The 28-Year History of Stages Theatre Began with a Need for a Home

Photo courtesy of Stages Theatre

Stages Theatre company members, circa 1994.

Recently, Stages Theatre announced it was closing its doors moving out of its long-time theater – another victim of the coronavirus. This is a follow-up to our story on the announcement of the closure of their performing space, shedding light on the beginnings and evolution of the company.

Brian Kojac wanted a home. That was only natural, biologically speaking. Age 30 was coming quick and Kojac found himself in that stage of life where many, if not already on that path, begin seriously thinking about big things like family, career, a place where they belong.

But Kojac wasn’t looking for a home in the sense of domestic tranquility. He wanted a creative home. After launching two theater companies over the past six years – one, a wandering troupe that performed at hotels and restaurants in Orange County; the other, Crossroads, in more theater-friendly spaces in Los Angeles – he was looking for something more permanent. “It’s frustrating and limiting to not have your own space. I wanted one where I controlled the conditions, where we could take the chance on doing original work. I wanted a home.”

The Beginning: Creating a Community

In March 1993, Kojac opened the doors to that home, Stages Theatre, located in a small industrial park in the flatlands of Anaheim Hills, bordered by machine fabricators and carpet installers.

Photo courtesy of Brian Kojac

Brian Kojac

For nearly 30 years, that space, and a larger one in Fullerton where it moved in 1999, was a creative home to scores of actors, writers, directors, designers and anyone who wanted to stay involved, or get involved, with producing theater. From the start, its producing schedule was ambitious. During the first three years, they produced 76 plays and 90% of them were new works by local playwrights. In comparison, theaters like South Coast Repertory, Laguna Playhouse and Chance Theater typically produce 4 to 8 show per stage per season – and very few of those are by Orange County playwrights. In total, Stages has produced over 400 shows in its 28 years.

But it was also more than that. While there have been theaters in Orange County launched with a tightly-knit core that stayed together for years, no theater that I know of (and I covered OC theater for 25 years with OC Weekly) was part of the larger theater community and created a community of its own like Stages.

Its closing in September, whether temporary or permanent, signals an end to that home. Whether people, some of whom have worked at Stages for more than 20 years, find a new one, is anybody’s guess.

But it’s hard to shake that feeling that the community it created, that sense of an extended family, will not remain intact.

“Stages was never about a building. It was about the people who came through there,” says Terry McNichol, one of the original Stages members and the co-creator of Crossroads, Kojac’s first company in Los Angeles.

That isn’t unique to Stages, nor is it unique for any enterprise involving people in their 20s to grow together or to slowly grow apart. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone involved in those early years, or who have climbed aboard at any point and never really left, who doesn’t mourn the loss of Stages’ physical space as a personal, rather than purely artistic, loss.

“Stages closing down is like the death of a friend to me,” says Mitch Faris, who started attending shows in 1994 and then began acting and writing, and served on its first board. “I’m grieving.”

Kojac’s Vision

Kojac started Stages as a closed company. He was more interested in launching a production workshop that focused on developing artists rather than a theater that relied solely on ticket sales. Members paid dues and they were required to work on all aspects of production, from painting sets to acting. The first season included 26 members, most of whom worked with Kojac’s two previous companies, or had a Fullerton college connection where Kojac was first exposed to theater in the mid-1980s. The following season, the company swelled to 56 members.

“I knew I was on onto something then,” Kojac recalls.

Photo courtesy of Stages Theatre

“Tea for the General”: 1995 season

Some of those members stuck around a season or two, some never left. But regardless of individual paths, they contributed to the organic nature of the company, one that Kojac thinks eventually grew into something that had a life of its own. And that collective life, or story, was spawned by the individual stories of its members.

Over the years, people met, fell in love, broke up, got married, got divorced, got remarried – sometimes to other company members who had split up with other members. Some lived in the theater, some battled sobriety. They celebrated the births of children, mourned their personal losses and collective ones.

No one’s personal trajectory typified Stages’ as much as Kojac’s. Though he founded and led it for half of its life, he’s the first to admit that Stages was never his alone. In fact, four members of the seven person board of Stages as of September were members from its earliest days: Amanda DeMaio, Patti Cumby, Jon Gaw and Mo Arii. And then there is April Skinner, the current “den mother” of the group. You couldn’t walk in the theater as an audience member or actor and not run into her. She’s been involved with the theater for the past 15 years.

Kojac first stepped away as artistic director in 2001, shortly after the move to Fullerton, but remained involved. He returned as artistic director in 2004 and lasted five more years before stepping away again, this time on slightly more strained terms. He hasn’t performed with Stages or served in even an advisory capacity since then. (He has developed a relationship with the Maverick Theater in Fullerton, a theater run by another original member of Stages, Brian Newell).

But although others played a bigger role in the theater’s move to nonprofit status, such as Patrick Gwaltney, who was artistic director between Kojac’s two stints, and during its post-Kojac later years, you can’t write a history of Stages without prominently mentioning Kojac.

“Stages wouldn’t have been what it was, or what it continued to be without Brian Kojac,” Cumby said.

