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Chance Theatre merrily rolls along. Mostly.

February 16, 2010

This is the fifth time Chance Theatre has staged a Stephen Sondheim piece since the ensemble theatre’s inception in 1999. That’s perfectly forgivable for a theatre that blithely moves from musical to drama to musical and back again.

Managing Director, Casey Long, says that what matters most is developing trust with theatergoers. “And we’ve done that. It’s what brings people back. They see us stage a musical and love it, and then they’re willing to gamble on our next dramatic production, too. They know they’ll get quality theatre here.”

Chance defies brand. It’s known, Long says, for its diversity. “This season, for example, we’ve got Sondheim; the Iraq war drama Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter; a Broadway musical I can’t name just yet; Edward Albee’s The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia; and The Secret Garden. All in a 49-seat theatre.”

So how does a 49-seater maintain a staff of six, pay for sets, and give actors stipends? You could hear his voice catch. “Last year,” Long told me, “the staff took a pay cut. We had to. We’re doing all we can to expand our corporate and foundation support. But it’s tough.” Like so many theatres, the recession hurt. “Our biggest challenge is everyone else’s belt tightening,” Long said. “But, we’ve been consistent. Our four original founders are still here and we were recently nominated for six Ovation awards in our first eligible season.”

“We know a lot of people have begun to look at theatre as…” Frivolous, I thought? “Optional,” he said. “So over the last two years we developed new subscription models, including our Sustaining Membership. You contribute $20 a month, see all of our shows as many times as you like, get discounts for your guests, attend opening and closing events if you want, and at the end of the year, write it all off as a charitable contribution.”

Sometimes it helps to be nonprofit by choice.

“We also adjust our ticket prices on our subscriptions,” Long said, “based on your age. If you’re under 40, you pay half your age. So a 20-year-old college student would pay only ten dollars to see each play in a season. And we’re doing all we can to reach out to local colleges.” He cited Cal State Fullerton, Fullerton College, Concordia University, UC Irvine, and others as targets. “We want to get the professors in. We get them, then they start talking to their students about us. We’re also reaching out to the military.”

 That attention to the military was heightened when Chance presented Hair last year. At the end, when Claude sang Let the Sun Shine In, names of Orange County veterans from the Vietnam War Memorial flashed across the stage, swallowing Claude.

 Chance is about to produce Jesus Hates Me at the Nicholas Studio for South Coast Rep. “It’s a restaging,” Long said, “of our West Coast premiere last year. It’s a dark comedy and ran for five weeks. It’ll open at the Nicholas on February 26 and run through March 7.”

And this is telling: Jesus Hates Me includes the same cast as last year. The same crew as last year. And last year’s designer who moved to New York? Coming back just for this.

Chance Theatre, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, CA 92807 (714) 777-3033.

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