EDITOR’S NOTE: Orange County is home to many arts groups at the community level that have enriched countless lives here for many years. It’s important to honor and encourage them during a time when their distinctive and worthwhile voices can’t be heard. This is the first installment of a continuing series.
Can the destiny of one person be so closely tied to that of an organization that the two are almost thought of as one?
That seems to be the case for Rae Cohen and Newport Theatre Arts Center. Mention NTAC and anyone connected to the Newport Beach theater company will instantly think of long-standing board president Cohen, who has worked to keep NTAC going almost since its inception.
The company turned 40 last year, and as with all theater companies, its current season was curtailed by the global pandemic. The troupe’s 41st anniversary is being observed in a vacuum.
If the term “community theater” has gotten a bad rap in some circles, Orange County companies like NTAC prove the exception to the rule, distinguishing themselves from most of their peers through the consistently high quality of their work.
As a longtime theater reporter for The Orange County Register, I would regularly file into a seat at NTAC on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night or a Sunday afternoon to review, each time seeing a polished, sterling production replete with solid acting and direction and eye-catching costumes, set design and lighting.
First-time visitors seeing the venue, situated on a bluff overlooking Pacific Coast Highway, have remarked that it resembles a small church, reiterating that observation once inside the space. The building’s history does in fact reveal the accuracy of that perception.
NTAC’s history is tied closely to the building that has housed it since its start – and with an ill-conceived plan to rip up coastal properties to create a new freeway.
As part of its plans to construct a major coastal freeway in Orange County, Caltrans had originally purchased a Lutheran church on Cliff Drive for use as an offramp for that freeway. When public protest blocked creation of the freeway, the city of Newport Beach purchased the building and a small park adjacent to it.
The Newport Beach Arts Commission then proposed a combination art gallery and live theater venue – hence the troupe’s original name, “Newport Theatre/Arts Center.”
Basement rooms designated as the art gallery were instead used by the city as classroom space. As Cohen said, “there was no place to put art,” so the idea of an art gallery was quietly dropped, and the Newport Theatre Arts Center theater company was born (the original name minus the slash).
At first, in 1977 and ’78, the city rented the space out to Newport Beach resident Nancy Ebsen (ex-wife of Buddy Ebsen), a playwright, director and producer, and to the theater staff at Newport Harbor High School.
Well into the third season, patrons were seated in folding chairs which allowed for a flexible seating configuration that bent to the director’s wishes and the needs of each individual production.
NTAC’s inaugural offering was the January, 1980 production of Ron Cowen’s 1967 Vietnam War drama “Summertree,” and its second show was the 1976 dramedy “Vanities.” Both shows, directed by Gregory Bach, had what Cohen calls “good-sized casts.” She terms attendance for the company’s earliest seasons as “not great. If we got 30 people, we were thrilled.”
A crucial production was season three’s “Bleacher Bums,” written by actor Joe Mategna. An article in the Los Angeles Times sports section put the spotlight on the production and seating capacity had to be boosted to 140 for the run of the show. Cohen said that thanks to the added publicity, “the show sold like crazy.”
In 1985, 90 upholstered, movie theater-style seats replaced the folding chairs. They were refurbished in 2002. The building itself has received a a handful of remodels (see sidebar).
Among NTAC’s earliest directors were Joan McGillis (mother of Kelly McGillis), whose shows there included “The Four Poster”; Kent Johnson, whose specialty at NTAC was Gilbert and Sullivan operettas — he twice helmed Tim Nelson’s original Robin Hood musical “The White Arrow” at NTAC; Huntington Beach High School theater instructor Bill Waxman; and Tom Titus, a prolific local director, actor and theater critic.
Under the stewardship of this handful of directors plus the company’s initial and subsequent board members, directors and designers, and the enthusiastic support of patrons, NTAC came to be known in the theater community as welcoming to artists while receptive to plays its peers throughout Orange County might deem too commercially risky.
Rae Cohen Keeps Things Going
Mention Newport Theatre Arts Center to a patron or board member or someone connected with theater, and they will credit Cohen as being the guiding force behind the success of the theater.
Cohen says she just offered whatever help was needed. For several years she functioned as recording secretary until 1983, when the board eventually selected her as president.
Patty-Gene Sampson, along with a few other board members, preceded Cohen as president. When Cohen was finally elected to the post, they recognized that she was instrumental to the theater’s success, and Cohen has held the position ever since.
