No one had any idea in March 2020 of what consequences would result from the pandemic. So talking about unintended consequences seems ridiculous.
But it’s safe to say there is one unintended consequence of the pandemic that actually works in favor of local theaters as it could wind up being the most reinvigorating shot in the collective arm of OC theater since, well, maybe ever.
Because even though every theater entity suffered greatly during the pandemic, and while all still must deal with it as the numbers spike, no less than four theater companies have either launched, or rebranded, during the pandemic.
All are at different spots in their development: only two have actual venues; only one has mounted a fully staged production of a produced play; one will mount its first production in the garage of a home in Anaheim, and another in a Mexican restaurant in Tustin.
Each has a different focus, resources and people power (or in the case of one, canine power), but all seem to possess considerable passion, commitment and a game plan. And none of them would be where they are today without the virus that made producing theater all but impossible.
When, or if, we reach a point where gathering indoors doesn’t have to be weighed against CDC and state and local guidelines, the county’s theater scene will emerge from the pandemic with a net gain of one more theater than it started with.
The Attic Theater closed in June 2020; Stages Theatre a couple of months later; and the Mysterium Theatre, which was reported to be moving from La Habra to Orange just before the pandemic, may have dissolved, since, according to the most well-placed observer of local theater, Eric Eberwein, the co-artistic director of the OC-Centric new play festival at Chapman University, the owners have moved to Maine.
The four fledgling companies should help offset some of the sting of losing the county’s longest established storefront theater, Stages, as well as the other two, which logged more than 20 years of combined theater history in the county. In addition, Shakespeare Orange County dissolved shortly before the pandemic started, after a 40-year run. (However, plans are in place to have the bones of Shakespere OC re-emerge in collaboration with summer productions at the New Swan Theater on the UC Irvine campus.)
Here is a look at each of the four new faces in the county’s theater scene.
Bold Theatre, Los Alamitos: On a Mission to Spark Thought and Conversation
Anyone who calls his company Bold Theatre is taking a bold step himself. The name suggests risk-taking, courage, confidence. That’s setting a high bar right out the gate. But John Pistone, the founder of the Bold Theatre (and currently the only face on its creative team page, excluding his dog, Milkshake, whose title is “office companion”), feels he doesn’t have any alternative but to take a big chance, both in terms of launching a theater during a pandemic, and in producing plays that he feels spark urgent and important questions among audience members.
He doesn’t feel he has any other options because he shouldn’t have any options.
You see, Pistone thinks he should be dead, and that he’s not living on borrowed time as much as he’s living on someone’s else’s time. And he owes that person a responsibility to do the work that he is supposed to do.
When Pistone hit age 30, he didn’t start slowing down like so many. Instead, the product of a family with a long history of military service, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
His previous experience in television production afforded him the opportunity to join the U.S. Navy’s elite combat camera unit, which was shuttered in 2018.
In 2005, during a mission in the northern provinces of Iraq, he was documenting a story about women serving as officers in the Kurdish forces of the Iraqi army that garnered attention and his superiors wanted him back in Baghdad to enjoy the accolades.
However, as he was currently “on mission,” his convoy would not be due to return to Baghdad for several weeks.
Pistone’s point of contact in the region was a female American officer, who was nearing the end of her tour of duty. She had a seat on a scheduled helicopter ride leaving for Baghdad the next day. Upon hearing about the reaction Pistone’s story was getting, she generously offered to give Pistone her seat so he could return to Baghdad earlier than planned.
In exchange she took his seat on the military convoy. Pistone’s chopper got him back to Baghdad in good time.
The female American officer never arrived.
Three days after he left, the convoy started to Baghdad and it was ambushed by a suicide bomber and small arms fire. The seat in the Humvee the officer was sitting in took the brunt of the blow from the explosion and she was killed immediately.
That seat was Pistone’s.
Like many returning veterans, Pistone had trouble assimilating to civilian life; but his was compounded by immense guilt. He described his return as “a dark night of the soul,” but the one thing that he said prevented it from becoming a complete eclipse was the realization that “I was breathing someone’s else’s air. And I owed it to her and all my other fallen brothers and sisters in arms to live and tell stories,” he said.
And the best way Pistone knew how to tell stories was the way he’d been doing it since he was cast in his first play at age five: acting. Pistone had acted for most of his life, but after his return from the military he started taking it seriously for the first time.
