Chance Theater

Performers practice the edgy satiric musical about American history, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" at The Chance Theater. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times / July 11, 2013)

It's rare for small theaters in Southern California to grow into midsize theaters because of the expense and risk that come with expanding from a storefront to a house of 100 seats or more.

But the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills, among the smallest at 49 seats, is contemplating a leap that would live up to the company's name. The Chance, which started in 1998 as Spare Change Productions in wry acknowledgment of its then-minuscule resources, is thinking of tripling its seating in the near future.

The nonprofit Chance enjoys support from a quarter that might surprise people who think Darwinian struggle is how the world works. Leaders of Orange County's flagship theater company, South Coast Repertory, have been giving advice, encouragement and even money as the Chance considers taking a giant step while remaining in Anaheim Hills, about 10 miles from Disneyland and 20 from SCR's three-stage, multimillion-dollar complex in Costa Mesa.

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"They really remind me in a large way of SCR in its younger days," said Martin Benson, who launched South Coast Rep in 1964 with co-founder and co-artistic director David Emmes, starting with a traveling production of Molière's "Tartuffe" packed into Emmes' station wagon.

Benson discovered the Chance several years ago, began formally mentoring its artistic director, Oanh Nguyen, in 2010, and joined the Chance's board of directors about a year ago.

"I liked the work they were doing," he said. "I liked the people there and their spirit, their professional way of connecting with an audience. They're not looking to get a part in a TV series."

"The Chance," Benson said, "has a chance to become much more than a 50-seat storefront theater."

Nguyen and his three co-founders, Jeff Hellebrand, Casey Long and Erika C. Miller, help lead a company that has developed two complementary aesthetic signatures while winning consistently good reviews. One is exploiting its intimate, adjustable space to give a high-energy jolt to mainstream musicals, such as "The Who's Tommy," "West Side Story" and titles from the Stephen Sondheim canon, staged to unfold almost in the audience's lap.

The other is a raunchy streak, seen in play selections such as Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" (a respected architect's life shatters when he falls carnally in love with a farm animal) and "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues" (Jeff Goode's ribald Christmas play, a holiday season perennial for the Chance, concerns Santa Claus standing accused of sexually abusing one of his sled-pullers).

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While the Chance was earning an L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation Award for best small-theater musical for its 2011 Southern California premiere of "Jerry Springer: The Opera," conservative Christians were picketing outside, protesting what they considered blasphemy.

"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," running through Aug. 4, continues along the raunchy path while giving the Chance another shot at packing high energy into a small black box.

The emo-rock musical by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, having its first Southern California revival since its 2008 premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, burlesques America's seventh president by presenting him as a crudely profane, dimwitted frontier equivalent of a contemporary rock star.

But the show eventually grows quieter, and more disquieting, examining the moral contradictions and limits on democratic decision-making that rise from Americans' craving for wealth, security and national grandeur.

"It's not like we're looking for raunch," said managing director Long. "We just don't shy away from it."

Though their slim beginnings may have echoed SCR's, the Chance founders said in a recent interview that they can't lay claim to anything like the ambitious founding vision that spurred Benson and Emmes, who stepped down as SCR's artistic directors in 2011 but remain active as board members, artistic advisors and play directors.

"We just wanted to tell good stories well, and hope it worked," said Nguyen. When it came to institution-building, said Hellebrand, who began working with Nguyen when they were drama students at a community college in Santa Ana, "we didn't even know what questions to ask."

The founding lore of South Coast Repertory includes noodle casseroles cooked and consumed in the company members' first communal home. The Chance founders recall subsisting on even less fancy fare while sharing a rented house in Anaheim. Their pantry was a food bank in Covina.

"They always had one or two items special to that week," Nguyen said. "Our favorite was this really soft baked pretzel. That was just heaven."