(Garden Grove, CA) February, 2014 – When people walk casually by the Garden Grove Festival Amphitheatre during the summertime, they might witness a common ritual. First, they will hear a variety of vocal exercises by the actors emanating from the space; for a 550 seat venue, projection is everything. Next, there are the sound checks for music cues, as well as the clinking of dueling swords as fight scenes are rehearsed. The sun begins to set, and tickets are being sold while people are starting to congregate around the park for the Green Show, where a farcical sketch is performed, warming up the audience for the play later that evening. And when darkness descends and all the patrons take their seats inside, a world is created by the talented collection of actors, directors, and designers at the amphitheatre.
Since 1992, Shakespeare Orange County (SOC) has produced the highest quality of classical theatre in Southern California, resulting in box-office success and critical acclaim. When Tom Bradac stepped down as artistic director after its 2013 season, there was speculation if the company was going to survive. But all concerns were quickly dismissed when veteran film, theatre, and television actor John Walcutt (Titanic, Little Miss Sunshine, Lost, JAG, Criminal Minds) accepted Bradac’s offer to take the professional reigns and continue this Orange County cultural tradition. Under this new artistic direction, Shakespeare Orange County will expand its season and its outreach throughout Southern California.
“All the World's a Stage”
When mentioning the Garden Grove Festival Amphitheatre, John Walcutt cannot help smile with nostalgic joy. His first experience with Orange County Shakespearean theatre occurred when he was cast in the 1982 productions of Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet at The Grove Shakespeare Festival, the same venue where he met The Grove’s Artistic Director Tom Bradac. Twenty-two years later, Walcutt is now the new artistic director of Shakespeare Orange County. “The Garden Grove Amphitheatre is truly a beautiful place to perform and to see a play. It’s really a pleasure,” Walcutt says. “There’s so much young talent around here! And the audience is potentially enormous and extremely diverse.”
The foundation for Shakespeare Orange County occurred as far back as 1979 when Tom Bradac was hired by the City of Garden Grove to manage and direct the 172-seat theatre, The Gem, which launched the Grove Shakespeare Festival. But after twelve successful years, Bradac resigned from The Grove due to differences regarding the direction of the theatre.
“To Be or Not To Be”
However, as the old saying goes, “When a door closes, a window opens up.” Bradac launched Shakespeare Orange County in 1992 at Chapman University’s Waltmar Theatre. As he points out, the mission was “to keep Shakespeare alive in Orange County and train young actors by apprenticing with an Equity company.” By combining the enthusiastic energies of Chapman University theatre students with the seasoned passion of their Equity mentors, SOC established their legacy as a professional theatre company with their critically acclaimed debut season of The Winter’s Tale and Hamlet. As the years went on, the company’s reputation spread with the 1994 production of King Lear starring Ovation winning actor Alan Mandel, resulting in the theatre company being awarded a California Arts Council grant. Other well-renowned productions included Richard III (1995) and Tartuffe (1996) starring Drama Critics Circle award winner Ron Campbell, the 1997 production of The Merchant of Venice starring veteran Canadian actor Neil Vipond (Will & Grace, Medium, Cold Case), and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1998), with Bradac in the starring role of Falstaff.
In 2004, SOC left the Waltmer Theatre and moved into their latest home: Garden Grove’s Festival Amphitheatre. Bradac shares that since this significant evolution, the company has thrived. “In 2004, we…were awarded a Disneyland Community Service Award for $20,000.00, which created a reserve for the company,” he says. “In 2005, we were awarded Orange County Outstanding Arts Organization. In 2007, we received a grant from the Garden Grove Community Foundation to take Romeo and Juliet into Garden Grove intermediate schools to prepare them for high school.”
SOC’s popularity rose with The Taming of the Shrew (2007) and Henry V (2008) starring TV and film actor David Denman (The Office, Big Fish, Angel), a 2012 Prague tour of Venus and Adonis, which was a coproduction of the Prague Shakespeare Festival, and finally 2013’s Twelfth Night and Macbeth starring Walcutt, signaling the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.
