The theater landscape is littered with the corpses of small-sized companies forced to close for a variety of reasons – for example, running out of steam creatively or losing manpower or seeing audience support gradually evaporate over time.
Add Stage Door Repertory Theatre to a list of recent casualties that includes Stages Theatre and the Attic Community Theater. SDRT, as it’s known to patrons, weathered unpredictable ticket sales and the pressures of continuous annual rent increases before hitting the same wall as its peers – the COVID-19 lockdown and the economic pressures the pandemic exerted on theaters everywhere.
From late 2011 to December 2022, Stage Door produced a total of roughly 80 shows, the bulk of which were musicals, the theatrical genre that came to define the company.
In a phone interview with Voice of OC, Nick Charles, the company’s founder, executive producer and artistic director, said when he reopened SDRT’s doors in June 2021, he thought he had survived the theater’s 15-month closure.
With no source of income during that period, he had barely been able to keep up with his rent payments, but expected and planned to eventually get caught up.
But, Charles said, the property management company leasing space to him in an Anaheim industrial complex on La Palma Avenue near Kraemer Boulevard had other ideas, telling him during the summer of 2022 that when his current lease expired on Dec. 31, he’d be expected to sign a three- to five-year lease.
Charles said he countered by asking for, instead, a one- to two-year lease. His request was met with a disappointing rejoinder: A shorter lease would force his monthly rent from $6,500 to $8,700 – an increase of some 33%.
Playing For Time
“We had never had more than a 3% increase,” Charles said. “There was just no way we could handle such an increase. We could barely handle $6,500 per month, and were still playing catch-up.”
Charles said that during negotiations, he and his wife and business partner, Julie Charles, were in the process of planning the company’s 2022 annual fundraiser where the 2023 season would be announced, and that Julie had requested being given sufficient time at the start of 2023 “to wind our business down.”
“We hadn’t heard back from them yet,” Nick Charles said, “and still didn’t know if we were staying or leaving.” When Julie emailed them for a determination, the couple was notified that the property’s owners “told us ‘we have decided not to extend or renew your lease’ and that we had until Jan. 31 to clear out.”
“A Bronx Tale,” Stage Door’s final show of its 2022 season, wound up being the company’s final show, period, its four-week performance run ending on Dec. 18.
At the time of its closing, SDRT had announced its 2023 season: “The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)”; “Ghost, the Musical,” the musical version of “Titanic,” “Peter and the Starcatcher,” and the company’s annual zombie fright-flick parody Halloween show.
Charles said the company planned “to close our season with ‘Something’s Afoot,’ which was the first musical we staged during our inaugural season in 2012.”
Amanda DeMaio of the O.C. Theatre Guild, who guided Stages Theatre through its closing, commented that Stage Door “had been a large part of O.C. theater for over a decade, and their closing certainly has an impact on the theater community.
“Theater promotes opportunities for growth and learning, for its artists and patrons alike, and any time a community loses that, we’re all impacted. Financially, a theater creates its own little ecosystem, and when it closes, all those supporting businesses are impacted.
“Culturally, the closing of a theater can be a little harder on us. It’s the loss of a place that brought people together – a place for people to create, connect, relate and communicate on a really personal level.”
An Old Hand at Theater Ownership
Charles said he cut his teeth doing theater in the mid-1980s in the San Gabriel Valley, primarily at two Monrovia companies: Old Town Music Hall dinner theater and San Gabriel Civic Light Opera. He relates that in driving past Old Town in 1989, he noticed it was vacant.
“The couple that had owned it had sold the building in 1987 and it had been empty ever since,” Charles relates. He tracked down the new owners, who had purchased it as an investment property. “They weren’t using it, so we sat down and hammered out a lease.” Charles said he was able to get the entire 10,000-square-foot building for $2,000 per month, noting that his Stage Door lease has been more than three times higher for roughly half the amount of space.
Charles ran his new company, Monrovia Center Theatre, for three years, from 1989 to 1992, then helped remodel and open Covina Valley Playhouse and worked at various theaters in the Inland Empire.
