Twenty years ago this month, a group of earnest thespians in a tiny space in Anaheim Hills were wrapping up their first production, an original play whose title most of them probably have long forgotten. Meanwhile, nearly 5,500 miles to the east, British playwright David Hare was sitting atop the theater mountain. Often mentioned with Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard as the greatest of post-World War II British playwrights, three of his plays made Broadway the year before and he’d won or been nominated for nearly every prestigious writing award.
Hell, two years before, he’d been knighted!
Two decades later, those thespians remain earnest, but they’re no longer hopeful wannabes. The Chance Theater has a regional, even national profile; by any measure, it’s one of OC’s greatest artistic success stories.
And Hare? At 71, he’s still writing plays, and he’s had 10 film or TV scripts produced since 2007.
And it’s finally time for them to meet. The Chance opens Hare’s 1995 play Skylight this weekend. The choice is fascinating. While a hit for Hare, it also signaled a major shift in his writing. Long a fierce critic of Britain’s ossified class structure and Thatcherism, in Skylight, Hare demonstrated that while ideas were still important, the people talking about those ideas were just as important.
As he wrote in his 2015 memoir, “Drama is not and cannot be a cartoon form of exhortation. It is about people; it is not about types.”
That didn’t sit well with the experimental, highly politicized theater from which Hare sprang, nor with many lefties who feared a literary champion’s fire was waning.
But the focus on people, not the political, is a key reason why Chance artistic director Oanh Nguyen chose Skylight as the first non-musical play he’s directed since 2015. “The politics are in there, in that you have a self-made character whose focus is on making money and another one concerned with taking care of others in need, and when they talk about things like privilege and misogyny, it feels like this play could have been written today,” Nguyen says.
While the play has a larger conversation, “it also feels so intimate,” he continues. “Rarely do you see a play where true love is the obstacle; it’s usually what [drives] a play.”
Rather than keeping the older, free-market-loving restaurateur and his former lover, a female schoolteacher who works with underprivileged kids, together, love keeps them apart in Skylight, Nguyen explains. That’s why his focus isn’t on amplifying the meaning of their words as much as what they “need from each other. What they’re talking about are just tools and tactics,” he says, but it’s their connection—or lack thereof—that is more important.
Just as Skylight came at a pivotal point in Hare’s writing career, this production comes at such a time for the Chance. It has grown to such a point that, including landing a contract to use union actors, paying everyone who works on a show and cultivating a generous donor base, it no longer has to worry about respect or whether it will make the rent next month. It’s no longer the little engine that thinks it can; it knows it can. But, Nguyen says, that only means it’s time to think about the next mountain. In five years, the lease expires, and the theater has an option to renew for another 10. But Nguyen likes the idea of owning a building that would include a 250-seat and a 100-seat theater (currently, its two spaces hold 150 and 50).
“We worked hard and sacrificed a lot,” says Nguyen, who delayed starting a family with his wife until three years ago (they now have 2-and-a-half-year-old twins). “But now we’re starting to think about ‘How do we get it to a place where it can survive without us?’ We’re talking about sustainably, and that’s why the space is so important. I can’t tell you how many theater companies have been destroyed by a lease.”
But don’t be surprised if, instead of moving somewhere such as Santa Ana’s arts district or the Paris of North Orange County known as Fullerton, the Chance stays where it’s always been—a flat, northeast-ish part of Anaheim with as much in common with the rest of that town (including the rest of Anaheim Hills) as South Coast Plaza has with Santa Ana.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but this is an amazing place to be,” Nguyen says. “If you’re coming from South County, you take the toll road, which pretty much ends at our front door. People from Riverside and Corona drive against traffic. It’s much closer to LA than South Coast Repertory, and you don’t have to deal with the 5 and 22 [exchange]. We feel very lucky to be here.”
He really said that. About Anaheim Hills.
Skylight at the Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (888) 455-4212; chancetheater.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through May 19. $20-$39.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???