How many Orange County theater companies have been around for a quarter century and are familiar to parents and children who love live theater, yet have for the most part flown under the radar of not just mainstream theatergoers but also of local media?
Not many. But perhaps this year, the until-now low profile of Phantom Projects Theatre Group is on the verge of changing.
That likely occurrence will come about because this year is Phantom’s 25th season and also because the troupe has its own venue – the La Habra Depot – for the first time in its history.
Like most theater companies, the troupe essentially closed up shop on March 18, 2020. But Steve Cisneros, Phantom’s founder and producing artistic director, reports that a year later, “50 members of Phantom Projects Theatre Group crowded inside La Habra’s City Hall overflow room to watch the city council vote on a five-year agreement for a new manager, operator and programmer of the city-owned, historic La Habra Depot Theatre.”
The resulting unanimous vote of approval kicked open the door for Phantom to begin much-needed restoration work on the aging venue and, in the process, set the table for an inaugural season at the Depot starting in early 2022.
For most of its previous productions, the company was a guest troupe in residence at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, an arrangement that started in 2001 and continues to this day. But in staking a claim to the historic Depot Playhouse, Phantom now has an additional space all to itself. So for the first time, it’s running two seasons concurrently – at its existing, ongoing home in La Mirada, and in its new home in La Habra.
Phantom’s Inaugural Season at Its New Home in La Habra
Feb. 10-27: “Charlotte’s Web”
April 1-16: “Mariachi Girl”
May 13-29: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”
March 4-6: “My Name is Mommy, Orange County premiere
Sept. 9-25: “35 MM”
Oct. 7-16: “Amy and the Orphans”
Nov. 4-13: “26 Pebbles”
Dec. 9-11: “Christmas Bingo: It’s a Ho, Ho, Holy Night”
As one might expect, the company’s move into the Depot has prompted the venue’s name to be tweaked: It’s now being called The Phantom Projects Theatre at La Habra Depot.
The grand red carpet gala was held on Saturday night, Jan. 29 and featured musical entertainment by singer, songwriter and hip-hopper Aloe Blacc and rapper, songwriter, MC and radio personality Maya Jupiter. The 2022 season, comprised of five mainstage series productions and three more family series shows, was unveiled at the gala.
Phantom is already off to a running start in its new home. “Charlotte’s Web” kicked things off on Feb. 10, followed by the Orange County premiere of “My Name is Mommy” in March and, most recently, “Mariachi Girl,” which ran April 1-16.
Even after a quarter century and thousands of performances, how is it that sizable numbers of Orange County theater devotees still might never have heard of Phantom?
Cisneros said that “it makes total sense.”
“For the past 25 years, our shows have targeted the next generation of theatergoers – teen audiences. This is not a demographic that most theaters seek out. We’re probably one of the most successful theater companies that people have never heard of – unless you’re a teenager, an educator, or a parent of a teen. Then, you’re our biggest fan.”
How This Phantom Materialized
Cisneros started the company at the age of 17. Why? “Because I loved theater, but no one wanted me as an audience member. I couldn’t afford Broadway-style shows, and I didn’t want to see children’s shows. So, I created Phantom Projects Theatre Group.”
The motivating factor and focal concept behind the company, he said, was “to find shows, themes, and topics that spoke to my generation. The first show we did toured to schools. Initially, I invited local educators to come to a staged reading.” The turnout was so overwhelming, Cisneros said, that “we booked a five-month tour of Los Angeles and Orange counties in 1997, our first year.”
Cisneros created Phantom Projects in 1996. Starting off rehearsing in his parents’ two-car garage in La Mirada. He formally launched the troupe in 1997.
During its first decade, Cisneros’ work and efforts were shepherded by Bruce Gevirtzman, who had been his speech and debate coach at La Mirada High School. The duo frequently collaborated on writing new, issue-oriented plays geared toward teenagers for Phantom to create from the ground up. They then took them on the road to what essentially became a circuit of schools throughout Southern California (primarily in Orange and Los Angeles counties).
Phantom’s first production as a new company was written by Gevirtzman. Called “No Way To Treat a Lady,” the play deals with the issues of teen sexuality and the importance of self-control.
Gevirtzman said that as soon as Cisneros had graduated high school, “He asked me if he could take (the play) on the road. He wanted to use it as a launching vehicle for this company that he envisioned. It kind of blossomed from there.”
Gevirtzman’s play kicked off Phantom in 1997, was brought back in 1998, and was produced 10 additional times between 2000 and 2014.
Once Phantom was up and running, Gevirtzman and Cisneros began teaming up on a handful of additional dramas such as the 2006-2007 Phantom show “Through These Eyes,” depicting how teens struggle with self-image and eating disorders. All are original plays meant to help teens navigate various issues and each was given its world premiere through Cisneros’ theater company.
Before and Since 2001: A World of Difference
The company of the first four years and the one since 2001 differ significantly. Cisneros said that for the first few years, “we’d been pitching national shows, but theaters just were scared of teen audience shows.
“Finally, we had a venue bite, and it all went from there.”