“I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started working on my craft,” he said, including studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and doing something he’d long wanted: opening his own theater.
He signed a lease on a 37-seat space in an industrial park in Los Alamitos that was the former home of the OC Children’s Theater, and was on his way to opening when the pandemic hit. For a year, like all theater practitioners, he anxiously waited for any clear sign that things would free up to open, and at the beginning of this year, when it seemed that could happen, he wavered between opening or not.
And then in March 2021, he was reminded once again that time can end in a heartbeat, or in his case, a lack of one. He suffered a heart attack. But once again, he didn’t slow down. He knew he had to open as soon as possible. On Aug. 6, the Bold Theatre did just that, its debut production living up to its name: Neil Labute’s “Bash,” which features three dark, harrowing one-acts about infanticide, murder and homophobia, all revealing the shadowy corridors of the human psyche that most choose not to walk down, but which are always there.
Neil Simon it ain’t. But it services Pistone’s aesthetic of mounting plays that spark thought and conversation, even if that conversation is uncomfortable.
“We’re going to stay away from plays that have been done a million times. Our focus is to tell stories that create a conversation afterwards. We believe that is what good theater should do. That’s one of the reasons we chose ‘Bash.’ Not just because it is rarely done, but the topic and themes are relevant. Everyone’s got a dark side. It may not be as dark (as those in the play), but it’s there (and should be faced).”John Pistone
He intends the theater to mount a mix of original and published works, but as a lifelong practitioner and student, of theater, he realizes that not everything needs to uber-serious; following “Bash,” the Bold will produce a comedy, albeit a darkly satirical one, with the important issue of gender identity at its core: Christopher Durang’s “Baby With the Bathwater.”
With the other three new companies still planning their first productions in front of a live audience, Bold Theatre is the only one that has produced a live show so far. For “Bash,” more than 200 actors showed up for auditions; audiences, however, have been a bit more sporadic.
“We haven’t had a sold-out house yet, but we also haven’t had an empty one yet,” Pistone said, acknowledging that he knew the first few shows would be test runs and it might take a while to both get the word out that a new theater is in town and to entice skittish audience members to attend. In fact, Pistone and the board of the theater are contemplating postposing this weekend’s performance out of COVID-related caution.
“We just want everyone to feel safe, and with Orange County not mandating coverings, there are those involved with the show and potential audience members who have concerns, and we need to factor that in,” Pistone said.
But regardless if one weekend, or the rest of the run is canceled, (the show is scheduled to run through Aug. 29), Pistone says he’s in this for the long haul.
“I believe any business has a responsibility it owes to the community” to do everything possible to stick it out, he said. “Especially with theater. People need to know there’s a home to create and to watch stories. So we’re going to stay as long as possible … you always wind up with less time than you thought.”
The Electric Company Theatre, Fullerton: Named the Resident Company at The Muck
For 17 years, Brian Johnson, a longtime high school theater teacher in La Habra and Buena Park, and his wife, business partner and adjunct theater instructor at San Diego University, Callie Prendiville Johnson, have produced more than 200 “high-quality, award-winning theatrical experiences,” Callie Johnson said. They’ve done off-Broadway shows, performances at international fringe festivals, as well as worked in conjunction with the California Humanities Project and oversaw a children’s theater program.
While they have no regrets over the past 17 years, Johnson said that early in the pandemic, the couple took stock of what they had been doing creatively and where they wanted to go.
“When the pandemic hit, like artists around the world, we missed live theater so much in its absence. We had been thinking about pursuing our own theater company for a long time, and suddenly not being able to gather live audiences and performers sharpened that desire. We wrote down a list of what we wanted that theater company to look like in our lives, and we made another list of where we might be able to make that happen.”Callie Prendiville Johnson
The Johnsons formed The Electric Company Theatre (the couple lived on Electric Avenue in La Habra), and began visiting potential venues. One of the first was the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, and after floating the idea to The Muck’s CEO, Farrell Hirsch, their search was over.
