2021 Arts Orange County Awards Honorees
When: 5-10 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 19
Where: Samueli Theater, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Tickets: $40 gallery seats on sale online; call for premium seating
Info: artsoc.org or 714-556-5160, ext. 11
Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award Honorees
Laguna Playhouse, Orange County’s oldest theatre company now completing its 100th year
Tom Titus, Arts journalist & 55-year long theatre critic of the Daily Pilot and Times OC
Jonelle Allen, Broadway, film & TV actor and arts educator
Achievement Award for Outstanding Public Art
Flight at Tustin Legacy Murals, LPC West, owner/developer; Rios, architects; City of Tustin; Artists: Shag (Josh Agle), Bunnie Re
Emerging Arts Leader
Maurizzio Hector Pineda, director/curator of S/A. Exhibitions at Santa Ana Arts Collective
Orange County Board of Supervisors, in appreciation of COVID arts relief funding of $5.8 million to the Orange County arts community
One is a Harlem native and groundbreaking Black actress. Another has spent a good chunk of his life sitting in dark rooms surrounded by strangers. One owns or manages commercial and residential real estate across the globe. Another used to ride his bike by the building that now houses the art gallery he runs.
But whether transplants, natives or returnees to Orange County, or whether they do lots of business here or are entrusted with the obligation of administering it, there is one connection that the six quite different recipients of the 2021 OC Arts awards share: They have all given something to make Orange County a better home for others.
That connection is something every recipient of these awards has shared since its inception in 2000. But this year, after nearly 18 months of venues being shuttered and artists and patrons mostly denied the interpersonal connections that make a community possible, the notion of home seems to have more resonance. The 21st Orange County Arts Awards, sponsored by Arts Orange County (the county’s nonprofit arts council), will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 19, at Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, in Costa Mesa.
The parts the awards honorees play are all different, but the stage they perform their work upon is this county.
Laguna Playhouse Has Been a Constant Presence For Over 100 Years
Considering it’s receiving one of the three lifetime contribution or achievement awards this year, and that it celebrated its 100th birthday in 2020, one might be inclined to think that the Laguna Playhouse is being celebrated for surviving for so long.
And one would be right.
“I do believe the playhouse is being recognized for 100 (now 101!) years of operation,” said Ellen Richard, hired as the playhouse’s executive director in 2016. “This is rare in the American theater. This is thanks to the thousands of people over the decades who worked hard and believed it was important to have a theater company in Laguna Beach.”
Richard is correct. Theaters don’t last that long in this country. Sometimes the buildings do, but the animating collective spirit that fills any performing arts space is hard to sustain. People come, people go; new regimes take over, and some stick, some don’t; age tempers ambition and energy; new blood doesn’t oxygenate older cells as readily; things slow down and everything, including the audience, gets older. Theaters die.
But something funny happened on the way to theatrical obsolescence for the Laguna Playhouse, which is where it felt like it was heading for a few years after the Great Recession. For most of its existence, the playhouse was a community (read: amateur) theater, albeit one of the more successful in the country thanks in no small part to those thousands of people Richard alluded to. But hints of it fully professionalizing became a reality under the reins of Andrew Barnicle and Richard Stein (who is currently executive director of ArtsOC). They led it into the big leagues in the early 1990s.
Professionalizing Playhouse Meets Great Recession
Barnicle and Stein built on the momentum of former artistic director Douglas Rowe, landed an agreement with actor’s equity allowing union actors to perform in their shows. They also had the benefit of working a permanent 420-seat theater, built in 1969. The combination of these components made the playhouse fully professional.
Over the years, fundraising increased exponentially under their leadership with donations going from $20,000 in 1990 to $2 million in 2007. The theater also expanded into summer programming, launched a youth theater program and attracted bigger names, such as Julie Harris who starred in a 2000 production of “The Belle of Amherst” in 2000, which went on to a 40-U.S. city tour.
But Stein and Barnicle both stepped down just before and after the Great Recession hit. The playhouse cut its original productions way back and focused on presenting mostly small jukebox musicals and one-person shows, like Val Kilmer doing Mark Twain (yes, you read that right).
