There’s a learning curve to just about any new venture, and launching a theater company is no different. But still, after nearly a year as the resident theater company at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, and in the midst of mounting its fourth and fifth production, you’d think The Electric Company Theatre would be over any new-kid-on-the-block syndrome.
According to Callie Prendiville Johnson, half of The ECT’s brain trust, even though she and partner Brian Johnson have already mounted a full season of shows, including an artistically satisfying debut production (“The Old Man and the Old Moon”), a commercially successful children’s show (“Alice: An Immersive Adventure”), and a one-person show set up by a grant from the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles (“The Jewish Dog”), this week’s opening night performances of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Shakespeare in Love” mark their official “coming out party.”
“It certainly feels like one,” Callie Johnson said, citing two reasons. The first is that these are the first two full-fledged shows picked by The ECT to be performed in the Muck’s outdoor amphitheater. The second is one of the main reasons the two longtime theater practitioners and educators/producers decided to launch their company: the ability to produce shows with a repertory company, meaning they’ll utilize a familiar company of actors in most shows they produce and in the case of these two productions, the same 22 actors will be in each show.
“One of our dear friends is an associate producer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and we’ve been going every summer to Ashland for 12 years and love that environment and watching actors mold themselves into such different characters from night to night,” said Brian Johnson, who directs both Muck shows.
This is also the first show that The ECT will be able to perform on a weekend. One of the challenges with mounting a show in the amphitheater is the Muck’s brisk weekend wedding business during the spring and summer. (Who wants to get married on a weeknight?) So that precludes performing on evenings when a wedding is scheduled, and also makes rehearsing on the stage somewhat problematic. Since no weddings are scheduled for the Fourth of July weekend, both shows will run that weekend, including a day of back-to-back performances on July 2.
The Missing Wall
And this time, the Johnsons, who along with being partners in The ECT are also married, know the wall will be there.
What wall, you ask? The Muck grounds and mansion are located on eight acres of gently sloping hillside in a peaceful, tree-lined residential neighborhood in West Fullerton. But at the base of the hill is Malvern Avenue, which Chapman turns into. It may not be the 405 at rush hour, but it is one of North County’s main east-west arterial roads. Things can get noisy.
At some point, a retaining wall was erected behind the amphitheater as a sound barrier. But when it came time for their first rehearsal on the stage last September, the Johnsons realized something about the wall: It wasn’t there.
Apparently, it had been dismantled by the city (it has since been put back) so the Johnsons “had to get creative,” Callie Johnson said. “We happened to have an 80-foot canopy parachute drop from a previous production.”
It was one example of something both Johnsons have learned quite well some 10 months into launching their own theater company: “When things happen they might seem insurmountable at first, but somehow everything works out,” Callie Johnson said.
How They Got to The Muck
Their company is the latest in a line of theater-producing entities that stretches back to the earliest days of the Muckenthaler as a city of Fullerton-owned cultural center. A few days after the center opened to the public in October 1965, the Fullerton Footlighters opened a production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” perhaps an homage to Adella Kraemer, who along with her husband Walter Muckenthaler, commissioned the building of the 18-room mansion. Kraemer was the great-granddaughter of Bernardo Yorba, holder of one of the original Spanish land grants in Southern California.
She was also the person who announced in late 1964 the family’s wish to donate the estate to the city with the condition that it be a cultural center. For a hot minute, there was even talk about exhibiting a local businessman’s art collection in the mansion. But that businessman wanted a museum, and even offered the city $500,000 as part of a deal to help build it. But the city couldn’t close the deal and Norton Simon would wind up finding a home for his collection in Pasadena.
So instead of Rodin, Picasso and Matisse, Fullerton got Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” and a rock musical based on the life of Carl Sandburg, courtesy of the aforementioned Footlighters. Over the years, many entities have programmed theater at the Muck, including the theater departments of Cal State Fullerton and Fullerton College (which built the current outdoor stage in the early 1990s), professionals like the Grove Theater Center (RIP Charles Johanson), and even three local storefronts, which teamed up in 2004 to produce the highly successful OC Theater Festival (if highly successful means actors got paid). But all those organizations existed before presenting at the Muck. The ECT may be the first entity that started at the Muck.
And even though both Johnsons have ample theater experience (both are longtime high school theater instructors and have produced shows at fringe festivals and other locales), they are learning how challenging running their own theater can be. “We have learned a lot about both ourselves and our company, both what we want and what we don’t want,” Callie Johnson said.
One thing they want is a bigger company. At the moment, it’s a two-person operation and the Johnsons are responsible for everything from picking the shows and wrangling props, to dealing with everyone from school district officials for their children’s weekday matinees of their second show, “Alice: An Immersive Adventure,” to neighbors who might like their quiet time to start when a show might be starting. And, of course, dealing with the city that owns the property.
“There are a lot of players involved and we’re basically a mom-and-pop shop that’s still figuring out our place in all of it,” Callie Johnson said.
Another thing they want is more time, or at least the chance to step away from the cycle of producing theater – once one show goes up it’s time to get working on the next – to focus on community outreach and fundraising. Their deal with the Muck is a split of ticket proceeds, but unless a show draws well, Callie Johnson said it’s a struggle to just break even.
“We just have to keep reminding ourselves to take it step by step and be patient,” she said.
Getting Closer to Their Vision
But it’s not all stress and hard work. They report their relationship with Muck CEO Farrell Hirsch couldn’t be better, audience reception has been “great,” and with these two shows, they get to have fun. Callie Johnson performs in each and Brian Johnson gets to do two of his favorite things as a director: remind people how important theater can be, and make Shakespeare accessible.
“Romeo and Juliet” and “Shakespeare in Love”
Where: Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton
Romeo and Juliet: 7 p.m. June 28, Jul 3 and 5, 4:30 p.m. July 2
Shakespeare in Love: 7:30 p.m. June 27 and 29, July 1, 2, and 6.
Information: electriccompanytheatre.org of (714) 738-6595
Both “Romeo and Juliet” and Lee Halls’ 2014 adaptation of the 1998 film “Shakespeare in Love” were chosen as the first shows in rep for a reason. On a practical level, “we wanted something accessible since we’re still in the process of getting our name out there,” Brian Johnson said. And producing perhaps Shakespeare’s best-known play alongside a second play adapted from a film based on the writing of that play certainly qualifies as accessible.
These pieces also satisfy his artistic vision: Johnson believes in helping people get past the intimidation factor of Shakespeare’s eloquent language and period settings. So when he heard some music that Wesley Chavez, an actor and musician whom the Johnsons have worked with in the past, was working on, Johnson didn’t just want to use it as background music – he built his concept for R&J around it.
“They had this Woody Guthrie-like, Dust Bowl, folky feeling,” he said. And from that came Johnson’s concept for this R&J to be set during the Great Depression and center on two dueling agricultural families.
As far as “Shakespeare in Love” goes, along with the obvious R&J angle, Johnson said he’s always been drawn toward plays that are “paens or homages to theater, nods to the process and show how difficult and rewarding that can be. And considering that we went so long without theater,” that has more resonance for him, he said. “Even at the first read-through, I was emotional hearing actors talk about the mystery of what we do and why we do it.”
But concepts and plays-within-plays-about-plays aside, there is also a very contemporary resonance to the ending of Shakespeare’s R&J, Johnson believes.
“There’s this idea of star-crossed lovers, and this magical union and the coming together of two families at the end,” he said. “It’s about overcoming the odds and finding ways to exist as humans. In a world that is so divided, I think theater can remind us that it’s better to work together.”
And working together is something the Johnsons are becoming quite familiar with.
Joel Beers is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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