September 28, 2000
It's a small empire, admittedly, but the 6-year-old Grove Theatre Center in Garden Grove, a sleepy Orange County suburb, is building its own makeshift theatre circuit, small venue by small venue. Run by its managing director Charles Johansen and artistic director Kevin Cochran, GTC already has two mid-sized stages of its own—an outdoor 300-seater and an indoor venue with 172 seats, aptly named the Gem—and has added a summer residency at Fullerton's outdoor Muckenthaler amphitheatre. Using a variety of Equity contracts, from the Small Professional Theatre to Letter of Agreement referencing LORT, the Grove has attracted seasoned L.A. performers (including an annual visit from the inspired Bard-manglers the Troubadour Theatre Company) and even some L.A. audiences.
But this weekend the Grove brings the mountain to Mohammed with the opening of its 98-seat venue in Burbank, to be called GTC/Burbank The space is known to some theatregoers as the Burbank Little Theatre, on the grounds of George Izay Park; the venue had been dark for more than a year since the children's theatre company Serendipity gave up the lease. Opening first at the new Grove is Denise Moses' one-woman show Girly Americana, and planned are more original plays, co-productions with homeless L.A. companies (including Troubadour), and possibly some productions that originate at the Garden Grove headquarters. Indeed, the hope is to have productions move both ways. "Up here we can workshop shows, put them on on a smaller level," said Cochran recently. "We'll try out more new work here."
The flexibility of Equity's 99-Seat Plan, which applies in L.A. but not Orange County, will allow Cochran and Johansen to mount more experimental fare more cheaply than they can in Garden Grove, and they're mulling whether to form a dues-paying ensemble company for the new Burbank space. They hastened to add that their subscription audiences in Garden Grove are not milquetoasts and have often surprised them—looking askance at traditional musical fare, for instance, while turning a revival of Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine into a box-office hit.
"The only times we've had failures was when we tried to second-guess what the audience wanted," admitted Johansen. "I try to program what I think is good theatre, rather than what an audience will like." Once you've done that, though, Johansen said, "You've got to listen to your audience."
Preferring to think of themselves as "impresarios" rather than empire builders, Johansen and Cochran will be putting a lot of miles on the freeways, but they're already used to it. "Most of the people we use are from L.A.," explained Johansen. "We hold auditions up here. We've even done some rehearsals up here. Garden Grove will always be our home base, but having the L.A. venue is really important."