Are great theater companies, like great actors, born, not made? Specifically, was the greatness seen by many in Chance Theater once the Anaheim Hills-based storefront theater troupe worked the bugs out in its first handful of years encoded in its creative and business-model DNA?
From almost innocent beginnings, Chance Theater developed from a minuscule theatrical acorn of which expectations all around were fairly modest to a mighty Southern California oak that continues to expand and grow.
Its progress and growth from its inception has been slow yet steady and continuous, and its momentum unchecked by economic recessions and the general tumult and occasional disruption that come with founding and operating any theater company of any size.
Founding artistic director Oanh Nguyen, Chance’s nucleus and the person most closely associated with it, met Fred Hatfield and Chris Ceballos when he joined the Anaheim High School theater program in his junior year.
“While doing theater around town” for Yorba Linda Civic Light Opera and Santa Ana College, he met Jeff Hellebrand and future wife Erika Miller.
Nguyen, 45, said the quintet “had found some success producing our original plays in rental houses,” so they decided to pool their resources and open their own space. A shoestring budget yielded the operation the name “Spare Change Productions.”
Nguyen said he ran an after-school ensemble at Anaheim High called “The Theater of Chance,” which led to a venue name he said is something “we all came up with.”
“We were interested in more opportunities, in taking risks, in seeing where the wind was gonna take us, so Chance seemed to be the right name for what we were looking to do.”
Chance Theater, a 50-seat storefront venue in an Anaheim Hills office and industrial complex on La Palma Avenue, opened its doors in February, 1999, with the world premiere of Marie Mastrangelo’s “Wasted Wishes.”
Casey Long, Chance’s managing director, came in during a casting call for the troupe’s third production, but due to the eventual breadth and depth of his work, he’s considered a founding member.
Jocelyn Brown, Kelly Todd and Lisa Zaradich were among the first wave of personnel to act, direct or choreograph a show, then continue to work and play a key role.
Shifting early goals
One original goal was that every show be either written by company members or an original, unproduced script – and that all performers and directors be drawn from within the company.
Within the first year, amidst general public indifference, that mandate was scuttled. Outside directors were brought in to direct shows carrying more audience familiarity, which led to an infusion of actors from outside Chance – a combination that increased attendance and recognition from both the public and the press while also stemming the tide of red ink.
Long called the January 2000 world premiere production of “The Stroop Report” “a key show.” Robert Preston Jones’ drama about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising “got a lot of attention from all over the country.”
Warsaw Ghetto uprising survivor Joseph Greenblatt, an Orange County resident, heard about the show and reached out to the Chance, leading to what Long said is “something that’s now standard – the audience talk-back.”
Nguyen said it took the company nearly four years to make up the initial startup cost of $50,000. It quickly became apparent that increased seating capacity was needed.
Expanded venue – and growing recognition
A larger space located at the front of the same business complex solved that problem, yielding a larger stage area, flexible seating, a larger lobby, a larger performer dressing room and, perhaps most crucial, increased visibility via a lighted marquee facing La Palma Avenue.
With 70 seats, the new space opened in January, 2004 – and expanded Chance from 2,000 to 3,000 square feet.
As the theater company began to grow in the early 2000s, so did its artistic reputation: “Lee Miller: The Angel and the Fiend,” a world-premiere drama, received an OC Weekly Theater Award in 2003.
The company was showered with awards from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and numerous Ovation and Garland awards for productions like “The Who’s Tommy,” “Jerry Springer: The Opera” and “Triassic Parq”; Arts OC recognized Chance with the Orange County Arts Award for “Outstanding Arts Organization” in 2004 and again in 2009.
The company also became known as a prolific breeding ground for professional and regional, West Coast and Orange County premieres – shows like “Jesus Hates Me,” “Nerve,” “Lysistrata Jones,” “Samsara,” “Tribes” and “The Girl, The Grouch, and The Goat.”
Various Southern California venues (like The Getty Center) have taken notice of Chance’s work, inviting the company to re-stage its productions in new surroundings. A year after its 2009 West Coast premiere, the Wayne Lemon comedy “Jesus Hates Me” was remounted at South Coast Repertory’s Nicholas Studio in a sold-out run. And in early 2011, Segerstrom Center imported “The Who’s Tommy” to Founders Hall for a sold-out two-week run.
