Culture Clash Looks for the Real Orange County at South Coast Rep

Culture Clash: Straight up, on the rocks

In Search of Stanton
Culture Clash looks for the real OC

Its former top cop is under indictment on federal corruption charges. Its most established religious institution, the Diocese of Orange, is broke. The housing market has collapsed, its once-thriving daily newspaper is hemorrhaging, and if the toxic soup washing up on its beaches doesn't get you sick, the sun's bitchen rays will kill you. Even the Angels manager is really a Dodger.

It seems nothing is what it seems these days in Orange County, so if your mission is to dig beneath the surface to find some sense of the "real" county beyond Disneyland and The Real Housewives of Orange County rubbish, where do you find the truth?

Where do you find the stories that aren't being told?

Where do you find Stanton?

Richard Montoya, one-third of the fantastically talented three-person theatrical troupe Culture Clash, who bring their unique blend of oral-history reporting, writing and performing to Orange County next week, found it at a Social Distortion concert at the House of Blues a couple of months ago.

"I just thought it was so sweet and pure to see the punk and rockabilly ethos still thriving," says Montoya, who, along with fellow Clashers Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, is focusing his considerable talents on Orange County for the latest production of Culture Clash in America, which opens for previews next weekend at South Coast Repertory. "And isn't it great that the only person talking straight shit is the guy with tattoos and greasy hair, unlike all those other fuckwads, the sheriff and church included? Mike Ness charted an entire two decades growing up disenfranchised on the margins of Orange County, and I think that's perfect for us. That's what we do. We can talk to the Loretta Sanchezes and the king- and queen-makers, but somehow, we have to get underneath the Pleasantville aspect and rip it away in order to get to the truth."

The truth has obsessed Culture Clash since launching in San Francisco in the mid-'80s. And though the troupe sprang from the soil of Chicano politics and the street-theater sensibilities of Luis Valdez's El Teatro Campesino outfit, founded in the 1960s, they have long-since evolved past being just a left-leaning Latino theater company and just a comedic ensemble.

"They got their start as satirists doing sketch comedy, but I think they now bristle a bit when people describe them as a comedy troupe," says John Glore, SCR's associate artistic director. Glore worked with Culture Clash on an ambitious fusing of their outrageous comedy and left-leaning politics with the ancient Greek play The Birds at SCR in 1998. "As long ago as The Birds, they were beginning to take themselves more seriously as artists, and their work has matured to a point where they're now a performance ensemble where comedy is an important part, but not the only part, of their agenda."

Today, the Los Angeles-based troupe are a red-hot theatrical commodity across the country and, while still mounting site-specific shows, have branched into longer, more complete plays, including a three-part cycle that examined the historical, social and political dynamic of Los Angeles and its Latin population: Chavez Ravine, Water & Power and Zorro in Hell. They're also growing increasingly serious about the prospect of developing a cable-TV show and branching into films on the Sundance circuit. "For the first time in 10 years, we're getting calls again from network presidents," Montoya says.

This production of Culture Clash in America will largely consist of material from past site-specific Culture Clash productions that explored communities in San Diego, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

"It's not like we're the O'Jays going on the road doing our greatest hits, but this is a collection of our favorite stories and characters," says Salinas, the only Clasher with an Orange County link (his wife is from here). "But the show keeps changing as the national character changes. Some characters are fading away because they no longer feel relevant, and others are put back in. And, of course, we add a little bit everywhere we go, whether it's Boston, San Jose or Berkeley."

About 30 minutes of the SCR production will be new, Orange County-centric material collected from researching the county's history and talking to its residents, from political leaders to day laborers outside Home Depot, in order to "tap into the connective tissue of Orange County, to find its pulse and what it says about the American character," Montoya says.

Finding that connection hasn't been very easy in a place that those unfamiliar with its complexity and underlying tensions casually dismiss as a right-wing, lily-white, perfectly sanitized community of cookie-cutter housing developments and Fashion Island-like shopping centers.

"The boosters have really made a permanent mark on what Orange County supposedly is, but when you scratch the surface, whether it's sex clubs or immigration issues or the silent racism, there is a hidden Orange County," says Salinas. "It's what you don't see on The O.C. or Laguna Beach or whatever, and that's what we'll hopefully be exposing."

"Our plays don't necessarily gravitate toward Latin voices, but rather whatever we find interesting," says Siguenza. "We aren't drawn toward the racial thing as much as the underrepresented stories that you don't see on television—the people on the fringes, the alternatives."

One of the juiciest alternatives they've uncovered during their excursions to the county this past month is a swingers' sex club in the middle of an otherwise-typical-looking middle-class neighborhood. They've also taken tours of the county with the Weekly's own Gustavo Arellano, including a visit to a Salvadoran restaurant that drew protests for selling Minuteman tacos. They've also taken the obligatory walk-through of South Coast Plaza. "It has to be the only place in America where you can walk from a Sears to Tiffany's," Siguenza says. And Salinas is salivating over the prospect of getting inside the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

The overriding mission isn't to goof on right-wing politicians, the Botox crowd or Christian fundamentalists (although don't be surprised if any of that surfaces); it's to get beyond the "burnished image that Orange County still strives to present," Montoya says, recalling a conversation with Arellano about the pristine labels affixed to crates of oranges that were picked by the sweaty brown hands of Mexican immigrants. "The county still tries to present that image, so that weird ether-like vapor still exists. It was built by the labor of millions of Mexicanos, but all we get in the national press is Huntington Beach and The O.C. But there's still a very real tension beneath the surface.

"Have you guys walked in a real surf community lately?" Montoya asks his fellow troupe members. "It's like, man, you don't feel too welcome, still, in some of those places. Of course, there are affluent Latinos throughout Orange County, but there's still that tension. And it's going to be great fun to mix things up at SCR and find the clash of cultures here."

Culture Clash in America at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., (714) 708-5555; Previews begin Sun. Opens March 21. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through April 6. $20-$63.

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