In 1996, Charles began working with Yorba Linda Civic Light Opera, moved to Orange County in 1998 and was married a year later. He performed at theater companies in La Habra, San Clemente and other O.C. cities and rented various venues to produce shows, landing at Camino Real Playhouse in San Juan Capistrano. He worked there from 2003 to 2011, the last five years as managing artistic director.
The Charleses created their newest company, Stage Door Repertory Theatre, in Orange County in 2011. The company averaged seven shows per season, running on a calendar-year basis. Lack of air conditioning in the space made it insufferably hot during the summer, so each season ran from January to June, with a hiatus in July and August, followed by shows from September through December.
As for choice of material to fill each season, Charles said he and Julie “were seeing theater constantly. We were going to other theaters here at home to see what others were doing and would go to New York every year to see at least three or four shows.”
Their goal was to determine which existing shows would be the best fit for Stage Door. “We wanted to know what people were doing, what was successful, and what audiences seemed to want.” By the same token, he said, “we have always tried to avoid doing what others were doing,” taking pains to avoid scheduling a show some other Orange County company had on its schedule for that same season.
Making Musicals Sing
It took Stage Door two seasons to realize that its strength was in producing musicals. “We started out staging two musicals and four non-musicals, and by 2014 we had flipped that script and were doing five or six musicals and one non-musical each season.”
Highlights of Stage Door Rep’s Production History
Here are the 10 most successful Stage Door Repertory Theatre productions in terms of ticket sales and attendance, starting with the highest:
- “Les Misérables” (2015)
- “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (2018)
- “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (2022)
- “Miss Saigon” (2016)
- “Bright Star” (2021)
- “Nunsense” (2018)
- “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (2016)
- “Jesus Christ Superstar” (2019)
- “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” (2019)
- “A Bronx Tale” (2022)
Among Stage Door’s biggest hits were “Les Misérables” (2015), “Miss Saigon” (2016), “Nunsense” (2018), and the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical “Bright Star” (2021) – the shows that sold the most tickets and had the highest attendance and unmatched ticket demand. In fact, the company’s 2018 staging of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was so popular that a new production of it was mounted last year that was only slightly less lucrative than its predecessor.
While SDRT never assembled a true repertory company, a handful of individuals were frequently invited back to direct or perform in Stage Door shows, including actor Kerry Hedley, who was in “Jekyll and Hyde, the Musical,” “Lilies of the Field,” “The Foreigner” and two productions of “Nunsense”; actor Linsey Rene Mitchell (“Life Could Be a Dream,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Cabaret” and “Damn Yankees”) and Glenn Freeze, who starred in two productions of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” appeared in “Noises Off,” “Damn Yankees” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and directed “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
Charles said that all along, Stage Door “wanted to present a broad range” of shows, and that even when presenting something audiences might have seen elsewhere, plays like “The Foreigner,” “The Nerd,” “Lilies of the Field” and “A Flea in Her Ear” still aren’t staged so frequently as shows the Charleses noticed cropping up on the schedules of other small Orange County venues.
Of greater importance, Nick Charles notes, is that “almost every season we had a show that was a first for Orange County small theater companies” – including the comedic murder-mystery musical “Curtains!” and the ever-popular “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”
“We were also the first non-professional small O.C. theater to do ‘A Bronx Tale,’ ‘Bright Star,’ ‘Life Could Be a Dream’ and ‘The Marvelous Wonderettes.’”
Charles said coming out of the gate in early 2012, “we wanted to set the bar high, and I knew that audiences were either gonna like us or hate us – but either way, we would always give them consistency.”
Charles said until the economic hardship inflicted upon SDRT by the pandemic, the company had only had one year that caused him concern and alarm. “In 2017, we had just signed a one-year extension of our lease and began to see a drop in attendance.” He had just raised ticket prices but is unsure whether that caused the drop-off “or if it was the shows we had selected, but all of a sudden we were canceling performances for every show because of low attendance.”
It was Stage Door’s worst year business-wise, yet Charles renewed his lease for 2018. He also restored his old ticket prices “and we went from our worst year to our best. We sold out the entire season and had an amazing year.”