Hirsch agreed immediately to collaborating with The Electric Company Theatre by making it The Muck’s resident theater company, Johnson said. Although The Muck has been one of the genuine success stories among Orange County’s cultural entities during the pandemic, and has an amphitheater built for theater, it hasn’t hosted a great deal of theater other than one-night shows or special events. In the past, resident theater companies, including ones from Cal State Fullerton and Fullerton College, have scheduled summer seasons, but there hasn’t been a permanent producing entity in quite a while.
One challenge on the weekends with the amphitheater is sound, specifically sound emanating from weddings elsewhere on The Muck’s grounds. Weddings are a big source of revenue for The Muck and after a year with no weddings, they are back in full swing. As a result, for the time being, The Electric Company will only produce shows on weeknights, Johnson said.
But with that logistical challenge comes an opportunity. Johnson said she is excited about creating site-specific productions, taking advantage of the diverse topography of The Muck. One of those, they hope, will come in 2024, when The Muck will hold its Centennial Celebration.
“We’re very interested in ‘site-specific’ work, allowing the beauty and history of The Muck to inform our work,” she said. “Beyond that, we look forward to growing our ensemble of theater artists who can help us tell electrifying stories and create memorable experiences for our audience., which we also hope to grow!.”
The company’s first event at The Muck, “Light Up the Night,” is Aug. 24, kind of a meet-and-greet where the company will introduce itself, provide a tour of The Muck mansion and grounds and provide sneak peeks of its first two planned plays, “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” which opens in October, and “Shakespeare in Love” which will be presented later in the year.
Johnson said she thinks her company and The Muck’s audiences are a good fit, primarily because “coming out of the pandemic, people have missed communal gatherings and shared experiences,” she said. “We are excited about creating those shared experiences and the magic that comes from witnessing something together. We hope to create experiences that provide our audiences with a range of theatrical work. We are Orange County locals using local artists to create that magic.”
Garage Theatre Ensemble, Anaheim: New Works Will Take Center Stage
Unlike the other three companies that have formed, which were founded by one or two people, four heads make up the brain trust at Garage Theatre Ensemble, and they’re quite familiar with each other. Three of them are recent graduates of the Cal State Fullerton theater department, and for a good part of the pandemic, all four were roommates in the same Anaheim house.
So when the lockdown happened and quarantine kicked in, and each suddenly found that without theater an aspiring theater professional doesn’t have much to aspire to, they turned to each other and asked “now what?”
“We saw how the pandemic had eviscerated live theater and we wanted to do something to bring it back, to give opportunities for artists like us to practice our craft. But how do you do theater when theater doesn’t exist?” said Lizzie McCabe, who is co-artistic director along with Caity Petterson. Matthew Mullin and Tony Sanchez share the managing director title.
None necessarily felt a burning desire to perform. McCabe, Sanchez and Mullin were all theater majors with an emphasis on directing, and Sanchez, who serves as technical director for the Centennial High School drama program, also directs. All of them have helped develop new plays, including working at the annual Fullerton College Director’s Festival, and each has enjoyed the experience of working with playwrights and bringing their vision on the page to life on stage.
Eventually, the four settled on hosting a playwright’s intensive, an accelerated kind of workshop in which a new play is rehearsed for five days, and the writer is encouraged to make as many changes as possible for developmental purposes.
By September of last year, the troupe was ready to put out a call out for submissions; around the same time, the four decided to formally create a company, one that is “heavily geared toward giving emerging artists like ourselves an opportunity to come forward and to be prioritized. We are a new works company. We don’t do published work, just work that has been produced either very little or not at all.”Lizzie McCabe
McCabe said she and her colleagues weren’t expecting much in the way of submissions due to their being a new company with no proven track record.
“We were expecting about 50 or so,” she said.
They received a few more: around 300, from playwrights around the world, including Belgium and Ukraine.
“It just blew us away,” she said. “I guess everybody was at home and had been sitting around waiting for something to happen, and once we put the word out on our website and Instagram, the internet did what the internet does best. People started sharing and we wound up getting so many plays from all ages, genders, backgrounds.”
The four sifted through all the submissions and picked the three that they felt they could work with the best and would most aid in helping the playwright realize their vision.
The first intensive was held in the fall, each of the plays receiving two hours minimum of rehearsal every day for five days, and culminating in a reading followed by notes from theater professionals. A second was held in the spring, and a third is scheduled for later this fall.