On the Rebound
But in 2012, Ann E. Wareham, who had worked as an associate producer at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles for 30 years, was named artistic director, and the playhouse slowly began rebounding. That rebound escalated after Richard, who had been executive director at the Second Stage Theatre in New York City and American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, came aboard.
She said what she saw was an economic reaction to a shrinking audience manifesting in reduced original programming. She then tried to convince the board that it needed to invest in its own shows and that the audience would follow. One of its trustees, Lisa Hale, then gave the playhouse a “substantial multi-year gift which enabled us to produce bigger shows and take some chances on programming that was a bit less traditional,” Richard said, listing shows like “Clybourne Park,” “Heisenberg,” “Blues in the Night” and “Yoga Play,” as examples.
Subscriptions to the playhouse increased 66 percent, and Richard feels the renewed audience support played a major factor in “helping us sustain the COVID shutdown. We were able to enter the pandemic from a position of strength.”
That pandemic may have momentarily stopped the momentum, but Richard is confident that when the Playhouse resumes full productions again (its first live indoor production since March 2020 was Sunday, Oct. 17), it will pick up where it left off. A large reason for that, she said, is that while the playhouse couldn’t perform in front of live audiences, the work never stopped.
“I have never worked as hard in my career as I have during the COVID shutdown and the period leading up to the shutdown,” she said. “I know that anyone leading an institutional theater would agree with me. Navigating the move to working from home, losing and replacing valued members of the staff, communicating with our donors and audience, learning how to produce theater and education virtually, and planning a reopening that would be safe and economically feasible have all been new challenges.”
And while Richard gives props to the Playhouse’s donors, she is also grateful to “the once in a century extraordinary government support. Our field would have been decimated without the federal support so many of us received.”
So while this award is a testament to all the work that the Laguna Playhouse has done for 100 years, Richard said don’t be surprised if a theater that was founded after one pandemic doesn’t flourish after another one ends.
“The Playhouse began after the pandemic of (1918) and was able to grow and thrive for nearly 100 years before we had to close temporarily,” she said. “I am hoping that it is a good omen that we are reopening after the COVID pandemic. Perhaps this will find the playhouse celebrating 200 years!”
Tom Titus’ 55-year Tour of Duty
It’s fitting that Tom Titus began as a recovering sportswriter, because he’ll appreciate being called the Lou Gehrig of Orange County journalism. For just as the legendary New York Yankee first baseman never missed a game during his then-record 2,130 consecutive game playing streak, as a reporter and contributor to the Daily Pilot newspaper (an Orange County-based community publication of the Los Angeles Times), Titus compiled his own impressive streak:
He never missed reviewing a play at South Coast Repertory since its first production in its own space in March 1965.
Well, OK, he missed one. But give him a break. It took Gehrig 15 years to compile his streak; Titus was working on 41 years when a two-week bout with pneumonia laid him up in 2006. But he got his son to fill in for him as theater critic. He still wound up seeing the play later in the run.
Titus covered a great deal more than SCR in his 55 years with the Pilot. He covered every theater in and around Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, and sometimes included the big theaters in Los Angeles. He estimates he’s written about 5,500 reviews.
Titus’ contributions to the OC arts scene didn’t end with his chronicling; he was also an actor and director in many local productions, and he helped launch the Irvine Community Theater and served as its artistic director for 31 years.
The Laguna Playhouse served as his bookends. His first review for the the Daily Pilot was 1964 when he reviewed “A Thousand Clowns.” His last came in March 2020, the playhouse’s production of Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.”
Unbeknownst to Titus, those would be the last words he would write about OC theater, at least in terms of a review, as a week after it was published, live theater, like all live events, would take an unplanned hiatus.
The longer he went not covering theater, the more time Titus had to reflect on whether he should continue reviewing it. In April of this year he’d made up his mind and announced, in writing of course, that when OC theater eventually did return, he wasn’t coming with it.
Titus’ mind and desire to see theater was still there; but a bad fall in a restaurant in 2016 limited his mobility. While he made do with a cane, he found it getting progressively harder to get in and out of those theater seats.