Charles noted that he and wife Julie were constantly on the lookout for a more reasonably priced space. “Previously, when you signed a lease, you would lock in a price, but not now. Now, even when you sign a lease, you still have annual increases in rent. So we were always looking for cheaper rent because it kept going up.
“We were always looking around for other buildings – but every time we located something more affordable, the regulations to move in and do a build-out were insurmountable. It would just cost too much to satisfy all of the codes and regulations, so we felt like we were kind of stuck staying put. Yes, it was expensive, but it was still cheaper than moving.”
How the Pandemic Pounded in the Final Nail
Even as the pandemic dragged on, Nick Charles said he expected he and other theaters wouldn’t be shuttered too much longer. He related to VOC that throughout 2020 and into 2021 he kept an eye on two peer companies, both in Fullerton: Stages Theatre and Maverick Theater. Both were comparable in size to Stage Door and all three relied upon revenue from ticket sales.
As Charles told VOC, “I thought ‘as long as Maverick and Stages hold out, I’ll feel safe.’ Then, while other theater companies were reopening, Stages announced its closure, and I thought, ‘Uh oh, this is not a good sign.’ Brian Newell (Maverick’s founder) said he was going to stick it out no matter what.”
Charles said he viewed the closure of Santa Ana-based Attic Community Theater with alarm. Now, two of three small companies similar to Stage Door had closed.
Charles said being forced to close for more than a year put Stage Door behind the eight ball. “While we were closed we weren’t paying our rent because we had no revenue, no income. We held a couple of fundraisers and applied for and received a couple of small grants through (Arts OC), but that barely covered a month or two of rent.
“We kept asking (the property owners) for help and they literally said ‘We’re not in business with you so what do we care?’ And since they wouldn’t let us out of our lease, we were stuck trying to pay off the remainder of the lease.”
During the winter of 2020 and the height of the pandemic, Charles took out a small business loan to help bridge the gap until he could reopen his doors. “It was the only way to stay open, because at that point we still didn’t know when we would be allowed to start back up.”
Once Stage Door reopened in June 2021, Charles said he and Julie had a plan in place: “We would continue doing shows back-to-back-to-back until we were caught up, trying to raise as much as we could to pay down the loan.”
By last summer, “we were back up on our feet and running, and finally starting to get caught up, when they threw the rent increase at us.”
When he and Julie asked for six more months to wind down the theater’s business, “they gave us a false sense of hope by saying that they first wanted to inspect the building. A group of people came in and did a 10-minute walk-through, taking notes, then telling us ‘we’ll let you know.’ After that, we heard nothing, until they told us we had to be out by Jan. 31.”
SDRT’s Future: A Theater Company With No Fixed Address?
The Charleses spent the month of January moving out. “We sold off as much as we could during a three-day rummage sale,” Nick Charles reports. A friend who repurposes items carted off SDRT’s stage and audience platforms to a little Western town he runs, and “a couple of other theaters, and a company in Rancho Cucamonga that builds haunted houses, came out and took everything – my door units, window units and flats – and a company preparing to stage ‘Sweeney Todd’ bought all of the items we built for that show.
“We put a ton into storage, and we kept some items that had sentimental value, also thinking that if we decide to do any new productions we’d have these pieces.”
So why would a theater company with no physical address hang onto items that could only be used to put on a show?
Charles said he and Julie “were not 100% ready to walk away from this. We still have some irons in the fire. There are a couple of shows we want to do this year working with other theater groups and utilizing their space.”
One of these is “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a show SDRT had scheduled for its 2023 season. The Charleses are also looking “for something with a small cast of four or five actors, and minimal sets – possibly ‘The 39 Steps,’” which Stage Door Rep produced in 2019.
Charles concluded the interview by saying when he realized he had to close the theater, “it seemed like we had barely begun to scratch the surface, but I know that in almost 12 years and over 80 productions, we made a lot of magic and we made a whole lot of dreams come true.
“On to the next chapter of Stage Door Rep, whatever or wherever that will be.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.