In 2001, the La Mirada-based company came to the attention of Jeff Brown, director of the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
Brown, Cisneros said, supported their efforts to become a resident group at the 1,100-seat theater. During that year, Phantom partnered with the city of La Mirada to become the venue’s resident presenting group. Cisneros said he initially rented the La Mirada facility, covering the troupe’s expenses out of his own pocket.
He said that because they were able to sell out every show and prove that Phantom could be successful, the city of La Mirada began providing funding to produce a four-show season and have access to the theater.
La Mirada also furnished the troupe with office space and a 5,000-square-foot warehouse, both nearby. That same financial arrangement has held ever since and continues to this day.
Phantom’s presence at such a well-known and prestigious theater venue ultimately provided the fuel needed for the fledgling theater company to catch fire and receive recognition beyond Orange County’s borders.
The idea of a teenager carving out a niche of live theater specifically for his peers apparently caught the attention not just of local news outlets like the Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times and KNX, but also of national television networks like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, news outlets Forbes, The Associated Press and the Washington Post, and, Cisneros said, “even TV stations in France and Russia.”
Cisneros said, “The idea that teens were using theater as a teaching tool was, and ultimately still is, not being done on such a scale as what we do.”
Live Theater as a Teaching Tool
As Cisneros puts it, the key was not simply to provide entertainment, but to use live theater as a vehicle through which young audience members could be educated and enlightened. “We’re using the form as a teaching tool,” he said.
To further that aim and to broaden the troupe’s repertoire, Cisneros also began to include what is essentially classic American fare, including “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” – great literary works that have been required high school reading for several generations.
Among the main-stage shows Phantom has produced on multiple occasions are “Mice” and “Mockingbird,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Miracle Worker,” “The Crucible,”
The company’s production history is peppered with general-audience shows which are popular nationwide and frequently seen at community theaters, including “Our Town,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Red Badge of Courage,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Little Women: The Broadway Musical.”
These staples have formed the company’s core curriculum, so to speak – the backbone of works Phantom has been able to return to time and time again, each time exposing hundreds and perhaps thousands of teens to characters, themes and plots that have long been part of our common cultural literacy.
Genesis of the Young Artist Project
Phantom Projects launched its Young Artist Project in the 2006-2007 season (as the Young Artist Workshop) and has held it every year since. Participating performers, ages 16 to 23, have just 14 days from the first day to the day of the performance to perform their own unique production, which gives them complete artistic creativity. The performances, which blend drama, hip-hop, poetry, comedy, film, dance and storytelling, then receive full stagings at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, Phantom’s home base since 2001.
You can get a good idea of the program by taking a look at this YouTube video, a clip from the 2018 Young Artist Project:
Phantom’s tenth anniversary was recognized in a 2007 article in the Register newspaper written by Paul Hodgins, co-founder of Voice of OC’s Arts & Culture section. The article quoted Cisneros as saying that the most valuable gift the company gives to both participants (student actors) and audiences “is that it grants them the confidence to talk about their lives and their problems instead of keeping them bottled up. It makes them realize they’re not alone, and it shows them how they can turn their biggest insecurities into something positive.”
Cisneros asserts that Phantom “has performed for nearly a million audience members throughout the United States through a combination of touring shows that travel to schools, youth groups and theaters throughout the United States, and its full season of shows” at its home base at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
A visit to Phantom’s website reveals the depth and breadth of the company’s activity. Gevirtzman’s bio credits him as the company’s co-creator and co-founder along with being its resident playwright. Danielle Keaton is listed as a Phantom Projects alum and head of the education department, which includes community relations. Phantom also has a resident director, Timothy P. Thorn, a fixture in Orange County theater stretching back to the ‘80s and his work with the (now defunct) L.P. Repertory Dinner Theatre in Tustin.
Cisneros’ own bio references his background in the performing arts and lists career credits that include work with major players like the Nederlander Organization, South Coast Repertory and McCoy-Rigby Entertainment. Perhaps closer to his heart, though, is that in 2017, the Orange County Violence Prevention Coalition bestowed upon him its Ambassador of Peace award for his many years of using theater as a teaching tool for at-risk youth.
Staple Touring Shows and Lesser-Known Phantom Plays
“No Way to Treat a Lady” was Phantom’s first show, initially produced in 1997 and 1998 and reprised essentially every year for a total of a dozen productions, all of which toured area high schools.
In addition to its many original teen-issue plays and stage versions of great literary works, Phantom has developed a lengthy roster of touring staples that includes “The Center of the Universe” (20 productions), “Out, Out, Brief Candle” (nine productions), “Science Show!” (three productions) and “Charlotte’s Web” (six productions, including February 2022).
“The Outsiders,” “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” “The Bluest Eye” and “The Phantom Cabaret” are just a few more of the shows that frequently pop up on Phantom’s season schedules.
While the company has thrived on producing shows familiar to audiences, it has also blazed a parallel track apparently intent upon presenting shows rarely produced, and therefore rarely seen by local theater fans.
