Midway through its fourth season at Garden Grove’s 550-seat Festival Amphitheatre, Shakespeare/Summerfest Orange County has tripled attendance, attracted younger and culturally diverse audiences, and—using a pool of local acting talent and professionals from Los Angeles—mounted some very impressive shows.
So is it time to leave?
First off, leaving Garden Grove is definitely not what artistic director John Walcutt wants. The veteran stage, film and TV actor agreed to take over the amphitheater’s summer programming because he saw the potential in both the space and the surrounding community. “A handful of us who had worked there always loved this place, but we felt that [previous producing entity] Shakespeare Orange County had run its course and the audience was very small and particular,” says Walcutt. “We felt that if this was going to pop, we had to somehow connect with the community and get some younger people in there.”
And it’s done just that, forging strong relationships with ethnically diverse cultural groups in the greater Garden Grove area, as well as with the Orange County School of the Arts, which led to educational opportunities and an internship program with the theater company. The result has been massive spectacles featuring professional actors surrounded by a legion of high-school students in the ensemble and multicultural Shakespeare productions, ranging from the just-ended The Tempest, which featured a Korean-American dance troupe, to past shows such as a Polynesian-themed Midsummer Night’s Dream and a Romeo and Juliet production that featured an Asian Romeo, Latina Juliet and a folklorico dance troupe. (Henry IV, Part 1 opens Aug. 11.)
And the company has done it all—two mainstage productions and several special performances each summer—for around $200,000. Walcutt and his small team supply the funds, most of which is recouped through ticket sales and donations.
But Walcutt admits that a crossroads has been reached. To elevate it to the level he firmly believes is possible—a free, summer Shakespeare festival offering top-notch productions using professional and local actors—he needs a wealthy individual, a corporate sponsor or a municipal entity to give him what every arts organization and artist yearns for: money. “The handful of us who have always loved this place thought we had a vision for how this could work, and we have done that through our community [outreach] and reaching financial stability,” Walcutt says. “Now, we just need someone to help support it. It shouldn’t be us paying for it. We need someone who values us, someone who really wants us here.”
Though the city of Garden Grove offers Walcutt the venue for free each summer, he’s looking for more support, the kind that doesn’t include a mariachi band playing across the park, which happened during last summer’s run of Hamlet. “The city keeps saying, ‘We want to help you; we love what you’re doing,’ but weird stuff happens,” Walcutt says. Of the city’s top officials, he adds, only city manager Scott Stiles has seen a Shakespeare/Summerfest Orange County show. “There really isn’t a strong arts champion in the city who is saying, ‘Let’s make this important.’ It’s like they kind of look at us as just another thing in the park, and that’s really challenging.”
Walcutt is hopeful a new concert promoter, which is moving into the amphitheater and promised to upgrade the space, will change the dynamic with the city. But, he admits, he has received some overtures from other cities to relocate. “[It is] enticing when someone from another city says, ‘You should come here; we’d love to have you,'” he says, “I would have to weigh what I would give up.”
What he would give up is the dream of establishing a genuine people’s theater, similar to the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare festival in New York City’s Central Park each year. “All of our shows are developed to make the plays not only accessible and visual, but also very connected to the community,” Walcutt says. “This isn’t some elitist temple on the hill. It’s a people’s theater, probably the best example of a people’s theater that I have been involved with since the 1970s. We’re a family thing with high aspirations, and I am firmly convinced there is no better place to be than here.
“We could move to Newport Beach or Santa Ana, and we could thrive, but it would be such a shame to lose the incredible cultural diversity in this area,” he contines. “I really think that if someone really wants to have an impact, this is the one—this neighborhood, this theater. It wouldn’t be another million bucks in the pocket of Pacific Symphony. You would radically change this community.”
Henry IV, Part 1 at Festival Amphitheatre, 12552 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 590-7175; shakespeareoc.org. Opens Aug. 11. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through Aug. 26. $25; $7 rush tickets available at 7 p.m.