Oanh Nguyen didn't grow up with a family that would "sit around the dinner table and talk about how our days went." His parents, who live seven minutes from the theater he helped to found 15 years ago, have been there once.
Considering that the then-2-year-old Nguyen and his parents fled Saigon on the last day in 1975 that American forces were in Vietnam, his family had a few more pressing things to worry about than how much money the school's pancake breakfast made for the band. Among them were basic survival, forging an identity and a future in a foreign country, and working for nearly 30 years on getting the rest of their family, including Nguyen's younger brother, out of Vietnam.
But while Nguyen's nuclear family may not adhere to the touchy-feely Ozzie and Harriet template, his extended family has provided him with the kind of personal and professional fulfillment that any first-generation American—hell, any American—would long for. The 40-year-old is artistic director and co-founder of the Chance Theater. Lots of theater companies have come, gone and persisted in Orange County over the past 50 years, but the Chance has done something that no legitimate storefront theater (i.e., one founded on nothing but two boards and a passion) other than South Coast Repertory can boast of: It's legit.
Theater didn't save his life, but it has absolutely given him purpose and direction. He has fashioned intimate relationships through launching a theater company—in the parched cultural landscape of that part of Anaheim defined mostly by the 91 freeway that flows through it—and by listening to and rubbing shoulders and sharing ideas with some of the highest-powered people in American professional theater.
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The Chance recently doubled in size, moving a few doors from its original space. It pays all its actors and crew. It has raised more than $500,000 in the first phase of its capital campaign. It's hammering out the details of a contract with Actor's Equity that will allow it to use union stage actors. And, maybe most difficult for an OC arts venue, Los Angeles knows it exists.
"We're not even close to being done yet," says Nguyen. "Our goal from day one was to be a professional mid-sized theater, and we're still just in the beginning of that."
Nguyen hasn't confined himself to the Chance. As an actor, he boasts a list of television and commercial credits. He's a producing associate director at SCR. He has received a $90,000 grant from the Theatre Communications Group, and he always seems to be somewhere, talking and learning about theater. And while his list of acting and directing credits is long, he thinks his most valuable skill is a bit harder to quantify.
"I was in band in school, but you just kind of play what's on the sheet and don't really talk about it," he says. "There's no interpretation; you just do it. But there's a discussion around theater, a constant questioning of why and how we should do something. Of setting goals and trying to accomplish them. And I think people appreciate someone who can organize, and that's something I think I'm good at."