Many others who work with Cohen attribute NTAC’s ongoing success to her warm personality, especially the way she befriends patrons – and keeps those friendships going in perpetuity. When discussing theater in general, but even more so when the subject is NTAC, Cohen bubbles over with quiet enthusiasm.
“I do have good relationships with the audience, but I try to have that because I feel that’s important. We have some really interesting people who come to our theater, and it’s been fun to know them,” she said.
Cohen’s unassuming warmth also extends to all those who work at NTAC in any and every capacity. Over the past four decades, her encouragement has fueled the talents and passions of hundreds of actors, directors, designers, composers and more.
What has kept someone like Cohen so actively involved for so long is a mixture of her own enjoyment of theater and her love of those who share that passion and are committed to putting up good productions month after month, season after season and year after year, stretching out over decades.
Cohen won’t use the term “theater junkie” when describing her devotion to NTAC, but you wouldn’t be far off the mark if you were to describe her as someone whose motivation for keeping NTAC humming along far exceeds simply being passionate about the craft of live theater.
Each show, Cohen said, runs into the one preceding and one following it: “By the time you start tearing down the set, you’re already working on the next show. There’s never a break, so time goes by and it’s fun, the people are fun and the stories are interesting.
A typical season will contain a comedy, a drama, a musical, a thriller or mystery, and a children’s show. Each production gets a five-weekend run, which far exceeds the more commonplace three or four weekends.
By 1987, Newport Theatre Arts Center began staging encore productions of some of the most popular shows in its past, with new casts, directors and technical and design teams. At least a dozen shows have been resurrected due to audience demand, including “Lend Me a Tenor,” “See How They Run” and “1776.”
Not Afraid to Take Risks
While NTAC has offered more than its fair share of innocuous musicals, crowd-pleasing mysteries, and works by the ubiquitous Neil Simon, its board isn’t averse to selecting material most of their peers would shy away from.
Its history is also dotted with edgier shows that contain intricate plots, adult-themed dialogue and situations, and often harsh realism, including “No Mother Like Jazz,” “A Distance from Calcutta,” “Camping with Henry and Tom,” “The Winslow Boy,” “The Young Man from Atlanta,” “Pack of Lies,” “84 Charing Cross Road,” “Redwood Curtain” and “Dividing the Estate.”
Few theater patrons would mention shows like these in the same breath as “community theater.” Yet, NTAC’s board has never shied away from programming such material, a mindset that helps explain the company’s ongoing popularity and the reason most of its patrons provide consistent and enthusiastic support.
In the early 1990s, director Kent Johnson helped NTAC snag performance rights to the 1970s Broadway musical “Cyrano” (book and lyrics by Anthony Burgess and music by Michael J. Lewis). Johnson directed NTAC’s production, which starred John Huntington as Cyrano and Deirdre McGill as Roxanne.
The board has even tipped its hat to the theater’s much-heralded neighbor, South Coast Repertory, staging its own versions of “Sight Unseen,” “Anna in the Tropics” and “Brooklyn Boy” — all of which received their first productions at SCR.
Cohen credits Schmidt, who came to NTAC around the middle to late ’80s, as “the one who really got us involved in doing children’s shows – smash-bang shows like ‘Aladdin,’ ‘Popeye’ and ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ with dazzling sets and costumes and casts of singing and dancing kids.” Schmidt also joined the board and directed mainstream NTAC productions.
More ‘Semi-Pro’ than ‘Community’ Theater
Veteran director Sharyn Case doesn’t see the label of “community theater” as an accurate reflection of NTAC, preferring the term “semi-pro theater” where there is “a dedication to quality [that] makes a huge difference – a certain level of experimentation – and doing shows that are hardly ever done.”
Case has helmed at least a half-dozen productions at NTAC, including “A Murder is Announced,” “The Hollow” and, most recently, a successful run of “Taking Sides” at the venue she calls her “second home theater” (the first being Long Beach Playhouse). She views both theaters “at some level in a different category than those (theaters) that are playthings for people who want to dabble in the arts,” said Case. “It’s a great place to work, a wonderful venue with a great stage and facilities and good-sized shows that require a lot of space and a house that’s the perfect size.”