Pre-Stages: The Influence of Fullerton College

And you can’t write a history about Brian Kojac, or most of Stages’ original members, without mentioning Fullerton College.

In a span of 18 months around 1980, three new faculty members were hired by the Fullerton College theater department: Tom Blank, Gary Krinke and Bob Jensen. They joined Todd Glen, who had been with the department for 20 years but who had “been relegated to the shop for the most part and he wanted to branch out,” Jensen recalls. “So, the three of us had all this new energy and with Todd, we were just on fire. It was an amazing time.”

Among the things they implemented was a workshop class, in which students directed plays and were involved in every aspect, from painting and building sets to acting or working the light board. “They were so involved in everything and that just built a sense of camaraderie and healthy competition,” Jensen recalls.

“They ran it. Basically, we handed them the keys and said, ‘as long as you don’t burn down the place, have at it.’”

Jon Gaw in a production at Stages Theatre. Gaw is a long-time member of the theater and a current board member.

It was an exciting nurturing environment where students learned the art of theater, but also its craft. But there was a problem. As a community college, Fullerton College is designed to be a two-year school. But many students stayed far longer. (McNichol said he was involved for 10 years). As much as the faculty loved having them around, there was always a push-pull between keeping them engaged and having them move on.

Creating a Creative Space Beyond School

The problem was, for those students who were not interested in transferring to a four-year school but who still wanted to work in theater, there was nowhere to take that next step.

A handful of storefront theaters had popped up around 1990 and more would follow Stages (for the best look at the rise and fall of the OC storefront theater movement, see Eric Eberwein’s piece). But Kojac said: “None of them were doing theater the way I wanted to. I knew people at FC who were writing plays. Why was there no place they could (continue developing if they) didn’t want to transfer to a four-year school?”

So Kojac started Stages largely to provide that opportunity, and he leaned on what he had learned at Fullerton College.

“They never said no to someone with an idea,” Kojac recalls of the faculty, “and that’s what I wanted to do: to allow (company members) to develop the way they wanted, without anyone in the way, including me. If someone had that fire in (their) eye, it didn’t matter if I liked the idea or not. It was part of their growth. Plus, having a closed company, we were all there to pick each other up. If someone did take a chance and failed, there were people around to support them in a positive way. Besides, people were jumping into so many shows and working on them, there wasn’t any time (to dwell on failure.)”

The bulk of Stages’ plays in Anaheim were originals. That slowed down after the move to their Fullerton space and the need to schedule more familiar programming became a financial reality with higher rent. But the theater’s commitment to new plays remained strong up until its March closing.

That sense of giving opportunities to writers, as well as directors, actors and anyone else, is what DeMaio thinks will be the biggest loss of Stages, whether short-term or long-term.

“I’m not sure of any theater where people can walk off the street and get that opportunity,” she says.

Moving onto Another ‘Stage’

Kojac decided on the name Stages not in terms of the physical playing area, but because “it was my third stage in starting a company and since people go through stages in their own lives, I thought it made sense,” he said.

The progression of Stages’ stages causes Kojac to look back on its history and describe it as “almost having a life of its own.” He says the six years in Anaheim resembled the journey from infancy to young adult. From birthing a baby in year one, getting the baby on its feet and teaching it how not to break things in years two and three. The third and fourth years were like adolescence, slowly evolving into its own person figuring out what works and doesn’t, and years five and six were its teenage years, bonding with others, forging long-lasting relationships, challenging themselves.

And then the move to Fullerton.

“Well, now mom and dad have kicked you out of the basement and you have to face reality,” he said. “You’ve got bills, responsibilities. Maybe people are more cautious.”

One stage Stages never got to, Kojac believes, is one that many theaters, unfortunately, do. “I’ve been in theaters and you can just smell how tired it is. The place is tired, the actors are tired. The plays are tired. You just know what you’re going to get. But I don’t think Stages ever got to that old age. It still had life, and the virus just took it out. But then maybe it’s a good thing it didn’t live to show its age.”

Whether this is the latest, or last stage in Stages’ life is unknown. What is known is that for the first time in 28 years, a theater that provided a sense of creative home to so many is dark.

Or is it? Leave it up to a writer to sound that chord. Shortly after the announcement that Stages was closing, William Mittler, the most prolific of Stages’ writers in its early years, wrote an eloquent piece about what it meant for him:

“My time with Stages was less than 10 years of my life, but Stages has been part of my life for 30 years… Everyone I have loved for the last 30 years I worked with at Stages, including my wife. I look at the original company photos and realize how many of us are still doing theatre. Mainly because of our time at Stages. I miss those nights of sitting up late after a show and drinking slowly and relaxing with multiple people, where sexuality and boundaries [faded] and we just became artists sharing our souls and dreams. Holding each other, listening to each other, being with each other, in the moment. Ultimately, I realize that was the community we made. Not one of art, or family or fellow writers or actors but a community that is forever in that moment. That we can all draw on when needed. That exists. That will always exist.”

Joel Beers is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].

Disclaimer: Writer Beers is also a playwright and had eight of his plays produced at Stages between 1998-2005.