This Friday, a few minutes after 8 p.m., a seated audience inside a big space in a moderately sized mixed office and industrial park in east Anaheim will watch the lights fade and then pop back up as the opening minutes begin of the first live theater production in 16 months to be staged by the Chance Theater.

Edges,” a musical by the same creative team behind “Dear Evan Hansen,” won’t be the first production by an Orange County theater since the temporary stay-at-home order of March 2020 turned anything but temporary. Local theater, and those who love theater, like the OC Theater Guild, have offered a fair share of virtual roundtables, discussions, group therapy sessions and other ways to stay connected to their audiences, and each other,  during the pandemic.  And some have presented more traditional theater fare, such as filmed staged readings, virtual productions and panel discussions about the state of OC theater.

Nor will this be the first live fully staged theater production with an audience. The Maverick Theater in Fullerton cracked that seal back in October with its Halloween show “Night of the Living Dead,” albeit a show that was offered outdoors, limited to six spectators at a time and followed full safety protocols

It also won’t be the first musical. One More Productions, the theater entity inside the city of Garden Grove’s Gem Theatre, re-opened to live audiences April 22 with a reprise of “Always…Patsy Cline.”

Hell, it won’t even be the first play in which the audience doesn’t have to wear masks or gather in small pods six feet from other clusters. The aforementioned Maverick’s production of “The Crucible,” which opened June 25 and closes Aug. 1, holds that distinction.

What Else is Opening This Summer and Fall in Orange County?

Dates reflect the first performance. Click on the theater name to find the dates and times for the full run of each show.

July 9: “Greetings,” “Murder with Absolution,” “The Underpants,” The Newport Theatre Arts Center, Newport Beach. Live, staged readings held over the next three weekends.

July 9: “The Music Man,” Rose Center Theatre, Westminster

July 15: “American Mariachi,” South Coast Repertory, at Mission San Juan Capistrano

July 16: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” South Coast Repertory, at Mission San Juan Capistrano 

July 17: “The Foreigner,” Stage Door Repertory Theatre, Anaheim

July 24: “The Alice Experience,” Rose Center Theatre, Westminster

July 24: “Ordinary Days,” The Wayward Artist, Santa Ana. Presented virtually; may be streamed online or viewed as part of a drive-in experience (in collaboration with The Frida Cinema) on a four-story parking structure in Tustin. Go here for more info.

July 31: “Discoveries,” The Orange County Playwrights Alliance, Newport Beach

August: “Bash,” The Bold Theatre, Los Alamitos. There is no specific date listed on the website, but this is the debut play by a new theater company based in Los Alamitos. 

Aug. 6: “Murder Runs in the Family,” Westminster Community Playhouse, Wesminster

Aug. 13: “King Kong,” The Maverick Theater, Fullerton

Aug. 28: “Bright Star,” Stage Door Repertory Theatre, Anaheim 

Sept. 14: “The Old Man and the Moon,” The Electric Company Theatre, Fullerton 

Sept. 17: “The Light in the Piazza,” Cabrillo Playhouse, San Clemente

Oct. 1: “Night of the Living Dead,” The Maverick Theater, Fullerton

Oct. 3: “A Chorus Line,” One More Productions, Garden Grove 

Oct. 22: “The Real Desperate Zombies Bite the Big Apple,” Stage Door Repertory Theatre, Anaheim

Nov. 20: “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” The Maverick Theater, Fullerton

Nov. 20: “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Stage Door Repertory Theatre, Anaheim 

So considering all that, the Chance opening for previews this Friday is no big deal, right? Sure, if this were a race, but anyone involved with local theater will tell you that the past 16 months has been an endurance marathon filled with false starts and sudden detours, one where not only was there no clear finishing line in sight, no one knew the route to get there even if there was one.

Special Significance to Chance Re-opening

Any producing entity returning to live performance is significant, but the Chance’s re-opening has a special significance because no other theater this side of South Coast Repertory had as much to lose — no other theater is as big or does as much as the Chance. 

Every theater mounts productions and fills the gaps in between with one-nighters and special events, but the Chance’s community outreach programs for teens, veterans and those on the autism spectrum; its play development program of readings and workshops; its acting, directing, design and playwriting classes; its position as both the county’s longest-running storefront theater and its deep ties to not only O.C. theater but also Los Angeles, and the fact that is one of only three theaters in the county with its own space that isn’t either partially subsidized by a civic or higher education organization, makes the Chance unique.

During the pandemic, the Chance mounted two virtual productions (including its current virtual production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Sweat”), and launched several online initiatives to keep its artists working and staying connected to its audience. But, live performance is what prompted a handful of friends to form a company in the waning years of the 20th century, and live performance is what sustained it during its first wobbly years and allowed it to grow and triple in size to its current 6,000-square-foot theater complex that includes a 99-seat theater, a 49-seat theater, classrooms and a scene shop.

So when Casey Long, the theater’s managing director who has been with the Chance every step of its journey, walks onto the 99-seat Cripe stage Friday to deliver his customary welcome rap to patrons, one that he has voiced hundreds of times over the past 21 years, it’s going to feel anything but routine.

“It’s going to be thrilling and stressful,” says Long. “There has been a lot to do, not only with getting a production ready but also making sure everyone will be safe. And it’s been exciting. But mostly, it’s going to be a relief.”