“Plus, at (age) 83, I figured it was time,” he said.
East to West Coast by Way of Korea
Thus ended a journalistic odyssey that began shortly after he graduated from high school in Corry, Pennsylvania. Titus said he’d known since the age of 13 he wanted to be a writer, and when he learned that the sports editor job was vacant at his hometown paper, he applied. He got it and worked there for four years before enlisting into the military, serving overseas in Korea where, naturally, he worked on his division’s newspaper, the Bayonet.
He finished his four-year stint in the military in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he again worked for the base’s newspaper. But being so close to New York City, and able to pick up deeply discounted tickets via the USO, he also went to the city most weekends and discovered live theater.
“I probably saw 100 shows during that time,” Titus said. It was a time when off-Broadway was taking off and some of the most revered shows in Broadway history were playing, including “My Fair Lady,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “The Sound of Music.”
That turned Titus onto commercial theater, but he still thought of himself as a sports guy. So, after his four years of service were up and he decided to check out California (a high school buddy of his had moved there and had suggested he take a look) and liked it.
He began applying to newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. While he didn’t land a gig at the art deco building on Spring Street, he was offered a job at another Times property, the Daily Pilot, based in Costa Mesa.
He was hired as a general assignment reporter in 1963, but reviewed his first play a year later and, the next year, began focusing on theater primarily. He worked full-time at the Pilot until 1991 and has freelanced since then.
Giving much-needed press to so many theater productions for so long is why Titus is getting this lifetime achievement award. But it still feels odd to him.
“It’s a great honor,” he said. “But because I spent the past 50 years praising the work of other people, to get praised myself is a little strange.”
Of course, not all of those estimated 5,500 reviews were full of praise. Titus has seen his share of clunkers. But he said although he never strayed what he felt was his job to “let the reading audience know what was out there (theatrically) and whether they should see it,” he did try to find something positive to say about every production. Ultimately, reviewing is all about trusting your gut and being honest, he said, and that is what he is proudest about after this 55-year tour of duty.
Jonelle Allen’s National Work Gets Local Dues
Jonelle Allen will be present at Tuesday’s gala to receive one of the three 2021 legacy awards for achievement or contribution to OC arts.
But not because she thinks she deserves the honor. In fact, she said her first reaction upon hearing the news was, “Are you kidding me?” Although she has lived in Laguna Beach for more than 40 years, the work that this Harlem transplant is most known for – like her Tony Award-nominated turn in the 1972 Broadway rock-musical adaptation of “The Two Gentleman of Verona,” and her seven years on the TV show “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman” – had been on New York and Los Angeles theater or sound stages.
“I have never worked at the Laguna Playhouse,” she said, when explaining her surprise that an OC arts organization is giving an actor and dancer an award for contributions or achievement to local art when she’s never even worked at her adopted hometown theater.
But she will be there Tuesday because it’s about her work. Being present in her work, and in her life, is something Allen knows is essential.
She had the talent of being present before she knew what it meant. But her stage partner in the first play she was in, at age 6, sensed it.
“You keep this girl in the theater,” Helen Hayes told Allen’s mother. And if you don’t know who Helen Hayes is, this is a good time to learn.
She had it a decade later when a director was looking for the right people to perform in the first play in his new theater in New York City. That play was “Hair” and the director was Joseph Papp.
She was present the two times she performed in front of a U.S. president. The first time Richard Nixon was in the audience, for a production of “George M,” he enjoyed the show so much he came backstage to meet Allen and the rest of the cast, which included a recent friend of hers named Bernadette Peters.
The second time came in her Tony Award-nominated turn in a rock music adaption of “Two Gentleman of Verona.” It was 1972, the wars in Vietnam and America’s streets were raging, Nixon was in a re-election year, and a song in the first act called “Bring All The Boys Back Home,” had particular resonance. When that song was sung that night, most of the audience joined in, chanting in unison with the cast, creating a “cacophonous din,” Allen said.
She was present the night she heard Martin Luther King Jr. had just been murdered, just minutes before she was to go on stage and wrap her voice around that red, white and blue slice of Americana, “You’re a Grand Old Flag” in “George M,” and though she wanted to run out of the theater and into Times Square and just scream, she also had a job to do, so she walked out on the stage and delivered the song with so much passion and in-your-face defiance because, “It was my country, too.”
And she has been present in the myriad number of plays and TV shows she’s been in since, whether it was the West Coast premiere of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” or an episode of “The Love Boat.”
That includes the most recent ones. Like early last year, when was she cast as a woman dying of cancer in an episode of the Fox primetime drama “9-1-1.” It was a one-day shoot but from the first shot in the morning to the last shot at night, “everyone was so complimentary and nice and lovely,” she said. “One of the actresses told me watching me in this emotional scene was like watching a master class, which was wonderful.”
Her fellow actors were no doubt familiar with the sense memory technique Allen was drawing on to make the scene feel more real to her and for the viewer. It involves drawing on the physical sensations of an emotional traumatic memory, rather than the emotions themselves. What they didn’t know is that the memory she was reliving was the sudden death of her husband in a car crash in Laguna Beach four months earlier. November marks one year since it happened.
And she was also present in her last shoot this summer, a raucous comedy shot in Florida. Allen said she had the cast and crew in stitches, but none of them knew that when not on set, she was dealing with how to get her dying 93-month-old mother on a plane from New York to Los Angeles and how to set up hospice care to take care of her in her final days before she died. Her mother died in Allen’s home in August.
“You are there to do your job,” Allen said of keeping the personal separate from the public. But she knows that sometimes you have to use the personal to get where you need to be in a moment, or a scene. “And sometimes for me that is accessing my sense memory when I need to draw on something. But that is your private inner life. No one else knew and I wasn’t going to tell them. I‘m there to do my job, to be part of my team. And to be there for love and service.”
Love and service are how Allen describes her approach to any performance. It’s something she also emphasizes to her students. She has taught, and occasionally performed, at Saddleback College, UC Irvine and the Orange County School of the Arts. And those students alone are enough to justify her selection as a lifetime achievement or contributor to the Orange County arts community. How impactful to a young aspiring actor, director or writer would it be to take a class from the first Black actress to have a recurring role on a TV Western (the aforementioned “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman”), or who worked with people like Michael J. Fox, Danny Glover and Morgan Freeman on the Emmy Award-winning, but short-lived, “Palmerstown USA,” created by Alex Haley and Norman Lear?
Working with the local colleges also gave Allen a chance to direct and write. Ten years ago in Edinburgh, she performed a one-woman show she co-wrote about the Cotton Club singer and dancer Florence Hill, who, like Allen, was a native of the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem. She’s been working on it ever since. The show has evolved into being as much about Allen’s journey as Hill’s. Allen said there is nothing more she’d like than to be able to develop it further in front of a live audience in Orange County.
So, there’s a strong possibility that this actor who is all about the work will be networking Tuesday night as much as basking in accolades. Because even though she will be receiving an award for lifetime achievement, Allen isn’t done with achievements. Besides, she knows a thing or two about what achievements are most valuable, and why being present is less of a technique or exercise, but more of a gift.
“Waking up every morning and breathing the air is the real lifetime achievement,” she said.
For Maurizzio Hector Pineda, Home is Where the Art Is
It took a while, but Maurizzio Hector Pineda finally made it back to his hometown: Santa Ana. Though born and raised there, he started feeling pulled away around age 16 when he got his driver’s license and began discovering all the diversity that Southern California offered. He went on to study at the Art Institute of San Francisco and then worked as a curator for about 20 years in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County. He also spent time traveling around the world visiting exhibitions.
But last year, he brought all those experiences back to Santa Ana when he agreed to launch and curate S/A. Exhibitions, a 1,000-square-foot storefront gallery on the ground floor of the Santa Ana Arts Collective, an affordable housing residence for working artists and their family. The collective is located about a mile north of the Grand Central Arts Center on Main Street, and Pineda said S/A. Exhibitions is part of the vision to extend the area of the Santa Ana’s Artists’ Village in order to create more “cultural capital,” he said.
“This city has always had a lot of talent and a lot of space, but the question has always been getting the right people to help,” Pineda said.
Pineda said he’s committed to that vision of increasing arts visibility in the area, but that vision has been a bit cloudy considering his gallery opened in June 2020, amid a pandemic that has not yet ended.
But though he’s yet to host an exhibition that hasn’t had some kind of social distancing or other safety protocol in place, the four exhibitions he has pulled off are a clear indication of how Pineda tends to communicate with his surrounding community: showcasing contemporary artists who make social statements with work that is intelligent and provocative, but also accessible.
“It’s hard to find a site that offers multiple points of entry so that no one feels alienated,” he said. “Where anybody can come and take something away from the experience, whether they agree with what the artist is saying or not. That’s what I want this site to be — something where anyone from a high school punk who thinks he knows everything to a collector to a graduate student feels like they belong.”
Part of that is using art to challenge people’s assumptions about what art is, both in terms of experiencing it, but also creating it.
“Yes, people are on the phones looking (at all kinds of art),” he said. “But to have a physical place, a space that is bringing these different ideas and thoughts about art, and how to create it. That’s different. And so is not framing it within the art market. When you walk into this site you don’t see price tags. I feel that’s important. I want this site to show people that experiencing art can be different.That there are many ways to engage with art and culture.”
But that vision took time to percolate in Pineda’s mind.
“Definitely when I was younger, I think my idea of (success in the art world) was that New York status – owning a gallery, sales, wearing Prada suits, those people who already know how to look at art professionally and academically. And while I certainly know how to navigate in that world, the older I grew the more I realized that wasn’t the community I wanted to communicate with.”
But then he was offered a gig at running a gallery in the kind of community he wanted to communicate with: the one he grew up in.
Thus far, the exhibitions have included the abstract paintings by the prolific Christian Spruell, a fellow graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute; “Soldadera,” by the Los Angeles-based Nao Bustamante, which re-imagined the women soldiers of the Mexican Revolution transplanted to a different kind of war circa America 2020; work by Ricardo Rivera, a Fresno City College art professor and conceptual artist whose pieces examine issues of discrimination and social injustice; and the just-closed “NO VENGAN!,” an installation in response to anti-immigration rhetoric, created by Sergio de La Torres, the founder of San Francisco’s Sanctuary City Project, that wrapped the entire building, affording people driving by the chance to experience it.
Pineda cites Rivera’s exhibit as an example of how bringing outside artists to a community can alter people’s ways of looking at art.
“He is a Chicano. but he’s also a professor, an academic, and a conceptual artist,” Pineda said. “I had students come in who looked at the work and they were saying, ‘I can make sculptures like these and it’s valid?’ That to me is why it’s important to bring outside sources to a community, to alter that thinking that the only avenue to be considered a creative is to make a Frida Kahlo portrait … Fortunately I have experienced different forms of how to produce an exhibit and show culture and I wanted to bring that back to my community in Southern California.”
Outstanding Public Art Award Goes to the Murals Adorning Flight at Tustin Legacy
It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a big collective team to get a piece of public art off the ground. At least it did for the art that is the 2021 OC Arts honoree for Outstanding Public Art — the three multi-story murals that adorn the mixed-use office campus of Flight at Tustin Legacy.
The most obvious part of that team are the three creators: the iconic OC/Palm Springs artist Shag (Josh Agle); Los Angeles-based Bunnie Reiss, whose murals, installations and other art can be found from Vancouver to the Philippines; and another Los Angeles-based artist, John Park, who blends classical technique with more urban aesthetics.
Then there’s Mark Montagna and the rest of Rios, the firm you could call the architect, but which is really more of an interdisciplinary design company with architecture as one of the central components. It had to plan for the murals in the original design.
And, of course, there is the city of Tustin, which had a slight interest considering all but a sliver in Irvine is located in Tustin.
