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A lot can happen to a place over 245 years, and the Mission San Juan Capistrano is no exception. But amid the swallows and sanctification, the conversions and catastrophe, the 1812 earthquake that nearly leveled it, the years of neglect when Anglo California wanted nothing to do with it, its embracing in the early 20th century by Anglo civic boosters as a way to sell the California myth, the rise of the auto tourist and the beginnings of the painstaking efforts to preserve it, the festivals, weddings, gatherings, and the countless numbers who have worshipped in the chapel or merely strolled through its lush 10 acres of gardens, there is one thing that OC’s oldest cultural institution has lacked:

Live theater. 

But that changed Thursday night, as one of the county’s most prolific live arts producers, South Coast Repertory, returns to live, fully produced theater with a production of José Cruz González’s “American Mariachi” which will perform in repertory over the next three weeks with the family-friendly musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

The firsts don’t stop with the mission hosting its first full-fledged professional theater production. The twin bill, which SCR is calling Outside SCR, is both the first play the 57-year-old theater has mounted outside Costa Mesa since moving there from Newport Beach in 1967 – and the first time SCR has ever mounted a show outdoors.

And while all the credit goes to two entities with their own mission, audience base and ways of doing things agreeing to surrender a touch of control in order to make this happen, there is a third component to this partnership that both could have done without.

“I did have the idea that we would do something like this” previously to the pandemic, SCR artistic director David Ivers said, “but the gift of COVID accelerated it and made it possible.” And not since the ancient Greeks gave a big wooden horse to the Trojans has the word “gift” been so filled with irony.

Engaging the Community by Embedding in that Community

For Ivers, who this September will be starting his third season as SCR head but who will have to wait at least another year before seeing a whole season he has curated be actualized,  the production is a giant stride toward something he vowed to accomplish when hired in September 2018: to foster relationships with the greater OC community. Staging two shows 33 miles from SCR’s comfortable digs, at a venue so recognizable yet untapped theatrically, does just that, and it’s a way to return to live performance that is safe and manageable.

But first he had to convince SCR’s board.

“When COVID hit and I was having many a sleepless night, I realized that it was an opportunity to move” toward that community engagement vision, said Ivers, who christened the performances as Outside SCR. “It was a chance to literalize that vision .… It’s SCR outside, but it’s just not outdoors. It’s also moving beyond ourselves. Let’s partner and embed ourselves in the community .… It’s a way to help SCR grow, to embrace the community that surrounds us and lift us up in a joyful way for the staff, the artists and all who intersect with us.”

But Ivers admits there’s a bottom-line sensibility to the partnership. Pre-pandemic, the mission attracted about 300,00 visitors a year, not to mention the 57,000 K-12 kids who visited on field trips. While there is bound to be some audience overlap between the two institutions, that’s a lot of people whose awareness of one of America’s premier regional theaters could be heightened.

“So totally, there is a business strategy,” Ivers said. “But it’s a strategy driven from the heart. It’s all about finding the possible ways we can provide access and to promote awareness of the cultural exchange that our work provides.

“The days of any (arts) organization just sitting back and waiting for people to come to it are over. We need to be a vital member of the community, giving back and investing and going that extra mile.”

The idea of producing a show off-site was percolating long before the pandemic, Ivers said. But after the first few dark and confusing weeks of the pandemic last spring, that idea began crystallizing. In May 2020, Ivers decided to take his idea to the decision-makers.

“I approached (SCR managing director) Paula Tomei and the board and said, ‘I have a title, I have the vision,’ and I think these were my exact words, but I said, ‘if we fail we will fail with a clear understanding of why we tried. And why we tried was to join and to gather for live theater safely outdoors, and to bind the community together to commune again. So, if we fail, people will get it, and if we succeed, it is my great hope that it would become tradition.”

The board leaped at the idea, Ivers said. Now he had a name and some ideas for what to produce. But a venue had to be found. Ivers and Tomei drew up a short list which included the mission.

A Spanish Flu Connection?

Around the same time, the Mission San Juan Capistrano was planning on reopening after shutting down for three months, starting in March 2021. But executive director Mechelle Lawrence Adams was optimistic that with summer approaching, the worst was past. Opening the grounds to the public was the first step, and Adams, who was hired 17 years ago, started thinking of programming that would be reverent toward a historically and spiritually significant site, but also accessible.

“I have a daughter in theater, and I was thinking we have the Swallows Festival, and terrific Christmas programming and museum exhibits, a lot in arts and culture, but not theater,” Adams said. “What could we do?”

Adams said while live theater hadn’t been produced at the mission in anybody’s lifetime that she talked to, there may have been precedent: the Capistrano Pageant, an outdoor staged production she’d long heard rumors about. Those rumors felt more believable about two years ago when she learned about a program for the pageant housed at the archives of the Mission San Gabriel.

The rumors felt downright eerie when the pandemic struck. The first year of the pageant was 1920, the same year the Spanish flu epidemic officially ended after nearly two years of decimating the world.

“I haven’t made that link” of the Capistrano Pageant being inspired directly by the earlier pandemic, she said. “But the 1920s were a time of revival and coming out of the Spanish flu and coming together. The timing is interesting. I don’t know why it didn’t continue. Maybe the Great Depression. But it made me realize that while (theater) might be new to us, it may not be new for the venue.”