Cautious Optimism

It’s a relief that is also tempered by what Long calls a “cautious optimism,” a feeling stemming from the lived experience the Chance, like all live theaters, endured in those first few grueling months of the pandemic. 

“We went through (such) a rollercoaster for the first five or six months of the shutdown,” Long said. “There were multiple times that the news seemed optimistic and we started to get our hopes up. This is why we delayed announcing the cancellation of shows until the last minute.”

The Chance wrapped up its production of the musical “Fun Home” on March 8 (ironically, that show would turn out to be one of the Chance’s highwater marks; it won an Ovation award for best musical). Five days later, amid panicked runs to grocery stores and foreboding news of the virus spread, the Chance announced it was canceling its next two shows, both of which were in rehearsal. But on March 20, it announced it was going forward with pre-production of its summer musical, “Billy Elliot.”

That was shelved in May, followed by an August announcement that two more shows would be canceled, and finally, a September announcement that the rest of the 2020 season was dead.

In between, the Chance unveiled several virtual community engagement events, and in April of 2020 launched its “Make Them Hear You Fund,” in which several of the Chance’s most generous donors issued a matching challenge that “succeeded in raising enough funds to help us bridge the gap of 2020 while also helping us to prepare for a safe reopening and continue our communicating engagement program,” Long said.

The Chance also hosted a virtual fund-raising gala in late October, that was so well received that it decided to stage a virtual holiday event as a thank you to its donors. But that was also the time the Chance decided it was done with reacting.

Further Cancellations Not an Option

“As the staff was working out the budget for 2021, we decided that we would be doing a full season of shows, regardless of whether they’d be virtual (by necessity) or in-person (as soon as it was safe to do so),” Long said. “We made the commitment that we would not cancel any more productions and our members, subscribers, patrons and artists could be confident that the shows would indeed happen.”

On Nov. 27, six days after California governor Gavin Newsom announced a statewide curfew, and two days before he warned the state was on the verge of another stay-at-home order, the Chance, even though it wouldn’t announce the actual shows until January, began selling subscriptions for its “No Risk. All Chance”  2021 season.

This season, comprised of five shows, launched April 30 with the virtual production of the musical “The Story of My Life.” Meanwhile, in early April, Newsom announced that if the current numbers continued to track down, the state would reopen June 15. That would be five day before the next show of the Chance’s season, “Sweat,” was supposed to open.

The Chance debated whether to make “Sweat” its first live offering, but finally decided that the worst thing possible would be to rehearse and plan for a live show only to have some  last-minute announcement that would force them to cancel. And after a year of forced cancellations, that wasn’t an option, so the decision was made to make “Sweat” virtual and to mount “Edges” as its first live show.

But What About An Audience?

A week before the first preview of “Edges,”  Long said advance tickets sales, while not exactly “like a runaway hit we’ve had in the past,” were “decent.” That makes sense, as even though the state may be ready to re-open, and with it live theater, not every potential audience member is ready.

Elizabeth Curtin and Tyler Marshall in rehearsal for the OC premiere of “Edges” playing July 9 – August 8, 2021 at Chance Theater in Anaheim. Credit: Photo courtesy of Chance Theater

“That’s to be expected,” Long said of any audience wariness. “For the past 15 months, all we’ve heard, ad nauseum, is ‘Stay away from people, wear a mask.’ And now it’s ‘Hey, you don‘t need to wear a mask or (use) hand sanitizer, you can go out and it’s totally fine.’ It’s going to be an adjustment for a while.”

The Chance is following existing state, county and city health mandates. That means full capacity with no social distancing. Those who are not vaccinated must wear appropriate face coverings, and it’s recommended that vaccinated people do as well.

However,  it’s self-attestation, meaning the Chance won’t be requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination.

For those who aren’t yet comfortable with being indoors and stationary for two hours, the Chance is offering fully vaccinated performances July 10, July 15, Aug. 1 and Aug. 7. Tickets must be purchased ahead of time, patrons must show proof of vaccinations and everyone in the audience must wear face coverings.

Long said he realizes that requiring masks of an audience that is also fully vaccinated may seem like overkill to some people. But he’s also aware that to others, the extra level of safety may be what they need to convince them to see a play.

But whether everybody is ready to gather in an enclosed space for a couple of hours surrounded by mostly strangers or not, Long knows there are many who have felt a sizable absence in their lives without live theater. 

He’s one of them.

“I am at most of the performances, whether in the lobby (before the show) or doing the curtain speech (before the play begins) or hosting the (post-show) discussion. I get to see all of our regulars and meet the new people and to have that taken away,” was a big blow to him personally, Long said.

And even though “Edges” wasn’t planned as the Chance’s first return to live theater, Long said the show makes sense. The piece, written by the duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is a song cycle about four twenty-somethings on the edge of so-called “growing up,” grappling with issues like commitment, identity and relationships. Though a coming-to-age story, Long said the characters’ search for meaning and their place in a far more complicated world that they ever could have imagined echoes what many of us may have experienced the past 16 months.

“I think it’s going to be a good welcome back,” he said. “It’s this wonderful, upbeat musical but it also has other songs that are deeper and more surprising … I think it’s also a show about connections and relationships, so in that way it’s a really great show to come back with.”

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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