Shakespeare didn't know what he was talking about: There are definitely new things under the sun.
Just take a look at Shakespeare Orange County. Formed in 1979, the producing entity has a new name—Shakespeare Orange County Summerfest. Rather than two Shakespeare summer shows with limited runs, the retooled SOC is offering eight original or imported productions running from late June through September. And it has a new artistic director, as founder Tom Bradac resigned last year and John Walcutt, a performer with more than 200 professional theater and film credits, takes the reins.
The changes are anything but cosmetic. Walcutt's vision for SOC, one in which he has an all-volunteer staff, no community board of directors and no financial cushion to fall back on, could manifest into the most significant transformation in local theater since South Coast Repertory morphed from a tiny storefront space into a theater of international renown. Or it could crash and burn.
A Midsummer Night's Dream at Garden Grove Amphitheater, 12762 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 590-1573; www.shakespeareoc.org. Previews Thurs.-Sat. opens July 5; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through July 19. $25; Thursday nights are pay-what-you-will.
And he's well aware of it.
"We're just rolling the dice," says Walcutt, 58. "This is a place with a beautiful venue and such an established history but also one that I think has much more potential. We're determined to exploit that as much as possible and to try to make the biggest splash we can."
Shaking up the organization's programming is an important aspect of Walcutt's vision. But it's only part of the overarching mission: to attract younger, more ethnically diverse audiences that are either unaware of theater, or believe it has no relevance to their lives.
Call it breaking through the I Don't Give a Shit barrier.
That's why the first show of Walcutt's first season, the 35th in Shakespeare Orange County's history, is a Polynesian-themed A Midsummer Night's Dream. When Walcutt was offered the job as artistic director last year (well, when it basically fell in his lap after Bradac announced his resignation and asked him to take over), the Los Angeles-based actor and producer began researching the Garden Grove neighborhood where the 299-seat Festival Amphitheatre is located.
"I was amazed at how many people who live in this neighborhood didn't even know there was a theater here," says Walcutt, who has performed onstage in SOC shows about a dozen times since the 1980s. "That is something I'd really like to change."
He reached out to Hitia O Te Ra, an internationally renowned dance troupe in the city, asking if it would be interested in participating in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The result is nearly 50 dancers and drummers serving as the fairies, demons and ensemble of the production, a kind of Tahitian Mutiny on the Bounty combination.
Walcutt also enlisted the area's large Southeast Asian population, approaching the Santa Ana-based Vietnamese American Association of Arts and Letters to co-produce Romeo & Juliet. That will result in a multicultural production with an African-American Romeo and a Vietnamese-American Juliet.
"It's a very contemporary production with a huge cast and it's a way of trying to connect to a different kind of audience that maybe has never stepped inside this space before," Walcutt says.
While Shakespeare will remain an important part of the new SOC Summerfest, Walcutt is modeling his company after Joseph Papp's seminal Public Theater in New York, opening up his stage to different voices and companies. The riotous Troubadour Theater Company will return to OC for the first time in at least six years July 24-26 with A Midsummer Saturday Night's Fever Dream, its mash-up of Shakespeare and the Bee Gees; the rest of the shows, however, are distinctly non-Bard.
Los Angeles' acclaimed classical theater, the Antaeus Company, mounts The Curse of Oedipus July 31-Aug. 2, and Walcutt and Bo Foxworth are featured in George M. Cohan's 1920 chestnut of American comedy, The Tavern, Aug. 7-23. Additionally, two solo shows—Michelle Krusiec's Made in Taiwan in September and Trieu Tran's one-night performance in August of Unplugged, about his experience of fleeing Saigon at age 6 and breaking into Hollywood—open up the diversity even more.
Now, if Walcutt were fresh out of grad school looking to change the theatrical world, it'd be easy to scoff at his ambitious plans. Epic theater in Garden Grove? But the guy has ample acting, directing and producing chops, thespian connections across the country and, perhaps more important, thorough experience working at scores of theaters, from being on the ground floor of the Matrix Theatre Company and the revamped La Jolla Playhouse, to spending a few months in Juneau, Alaska, teaching indigenous peoples how to package their cultural festivals to literal boatloads of tourists.
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Walcutt seems determined to offer grown-up theater in a way that includes as many different voices as possible.
"There's nothing wrong with that academic kind of Shakespeare, or plays for older, retired people who want a nice, safe, non-confrontational evening," he says. "Just like there's nothing wrong with that aggressive, in-your-face theater you see in Los Angeles, but, generally, you're just performing in front of your friends. I think there's a happy medium somewhere between that. That's what we're aiming for.
"We have a saying around here," he adds. "Everything has to be sexy or bold or audacious or different. We'll see what happens."