She knows that NTAC took a risk in mounting “Taking Sides.” British playwright Ronald Harwood’s 1995 drama is anything but a safe choice: It examines the United States’ post-war denazification investigation of German conductor and composer Wilhelm Furtwängler on charges of having served the Nazi regime. “It’s a pretty heavy drama, too intense for most (other small companies), and most wouldn’t touch it.”
As a bonus, Case credits Cohen’s rapport with the city’s managers as a component of the center’s success because it “almost guarantees a full house for every performance.”
Scott Ratner, a community theater fixture since the 1980s in comedic, dramatic and musical roles, has done roughly a dozen NTAC productions. Though Gilbert and Sullivan expert Kent Johnson loved tapping Ratner to play the role of Koko, Ratner’s specialty was helping to bring new original musical works to life on the NTAC stage, including “The Magical Wand of Baledi,” “What A Perfect Combination” and “Murder In Morocco” (all written and created by Terry Alaric and Linda Ballew) and “The White Arrow” (by Tim Nelson).
Ratner asserts that nearly every NTAC show in which he appeared has worked because of the venue. “A lot of shows are done on stages too large for them; NTAC is just right for a lot of shows. It’s a beautiful venue with a lovely stage which is large enough to do more things than people would suspect.”
So what is it about the venue and company that make a veteran actor want to return for new productions and give his all? “First of all, it’s Rae. She’s wonderful because she has always been incredibly supportive. She gives production companies a great deal of support but lets them do their own thing – it’s a perfect balance of hands-on and hands-off.”
Ratner noted that actors love donating their time to NTAC because they’re made to feel wanted and appreciated. After every show there, he received “nice little letters from the theater thanking me for being a part of the show. Since you’re not getting paid, things like that really mean a great deal.”
Brian Page said he has appeared as an actor at NTAC “10 or 15” times since 2000, directed another six or seven productions and created the sound design for roughly 40 NTAC shows. Page spent the bulk of his theater career working as a sound designer at Vanguard Theater Ensemble in Fullerton, and when it closed he did shows at various venues but wasn’t satisfied with the quality level – until coming to NTAC.
“I look at it as almost my home theater,” Page said. “I’ve always felt it’s a very professional theater. One of the things I look for is a level of commitment to excellence far and above what I’d consider the standard for community theater. Many such theaters have a ‘yeah, that’s good enough’ kind of attitude, and when you have that, it’s seldom good enough.
“It’s a great little theater – very comfortable, very welcoming, and always eager to bring in people who have never worked there before. The big thing to me is the level of quality, the desire to do high quality rather than shove stuff out the door. It’s a great place to work.”
The Pandemic, and Beyond
What will NTAC look like once the theater community has absorbed the blows of COVID-19 and devised a strategy for once again providing live theater?
From its current, pandemic-curtailed season, the company had originally planned to salvage two shows: Neil Simon’s autobiographical serio-comedy “Chapter Two,” which had been scheduled to open at the end of March, 2020, and an update of the musical “Working,” Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso’s ’70s musicalization of Studs Terkel’s bestseller about Americans’ regard for their work.
“Working,” though, has become a casualty of the virus. Singing, by its nature, helps transmit the disease, which has led the AACT (American Association of Community Theater) to put the kibosh on all stage musicals.
“They felt that musicals were going to have to be put off for a long, long time,” Cohen noted.
For “Chapter Two,” NTAC is “using the date of September 11, 2020, to reopen the theater – but the way things are going, the show may get pushed forward again (to late 2020 or early 2021).”
Also postponed is NTAC’s newly installed summer program of staged readings launched in 2019. Last year’s slate of “Angel Street,” “Bleacher Bums,” “The Real Inspector Hound” and “An Actor’s Nightmare” was to be followed up this year with originals by local playwrights John Francheschini and Carl DeSilva as well as Steve Martin’s “The Underpants” and other published plays.
All have been scheduled for performance in the summer of 2021 when, fingers crossed, NTAC and other theater companies will be in a better position to do what they do best. The theater is not too worried (yet), but it looks forward to producing shows once it is safe to start congregating in theaters again.
Cohen is now in her 80s, which also leaves NTAC vulnerable. Should anything befall Cohen, whose presence and guidance has made all the difference, board members (there are currently eight) insist they have worked with each other for so long, and are so well-versed in the function of each position, that they’re prepared for any contingency.
Sounds like what you’d expect of a seasoned theater company that last year surpassed a major milestone in its existence.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected]