How About a Little Respect?

Grove Theater Center battles for truth, honor and faceless lips

For five years, Kevin Cochran and Charles Johanson, the team behind the Grove Theater Center (GTC), have battled financial tumult and the public misperception that Orange County is a theatrical desert. In the process, they've carved out a unique spot for themselves. Like the bat in Aesop's fable—the one tolerated by both mammals and birds but accepted by neither—the GTC doesn't seem to fit neatly in either the professional or amateur theater camps.

Cochran and Johanson beg to differ. Unlike many OC_theaters, the GTC's agreement with the stage-actors union Actors Equity allows it to use professional actors. It pays all of its performers weekly salaries ($50 to $150 for nonunion performers; $250 to $350 for union). It uses professional stage managers as well as actors who have worked with some of the biggest names in theater, from John Waters to Tennessee Williams. It has a contract with Garden Grove to professionally manage its two city-owned theaters until the year 2017, and two years ago, it took over management of the summer theater season at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton.

"If all that doesn't make us a professional theater, I don't know what does," says Johanson, the more aggressive half of the brain trust.

But there's still a feeling among some misguided people that the GTC isn't a truly professional theater. Their ammunition? The GTC pays its actors roughly half of what South Coast Repertory and the Laguna Playhouse pay. Not all of its actors are union. Its runs aren't long enough. It's not a big enough operation: Cochran and Johanson do nearly everything, from directing the shows and picking the season to answering the phones and signing the bills.

But if you can't respect Cochran and Johanson, who can you respect? Unlike the vast majority of local theater practitioners, these guys have no backup—no day jobs, no families one city over, no huge funding mechanism in place to ride out the rough spots. They work full-time year-round to keep their theater running, and last year, neither pulled in more than $20,000. (But they're not starving: Cochran bought a boat last year that he docks in Long Beach—and that doubles as his home.)

Yet battling and scraping is something these guys do very well. Five years ago, they moved from Connecticut, where they ran a theater in New Haven, in order to take over one of the best civic theater complexes in Southern California. They were quickly greeted by the Orange County bankruptcy, which threw everything municipal into complete turmoil. They've also had to overcome public misperceptions: the previous tenant, Grove Shakespeare, had a long, successful run in Garden Grove—before the company imploded amid personal and financial strife. To this day, that legacy has dented the GTC's attendance and reputation.

But amid all that, Cochran and Johanson remain fiercely devoted to producing theater and could even be accused of loving it madly, passionately and strangely. That's why they continue to produce the oddest, most-difficult-to-categorize seasons of any local theater, a woozy mixture of bottom-line sensibilities and rebellious, offbeat fare. In years past, Neil Simon's The Odd Couple might be followed by Elmer Rice's expressionistic masterpiece The Adding Machine, which could be followed by a new play from an obscure playwright and the latest skewering of Shakespeare by the Troubadour Theater Company, which the GTC introduced some four years ago.

Just as idiosyncratic, this year's season is the GTC's most ambitious. It's also the most expensive (with a $210,000 budget), and it's the first time the GTC has announced an entire season.

The mainstream season-opener Blithe Spirit (see review, at right) is followed by what might be the strangest night of theater on a local stage this year, The Beckett Project. It's a production of three of Samuel Beckett's oddest, shortest plays: Not I, Rockabyand Act Without Words(April 7-8). The first of these is a two-person play that includes a silent male auditor and a 70-year-old woman speaker, whose lips are the only part of her body that can be seen. Five times her voice erupts, screaming, "SHE!" The male figure responds by helplessly flapping his arms.

After this excursion into the avant-garde, the spotlight turns to Girly Show(April 26-May 14), a riotously funny one-woman show conceived by Denise Moses, a frequent performer on the GTC stage. Unlike the spate of my-husbands-and-parents-are-dead-and-I'm-recovering-from-a-terminal-illness confessional one-woman shows, this one promises to be plain funny.

Things then go outdoors with Paul Rudnick's popular comedy I Hate Hamlet(June 8-18) in the Festival Amphitheater, followed by the return of the Troubadour Theater Company, which will mount one of three Shakespeare "adaptations": Roswell That Ends Well, Titus for Totsor Macbeth With Fries(July 7-15).

The final outdoor show is the GTC's annual "real" Shakespeare production, the original Hamlet (Aug. 16-26). The last show of the season is the world premiere of Ron House's comedy Butlers, Bobbies & Boobs(Oct. 11-29), a tale crafted from House's real-life experience as an underbutler in the London home of Klaus Von Bulow.

Taken together, the shows suggest a quirky, fascinating rogue's gallery of theater, the kind of season that few theaters, professional or otherwise, would dare touch.

But things are always done a little differently at the GTC. Compare its opening-night parties with those thrown by its professional colleagues. At SCR, it's invite-only, with the audience in black tie and evening gowns. At the Laguna Playhouse, it's a more casual event catered by one of that city's many fine restaurants. At the GTC, it's pizza and Miller Lite. Sure, it's all the theater can afford, but it transforms the necessity of a strict budget into the virtue of variety. And that's what makes this theater so necessary:_it's a professional company that hasn't lost sight of its beginnings and is in no danger of packing it in.

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