The Church of the Foothills made headlines—and attracted a small group of protesters—when it approved a Los Angeles theater troupe's production of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi (the so-called “gay-Jesus play”) in 2009 at its Santa Ana/Tustin digs. It was a fitting testament to the progressive nature of this Christian church, which touts itself as open to people of all religious backgrounds and genders.
Yet Marla Ladd had reservations when the church contacted her two years ago, asking her if she'd like to move her Orange-based theater company, Mysterium, into its original chapel. In fact, when she and her husband drove to the property the first time and saw that, yes, it really was a church, “we just turned around and left,” she says.
But after Ladd realized that the city of Orange's building department wasn't exactly laying out a welcome mat to stay in the facility she had been in since 2009, she moved Mysterium in late 2010 to this tiny strip of unincorporated county land (with a Santa Ana ZIP code, but considered North Tustin). “I was clear from the start that I couldn't do this with someone telling me what I could or couldn't do,” says Ladd, who has directed in Orange County for more than 20 years. “And [the church has] been great about that.”
Mysterium uses the church's original chapel—located steps from its current house of worship—for its mainstage shows and the preschool as dressing rooms, storage and rehearsal space. The school's playground hosts its summer series of four Shakespeare plays. (Plus, there are rehearsals happening on the driveway of Ladd's Orange home. “We have a really big driveway,” she says.)
Mysterium's current mainstage show is the musical version of Spring Awakening, a sexually charged coming-of-age tale not suitable for those younger than 17. Running with that piece is the comedic The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). There's also a children's show on weekends, Charlotte's Web. The second of the four Shakespeare plays, The Merchant of Venice, opens this weekend.
That's four shows now running, and there are three upcoming productions in rehearsal. “If I didn't already have gray hair, I would by now,” Ladd says.
In 2008, she and her husband, Robert, were hit by the economic downturn. She had been teaching theater at four college campuses, but she found herself down to one gig, an opera-theater workshop at Cal State Fullerton, where she has taught for 20 years. Then her engineer husband was laid off. “We figured if we were ever going to get our dream, the time was now,” she says of their decision to start a theater company.
She is Mysterium's artistic director, and Robert—who is also a painter, photographer and sculptor—is the technical director. They're helped by production manager Lisa Garcia. But the heart and soul of the theater are the dozens of young, energetic thespians who have joined their unorthodox scheme.
An infectious energy abounds, but it doesn't necessarily translate into ticket sales. The Ladds are using their retirement savings to fund the theater, which recently received nonprofit status. As at any theater, it's a constant scramble just to pay the bills.
The need to drive box office is apparent in the number of productions Mysterium will mount this year: 24. (Last year, it produced nine.) While Ladd would love to produce edgier stuff, new work or classic plays—which she has done with pieces such as The Laramie Project and Spring Awakening—she has to balance that with such shows as The Pirates of Penzance and Camelot.
The most unusual of the Shakespeare plays this summer may be Othello, which opens July 21 and is directed by Ladd.
As you may remember, Othello is subtitled The Moor of Venice and usually features a black, male actor in the title role. But Ladd couldn't find one. So, befitting Mysterium's unorthodox methodology, she went outside the box: Her Othello is a lesbian. “I thought, 'Why am I killing myself trying to find a man of color who is available and strong enough for the role?'” Ladd recalls. She had other actors capable of pulling it off, she believed. Though it started out as a joke, when one of those actors, Rose London, commented she could play the role, the more Ladd thought about it, the more the notion gained traction.
“What is the play really about? Two people who are not allowed to marry each other for whatever reason,” she says. “What they want is against the law, and they're considered outsiders, and isn't that what's happening today?”
This article appeared in print as “Holy Host: How the Church of the Foothills let the Mysterium Theater Co. use its grounds as a home base.”