Enter Martin Benson and the Aitkens
In fall 2009 SCR co-founder Martin Benson tapped Nguyen as the associate director of “The Happy Ones,” sensing the play’s depiction of Vietnamese characters would benefit both from Nguyen’s artistic talent and his Vietnamese heritage.
“We got to be good friends,” Benson said. “I came to respect him, and the work he does, and Chance Theater itself.” He also became a mentor to Nguyen, who says the association has made his skills as an artistic director and artist blossom.
The vital SCR-Chance connection would strengthen in June of 2012 when Benson joined the board of directors, then invited other heavy hitters to do the same – key examples being Wylie and Bette Aitken and Tod and Linda White.
Benson said he also urged Nguyen, who was leaning toward purchasing and moving into a new, larger space, to instead think about the intermediary step of finding and renting something larger. It’s akin to what SCR did while still growing – and was, in fact, the direction the company ultimately took.
Not content to simply produce plays, for nearly a decade now Chance has been inviting playwrights to take up residence with the company and to workshop and develop new plays through a New Works Series known as “OTR” (for On the Radar). The company’s Theater for Young Audiences (“TYA”) productions have developed into an entire series, the TYA Family Series. Founded in 2006, the “Speak Up” community outreach program for at-risk junior high and high school students keeps expanding and growing and now includes veterans who tell personal stories from the stage through annual performances around the same time as Veterans Day.
The boundless energy of the company’s core has bred a seemingly self-perpetuating cycle of raising sizable donations that are used to expand Chance’s physical size and artistic resources, leading to improvements that attract new patrons and donors – and additional rounds of gifts and contributions.
The most momentous confluence of a patron and admirer stepping in and having a huge impact has been the arrival of Bette and Wylie Aitken.
In February, 2013, after Bette attended the West Coast premiere of “Triassic Parq,” the Aitkens became ongoing patrons – but more importantly, expressed a desire to make monetary contributions.
Nguyen calls them “angel donors.” They’re the company’s single largest donor of the past six years. Their gifts led directly to the company’s second move within the business park and a doubling in size to 6,000 square feet.
Wylie Aitken is also a major donor to Voice of OC and chairs the board of directors that fundraises for the nonprofit newsroom.
‘Bold New Home,’ massive donations
On January 25, 2014, Chance held the grand opening of a new theater complex christened the Bette Aitken theater arts Center. Three weeks later came the grand opening of the new 99-seat Cripe Stage, named for supporters and board members Larry and Sophie Cripe.
Funds and gifts continued to roll in, allowing another 3,000 square feet to be added that includes a classroom for outreach programs, on-site scene shop, and most crucially, a second stage – the Fyda-Mar Stage, a 49-seat black box theater named for then-board chair Mary Kay Fyda-Mar.
In August of 2014, the first annual fundraising event in the new space brought in more than $100,000 in donations.
In early 2017, donations from Linda and Tod White in the form of challenge (matching) gifts helped establish the company’s Artist Fund, designed to better support artists in the community, deepen the company’s artistry, and offer more union contracts to performers.
Long said that for the total “Bold New Home” capital campaign that includes both phases of the theater construction, the company raised $900,000. The theater’s Form 990s (publically available forms for tax-exempt organizations) for fiscal 2013 through 2018 shows that it received a total of $2,630,742 in contributions, grants and gifts.
Coming soon: Another new ‘Chance’?
While Chance Theater’s growth, expansion and progress may appear dizzying to most outside observers, the cool-headed Nguyen, the company’s steady hand at the helm, is eager to take Chance to the next level – that of a mid-sized theater company.
Most such venues – Laguna Playhouse, for example – are in the 400- to 500-seat range. While Nguyen wants to expand beyond 99 seats, he said that size “won’t be as intimate” and will compromise “the kind of art we’re going to produce” and Chance’s artistic mission: “telling niche stories.”
“Our goal is to have our own building,” Nguyen said, “with a fixed thrust, 250-seat main stage and a flexible, 100- to 150-seat smaller stage.”
He eschews anything larger; keeping things on a smaller scale, he said, is crucial for one vital reason: “You can take more risks.”
And that m.o., he maintains, “is the same mission we’ve had all along.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.