless theater company, Chidester said “yes.” 


And Two More…

One company doesn’t have its own space but feels quite at home when doing theater. That’s because it is doing it in the three-car garage of the house where a couple of company members live. The house is not zoned for live theater, so divulging the name of the company or its location would be problematic; but it can be reported the troupe has embarked on its first full season and does not have the cash flow to even think of securing its own space, at least for the foreseeable future.


And finally, there is the Irvine Theater Company, a rather prosaic name for an outfit that has big ideas and, despite only one production to its credit, may have the inside track on occupying the theater that might be built in phase two of the Irvine Great Park’s Cultural Terrace development. Its debut production, a one-act play that complemented a photo exhibit of Dorothea Lang, was staged in December in the Great Park Art Gallery. 


Its artistic director, David Ihrig, has worked in the city’s public information office for 20 years and has also taught acting at UC Irvine; he also has some heady ideas about how to teach acting and how to stage theater, pun intended. He, and his company, have been flying under the proverbial radar so far, but that’s probably going to change soon. Just remember Culture OC mentioned him first ….


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