The mission reopened (for the first time) in mid-June last year. That’s also when Adams received a call from SCR’s Tomei asking if she could give her a tour of the mission. The two serve on the board of Arts OC, and Adams thought Tomei was just asking as a colleague.

But in the back of her head, Adams was thinking of a possible theater connection.

When Tomei showed up with Ivers, Adams said she casually mentioned, “Hey, would you want to do some outdoor theater here?” Tomei replied, according to Adams, something along the lines of, “Oh my gosh, that’s why we’re here.”

While both parties were keen on the idea, there were a lot of hurdles to get past, including the uncertainty of the pandemic and whether a large outdoor gathering could even be held among them.

And both sides needed guarantees. Adams said as a steward and preservationist of a historic site, she needed to be assured the site “would be protected and anything we did would be respectful and serve arts and culture.”

Quality Not Compromised

For SCR, Ivers wanted to be sure that the two productions he’d already chosen would not feel like placeholders, something to appease audiences before “real” shows would begin. That’s not why he picked them.

González’s “American Mariachi” was a play he has produced twice in 2019: once during his final days as head of the Arizona Theater Company, and again as the first play of SCR’s 2019-20 season.

It’s the story of a young woman caring for her dementia-addled mother who decides to start an all-girl mariachi band in the 1970s, when there were no all-girl mariachi bands. It was both an audience pleaser and a play with serious overtones, but infused with the exuberance of mariachi music; and mariachi music just seemed to make sense at the mission considering that shortly after taking the helm in 2005, Adams rolled the dice with a new festival: Battle of the Mariachi, which was staged for 15 years, until the pandemic forced its cancellation this year and last.

The Charlie Brown musical also made sense, as Ivers knew mounting a show outdoors lends itself to a more relaxed, multi-generational audience than a more formal indoor show, and who doesn’t love the crew of Peanuts?

Also, Ivers said, both shows share a connection.

“Both shows for me, fundamentally, in terms of theme speak of resilience and triumph,” he said, “of celebrating the underdog,  seeing the unseen, whether it’s women in the mariachi tradition, or Charlie Brown trying to find his place…both seem fitting (since the pandemic) has required all us to be resilient and to rise” above it.

But he was determined that, as the first fully produced SCR shows in nearly 18 months, the shows could be staged without compromising quality.

“It was going to be a huge lift, if we’re going to do it, we have to do with all the signature identifiers of a major LORT theater,” Ivers said. “It had to look and sound absolutely” solid.

The Container

Part of achieving that is what set designer Efren Delgadillo Jr. calls “the container.” It’s the temporary stage that has been built on the mission’s grounds. It’s a 32-feet wide, 20-feet long and 14-foot tall structure with a lighting truss atop. He and lighting designer Lonnie Alcaraz, who co-designed the stage, said their goal was to “make everything look like an extension of the mission. The goal is to clone the mission face, all the textures of the stone and wood. But it’s also very theatrical using a kind of material that allows light to come through. We’re embracing being here, not hiding from it. It’s not a typical rock ‘n’ roll stage.”

Adams says from her end, the container blends seamlessly in with the existing mission.

“We’ve had thousands of guests every week and none of them have expressed any questions about ‘what is that? Wow, what’s happening?’…. So, I think we’re doing something that is … supporting the human spirit. People are optimistic. It’s something new and old. We still get to revere the historical mission, but also to give access to” those who want to be entertained beneath the stars, she said.

After first discussing the project more than a year ago, Adams often wondered if the two entities could actually pull it off. But she said she has been “surprised and shocked at the momentum of the past few months. Everything’s coming together — good weather, the vaccine reducing the cases, meaning the masks can go away.  I think we’ll all be very thrilled once opening night comes.

“It’s just a joy to me, after this hard, difficult chapter, to see this team (coalesce).”

She also hopes other nonprofits take the cue.

This is a time for nonprofits to get creative,” Adams said. “COVID caused so much devastation to the finances of everyone: museums, aquariums, historical landmarks. And it’s up to that community to rise again and find partners. It’s not a time to sell out and do something that you would never do, but it is a time to forge relationships and see if one and one equal three. 

“SCR can do theater, and we can still aim toward our mission. But working together, can we create something that alone we wouldn’t have been able to do ourselves?”

This weekend is one of many firsts, not the smallest of which is the first teaming of two Orange County entities that both tell stories, although in much different ways. The story of the mission is the mission itself, its history, structure, artifacts. For SCR, every play it produces is a story.

But the stories that most connect are those that tell, remind, or even caution us about who we are and how we got here. And while those stories can be experienced on all sorts of  pages and screens, both the mission and SCR are in the business of telling three-dimensional live stories. And that means both are in the business of preservation.  Not of restoring something to past glory or a static reproduction in some museum case,  but of an idea, one already threatened in a digital world and after this forced turn toward the virtual, who knows how it will fare: The idea that a live, shared experience matters because the way that experience is being shared matters.

“Preservation isn’t just conservation, it’s also the idea that something is important to save,” Adams said. “To create relevance in people’s hearts. And that can come through publications, or public programming that drives more respect for indigenous peoples, or to acknowledge people and diversity and history and the changes and challenges that come with that. Or for a little kid to sit beneath the stars and enjoy a play with their grandparent. This is another opportunity to raise that awareness.”

Joel Beers is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at jobeers@hotmail.com.

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