Both intensives were conducted online, meaning the ensemble has yet to mount a show before a real audience. That is planned in a few weeks, but it’s a film, not a play. The group adapted one of the submissions not used in the intensive into a film and is currently looking for a venue to screen it.
But when it finally comes time to do something, whether it’s a staged reading or a play, the company knows where it will be done. It all goes back to its name. At the time the company was birthed, all four were living in the same house, and staging something in their three-car garage just seemed to make sense.
“The entire premise of our company is that we eventually intended to use the garage in our house as a theatrical space,” McCabe said.
It’s doubtful they’ll stay in that garage long, as the response for their first intensives showed the four members that there is a place for a theater company that puts the focus on playwrights who aren’t waiting for their big break as much as their first opportunity to be heard.
McCabe also feels that a grassroots company that puts the emphasis on new works by emerging writers is something Orange County audiences need.
“We believe that the world is overdue for a cultural renaissance, and we certainly did not want to miss out on being a part of it,” she said. “Orange County’s demographic is changing along with the rest of the world. We need emerging artists and new works to break through the stagnant nature of the theater scene in O.C. We need grassroots artists creating gritty, impactful, and more importantly accessible theater in order to shift the status quo. We are truly a community theater that makes theater for the community by the community, and that is definitely something worth caring about.”
The Unnamed Theatre Company, Tustin: To Provide a ‘Blank Slate’ for Ideas
The Unnamed Theatre Company, according to founder Veronica Elena Holley, underscores what she envisions for her company – an entity that “isn’t tied down to one artistic point of view, one where we can have a blank state for each production and work up from there.”
Holley studied theater at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, and her goal was to work at a theater, not start her own. But the way Vanguard’s program is set up, each theater major has a focus. In Holley’s case, it was directing and performance. But students are required to work in other aspects of theater, including management. So when it came time to entertain the thought of starting a company, Holley said she was surprised that a concept which seemed unattainable when she first began pondering it during the pandemic, somehow made sense.
And that desire to start her own company was a direct result of the pandemic.
“Honestly, seeing long-established theater companies shutting their doors and not being able to make ends meet called me to action. There is a lot of change going on in the world, our country, our community. And I kept asking myself how can I be a light and bring art and a safe haven to create art? Because without art, really, what are you as a people? If you don’t have culture, can you really be human?”Veronica Elena Holley
“Last fall, I started putting feelers out to my friends on the socials, asking if they’d be interested in a new theater company, and what kind of theater they’d like to see. I officially announced the debut of The Unnamed Theatre Company to the world this month.”
The company’s first production is “The Great Theatre of the World,” a 1634 religious allegory by Pedro Calderón de la Barca (along with theater, Holley is a devout reader of history). It is one of the hundreds of plays, paintings, musical compositions and other art created during the criminally overlooked Spanish Golden Age, the high-water mark of Spanish culture.
The venue on the other hand, won’t have anyone mistaking it for the Teatro Romano De Merida or any of Spain’s majestic performance halls. But it makes up in tasty food what it may lack in performance prestige. Super Antojitos, a family-owned Mexican restaurant in Tustin, will host the production Oct. 8-9 and, yes, dinner is an option.
“Don Chepe Lopez welcomed us to use part of his space for a dinner and a show,” Holley said. “(His) son studied theater, so the Don has a certain appreciation for the theater that we were happy to work with!”
At the moment, she has no concrete plans for a second show, and she’s not in a hurry to start lining one up, or even to think of looking for a space. She’s kind of busy as the primary caregiver for her twin younger brothers, both of whom have autism.
When she is ready to produce a second show, it will most likely be something from the classical canon, whether Shakespeare or another play from a Spanish playwright. Or it may be what she calls devised theater – similar to works created by El Teatro Campesino – where a group of actors and a director bounce ideas off each other, create a play. rehearse it and eventually perform it.
While starting her own theater is a direction that she didn’t anticipate her life taking, Holley believes it’s one she can’t avoid. “The pandemic has taught us that now more than ever, art speaks to our souls, to our humanity,” Holley said. “We as a people are going through a historic time, and we all need to work through these convoluted feelings we’re having about ourselves, each other and our communities at large. We all need to work on our empathy, and theater is the best training ground for that.
“I can’t enact change like our policymakers can, but I can enact change in the hearts of our community.”
Joel Beers is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.