But none of the aforementioned would have been working on this project, at least in this form, without Parke Miller, executive vice president of Lincoln Property Company West, Flight’s developer. LPCWest (a subsidiary of Lincoln Property Company, a Dallas-based commercial real estate developer) commissioned the artists and made sure that Rios factored them into the design of Flight.
When fully built out, Flight will incorporate about 800,000-square-feet of office space, and will help anchor the bottom left corner of the master-planned development of Tustin Legacy, which was once home to the Marine Corps Air Station, Tustin.
The base officially closed in 1999, but the two massive wooden hangars that tower over this part of the county (basically bounded by John Wayne Airport, the 55 and 5 freeways and the Orange Crush to the south) are still there and visible. For now.
Those hangars finally have some competition. Not in terms of scale; these murals are multi-story, but not the 18 stories of the hangars. But they are much more colorful and pleasant to look at.
Integrating some aspect of art into its developments, whether exterior with murals, or interior with painting a ceiling, is integral to LPC’s culture, Miller said. It’s one in which the buildings it develops are only as strong as the relationships it builds with the community in and around those buildings.
“Real estate is incredibly different community by community,” said Miller, especially for the company he helps lead. “Every project is incredibly personal to both the builder and the people who use it. And the projects that resonate and succeed financially and socially are most often the ones that genuinely and authentically engage with the environment around them.”
Plus, it never hurts to add a speck of artistic beauty to any new building in a county that is dominated by neutral, planned communities.
“Let’s be honest, if you know Orange County, you know that it’s generally, mostly, a sea of commodity office buildings,” Miller said. “There are some wonderful projects that break this mold, but more often than not, limestone, glass and steel are not exactly inspiring.”
Based on a video that includes short interviews with each, the three muralists seem united in inspiring one thing: a lightening of mood for both those who work and live there, as well as who might be stuck in traffic while getting to and from work, because no matter how deconstructed, free-flowing and all-around groovy a work campus might be, it’s still work.
“A hand-painted mural on the side of a wall takes it out of being a completely corporate sort of structured environment and puts it a little bit more into the human,” Shag said. “I want people to look at it and maybe it brightens their day just a little bit, maybe it will make them think a little bit … make them wonder what’s going on, just to engage them. Even if it’s only for a few seconds.”
Reiss said she wants her mural to help people “feel good. That’s all I ever want. (But) that’s a tall order for most people. So hopefully, they’ll just feel good about the environment they’re in.”
Park agrees. “My hope is that when people see this piece it makes them stop and at least feel a little happy and at least feel that they’ve experienced something a little more beautiful in their day than they would normally.”
Orange County Board of Supervisors to Receive a Special Award
Depending on your perch on the political spectrum, the nearly $6 million that the five-member Orange County Board of Supervisors has given to the county’s art community since the pandemic began is either too much, or not enough. But the reality is that the board didn’t have to support local arts financially in any way.
The first round of assistance came from the $75 million left over to the county from its $554 million part of the federal CARES act funding in April 2020. Each district was given one-fifth of that money, or $15 million, to award in grants to eligible small businesses.
But nonprofits, which all but a handful of the county’s art entities are, were not eligible.
But in no small part to the organization that is giving the board its award tomorrow, ArtsOC and its executive director Rick Stein, the board revised that idea when shown the devastating impact the pandemic had already unleashed on arts-related businesses. It made nonprofits eligible for the grants, and about $1 million was eventually distributed.
A bigger disbursement came this April, when the board announced that it was setting aside $5 million solely for arts-related businesses. The money was again divided into five portions, and each supervisorial office would choose how to disperse its portion.
Stein spoke at that meeting, providing the results of ArtsOC’s latest survey of arts groups in the county: $121 in financial losses and more than 2,700 in jobs reduction.
“We are deeply grateful to the Orange County Board of Supervisors for recognizing the need and responding quickly to make these funds available,” Stein said after the board meeting, according to an ArtsOC press release. “Arts organizations were the first businesses to close and will be the last to reopen due to their social gathering nature. Most do not expect to return fully to pre-COVID levels until July 2022. These funds will contribute greatly to their resilience during these difficult times.”
Joel Beers is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.