“We Are Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On”
Bradac’s decision to step down was due to the conclusion that he did all he could do for the company, as well as discovering that some new blood was needed. “After 38 years producing theatre and 34 [years] in SOC, I realized that it was time for me to step aside,” Bradac says. “John [Walcutt] indicated some interest in continuing the company and I was delighted. He was aware of the history of the theatre and involved in various aspects from the early years. He was a perfect choice.”
Walcutt was enthusiastic to be the new artistic director for SOC. But he also felt a deep sense of dedicated charity, not only to give back to the theatre that has helped provide a good deal of his classical training, but also giving back to the community of Garden Grove, which is known for its cultural diversity.
“As Michael Jordan once said ‘All my life I’ve known, I’m the one. Give me the ball when the game’s on the line,’” Walcutt says. “I’ve always felt kind of the same way (not on that scale, of course), but I know I can lead and I know I can organize and I know I can get things done. So, here I go.”
Walcutt’s goals are to build on the present SOC audience by expanding the outreach to the multicultural Garden Grove, where a reported 76 languages are spoken. The first step to opening that door to the community was creating a new theatre motto, “One Big Family Under the Stars,” which was inspired by a special saying.
“My wife—[Duck Soon], who’s Korean—gave me this great quote from South Korean President Park: ‘I fell in love with the English language through the plays of William Shakespeare,’” Walcutt says. “That’s magnificent! I’m spreading it everywhere! I’ve had it translated into English, Vietnamese, and Spanish. It’s going to be on all our materials.”
The next step for Walcutt was to expand the season all summer long from May to September, as well as teaching its first Summer Children’s Performing Arts Conservatory (ages 5-19) that will result in an actual performance at the amphitheatre. He has already scheduled a three-play run produced specifically by SOC. The first show will be Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will take place in a Polynesian setting. Bradac will act for the first time in 16 years by portraying the buffoonish Bottom. To add to the Polynesian flavor, Walcutt has brought on board Garden Grove’s award-winning Polynesian Dance Troupe, where 50 dancers, 10 musicians, and 20 children will add to the cultural flavor of the play.
The next show will be The Tavern, a vaudeville/comedy/ mystery/melodrama written by legendary playwright and composer George M. Cohen. Midsummer will be directed by Susan Angelo and The Tavern will be directed by Mike Peebler, two talented actors and directors known for their esteemed work at The Theatricum Botanicum (The Will Geer Theatre) in Topanga Canyon. The last SOC show will be Romeo and Juliet, directed by Walcutt and co-produced by The Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA).The play will not only feature The Cambodian Family Dance Company and martial artists from a Garden Grove dojo, the cast will be a cultural melting pot—Caucasian, African-American, Filipino, Vietnamese, Latino—symbolizing and celebrating the diversity of Garden Grove.
SOC will also serve as host for a couple of well-renowned LA companies to present their shows for short runs. There is The Troubadour Theater Company, who will perform their Shakespeare/cabaret/pop music review, A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream. And then there is the award-winning Antaeus Company, who will produce a show that is yet to be decided. Wrapping up the season will be a show presented by the Backhaus Dance Company, whose founder, Jennifer Backhaus, is professor of Dance at Chapman University, as well as Trieu Tran’s one man show, Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam, which details his escape from Vietnam.
Walcutt has a lot on his plate transforming this overall vision into a reality. He is always looking for volunteers to help him and his staff, as well as sponsors. He has already approached many high prominent organizations and companies for donations in the hopes of gaining their support, including the Garden Grove Community Foundation, the Garden Grove Strawberry Festival Association, Macy’s, Disney, Wolf Creek and many others. But overall, Walcutt is extremely optimistic that Shakespeare Orange County will indeed be “One Big Family Under the Stars,” especially since ARTS OC has awarded a generous grant to help with the company’s evolution and outreach.
“I want it to be a community theatre in the best sense of that phrase,” he says. “First and foremost, about this community. I think everything else will follow.”
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
Click here to know more about Shakespeare Orange County, especially about their new season.
12762 Main St.
Garden Grove, CA 92840
Contact email: [email protected]
All Photos courtesy of Shakespeare Orange County