For 10 years, Alternative Repertory Theatre (ART) valiantly plugged away in a cramped, unsightly venue in a butt-ugly part of Santa Ana. The tiny playing space seemed more suited to daily ablutions than cathartic experiences. The cranky heating and air conditioning knocked and pinged during shows. During intermission, patrons were exiled to the scenically challenged parking lot.
But the company's less-than-stellar facility didn't prevent it from programming the most adventurous and eclectic material of any theater in the county, everything from Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee to Jean Paul Sartre and Greek classics.
Now ART has a space to match its mission and its status as the county's best small theater.
The doors open this weekend on ART's new, 86-seat theater in the heart of downtown Santa Ana's Artists Village. The first play in the new space, Barrio Everyman, is a stroke of theatrical brilliance on the company's part. An adaptation of the medieval morality play in which a man is summoned by death to give an account of his life to God, the play has been juiced up by Roy Conboy. It's far more humorous and relevant than the Christian propaganda piece upon which it is modeled, and it is intriguing for two reasons: it's the first full-scale world premiere in ART's history, and its Latino take on the source tale seems a perfect bridge between the mostly Anglo company and the decidely ethnic feel of the surrounding neighborhood.
Just days before the opening, neither the building nor the theater was quite ready for prime time. The plumbing wasn't working; there were no electrical outlets. Painters busily coated the walls, neglecting to tell visitors about it and then acting surprised when white paint splattered across visitors' black shoes (manual laborers, though they be the salt of the Earth, can really suck).
But the theater company is accustomed to construction delays. (ART co-founder Gary Christensen designed the $50,000 theater, but the company has no say in actually building it; that falls to the city of Santa Ana. For anyone who knows how obsessive theater people are about their spaces, you can guess how maddening that is.) ART originally planned to open its doors in August. Delays have meant trimming its first season from five plays to three.
While frustrated, the sense of enthusiasm and optimism hasn't been dampened. Two years ago, ART wasn't sure it would even survive another season. “We knew we either had to grow or accept the fact that we were going to be perennially what we were-and that wasn't acceptable,” said Pat Terry, ART co-founder and artistic director. “We knew we had to upgrade in every way, from the actual facility to professionalizing the operation.”
“We knew we were either going to move or say, 'Hey, we gave it a great ride, but it's time to shut the doors,'” Christensen said.
The doors were kept open when the company learned that the proposed theater space in Cal State Fullerton's Arts Center was available. It seems the university's theater department didn't want the hassle of running an off-campus venue. A search for prospective operators turned up ART-thanks in no small part to the theater's longtime connection with CSUF's theater department. Both Christensen (who daylights as an arts and theater teacher at community colleges across the county) and Terry (an English teacher at University High School in Irvine) are CSUF grads; Joel Cotter, an ART producer, is a CSUF faculty member.
The company signed a five-year lease with the university, which leases the building from Santa Ana. And it's a sweet deal: ART pays $1,000 per month for rent, including utilities. The only potential drawback: the university can use the theater for three days per month, but only if that doesn't conflict with ART's rehearsal and performance schedule.
The theater retains ART's distinctive theater-in-the-round atmosphere. But it's a far-and very welcome-cry from its old haunts. At 1,200 square feet, the playing area alone is the size of ART's old facility. Technically speaking, it's like moving from a studio apartment to a luxury condo. The company has spent the past year mounting fund-raisers and applying for grants (the city of Santa Ana granted $15,000; corporate donors like Boeing also chipped in). The result: brand-new seats, 40 new lighting instruments, a $7,500 sound system, and a theater that, once it's completely finished, will be the best-looking, best-equipped small (less than 100-seat) theater in the county.
Befitting its new status, ART is raising the stipends actors and designers receive from $100 per show to $150. (Don't laugh. That's big money in the small-theater world; comparable Los Angeles theaters give actors $5 per show.) And its budgets are being raised proportionally, from an average of $5,000 to $7,500. (Again, don't laugh. South Coast Repertory may have the luxury of forking out $800,000 for Tartuffe, but most small theaters would sing hosannas over a $500 budget.) Regrettably, its ticket prices will also be raised from $16 to between $22 and $25; student, group and rush discounts are under consideration.
But as they say, you pay for what you get. It's obviously good news that ART has a new home and can once again begin producing theater. But its opening is significant for another reason: it signals the latest development in a most exciting chapter in Orange County theater, perhaps the most significant chapter since an unknown entity named SCR opened in a Costa Mesa storefront some 36 years ago. For the first time, a legitimate theater district appears to be taking shape, in an area with awesome potential, Santa Ana's Artists Village. Across Broadway from ART's new space is the Empire Theater, the bailiwick of the Rude Guerilla Theater Company, which opened in October. Three blocks north on Santa Ana's bustling Fourth Street is the Hunger Artists Theater, which opened in late 1997. And New Voices, a playwrights collective that wants to open its own theater, is making noises about a possible move to the area. Add to that some fine restaurants in the area (including the funky Neutral Grounds and the Gypsy Den, no less than Orange County's best coffeehouse, which will open sometime this year next door to ART); the art scene in the neighboring Santora Arts Complex; the fine-arts grad students currently moving into the area; Ruben Martinez's ultracool bookstore two blocks away; and millions of redevelopment dollars the city of Santa Ana is sinking into the area, and we may finally have a cultural alternative to the glitzy and refined trifecta of the Performing Arts Center/SCR/South Coast Metro. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: culturally speaking, we may finally be getting a there here.
Barrio Everyman at the Grand Central Arts Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 836-7929. Previews begin Fri. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m. Opens Jan. 30. $22-$25.