Such off-the-beaten-path Phantom productions include “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Batare,” “La Causa: The Accomplishments of Cesar Chavez,” “A Thousand Cranes,” “Number the Stars,” “Gathering Blue,” “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” “MacHomer: The Simpsons do MacBeth starring Rick Miller” and “Afflicted: Daughters of Salem.”
Other Phantom stagings of lesser-known plays include “Bud, Not Buddy,” “The Giver,” “Tradiciones de Oro (2nd Annual Christmas Folklorico Concert),” “Antiguas y Nuevas (Christmas Folklorico Concert)” and “Stuart Little.”
As if this wide-ranging roster of material weren’t enough, Phantom has also had its share of premieres at several levels: Its world premieres include “#The Wall” (2016/17) and “Wonder” (2018/19). “The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1963” was a California premiere in 2013/14, and “The Giver” (2010/2011) and “The Shape of a Girl” (2004/2005) were Southern California premieres.
Cisneros said the troupe launched two shows in 2019 on a national level, bringing them to Washington D.C., Washington state and Wyoming before COVID-19 forced live performances to be put on hold. During that time, in 2020 and 2021, Phantom adopted a digital format for its shows, producing video productions, talk shows and specials through a Netflix-style streaming site.
“The last show we did before the pandemic was ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ which performed at two venues: La Mirada Theatre and the Haugh Center for the Arts. We were in rehearsals for and productions of four shows when everything shuttered.”
Starting Anew in a New Home
Cisneros reports he had “been eyeing the Depot ever since Mysterium took it over about 10 years ago. Suddenly, I read an article that it was theirs and I remember thinking ‘I never knew the Depot was ever up for new management.’ So I began following it ever since then.”
As soon as he learned that Mysterium was giving up the space, he emailed the city to ensure that he’d be notified in case they wanted to find a new group to take use the space.
“The initial conversation started right at the beginning of the pandemic, then went on hold because of the pandemic. The RFP process happened at the end of 2020. In February, March and April of 2021, we met with the various panels and committees and interviews occurred before getting approval from the city’s Community Service Commission and, finally, the city council.”
The 132-seat venue has gotten a facelift of sorts, with new carpeting in the seating area, flooring in the lobby and offices, and paint both inside and out. The renovation also included neighboring train cars that act as performers’ dressing rooms which received new interior flooring.
Cisneros said the renovation process was “something was something the city was very aware of. They are the ones that funded the new carpet, flooring resurface, new flooring in the box office and concessions. We had donors then underwrite the renovation of the concessions office, painting of the lobby area and the new flooring in the dressing rooms. We’re ultimately still recovering from the pandemic. So, our donors and supporters and the city have really all come together to get the theater into shape for a new opening and new launch.”
Robert Ferrier, assistant to the city manager for La Habra, calls the Depot “a space that’s well-loved” and “a jewel of the community,” saying “it’s always nice to reinvest in our community assets.” He said city council members were “very excited by and supportive of Phantom Projects, and pleased with and impressed by its reputation in the arts world. We’re delighted to have Phantom Projects here in La Habra, and it’s good to have community theater back in La Habra.”
New Facility ‘Not a Replacement’ of Phantom’s La Mirada Venue
Cisneros maintains that even with Phantom having moved into a new performing space, the Depot is “not a replacement but an expansion on current operations.”
He said that last fall, the troupe announced its 2021-2022 season that includes not just its current season in La Habra, but a full slate of plays at La Mirada Theatre, national tours of “Charlotte’s Web” and “Teens on Tour,” and a continuation of its ongoing program of taking shows on the road to a network of dozens of Southern California schools.
Phantom’s schedule for the Depot covers a broader range than any typical community theater, with two series of plays – the main stage series and a supplementary “family friendly” series, both of which encompass both musicals and non-musical plays. But a variety of special events is also on the schedule: concerts, comedy, open-mic nights, karaoke, improv nights and so forth, and Cisneros notes that each season includes ASL, sensory friendly and bilingual performances, all of which are designed to increase the accessibility of live theater to members of the community who might otherwise feel excluded.
He notes that “taking over La Habra contains a big element of rebranding. Our teen audience shows remain in La Mirada, and we need audiences to know that when they see us in La Habra, they will find us producing more contemporary works and newer shows. We’re going after theatergoers in a way we haven’t in the past. Shows like ‘35MM’ and ‘Amy and the Orphans’ haven’t been done out here yet, and ‘Christmas Bingo’ stars the co-creator of ‘Late Nite Catechism,’ whom we’re flying out from Chicago for the show’s first-ever California performance.”
Never one to sit on his laurels or cease to grow, Cisneros said that through staffer Danielle Keaton’s efforts, the troupe will expand its educational outreach to the community by offering acting, dancing and vocal classes for all ages – children, adults, and seniors.
Cisneros summed up by saying he has “fond memories of performing at the La Habra Depot as a 12-year-old. Coming back 30 years later – but this time, with the keys to the building – feels very special. We can’t wait to turn this historic venue into a cultural hub for Orange County.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.