I was skeptical when my friend Megan started telling me I should check out the Chance Theater in Anaheim. Anaheim is known for many things, including Disneyland and both MLB’s Angels and the NHL’s Ducks, but its theatre scene isn’t really on the list (at least it hasn’t been as far as I’ve known). My preconceived notions of what Anaheim theatre would be were chucked out the window when I finally accepted an invitation to try it.

The Southern California premiere of Will Eno’s Middletown will hold a place in my personal history for being what I saw the night I fell in love with the Chance.

RELATED: Read what I wrote about that fateful night when it happened.

When I heard that Oanh Nguyen, the theatre’s founding Artistic Director, would be directing the musical version of Big Fish there this summer, I jumped at the chance to talk to him about the remarkably cozy theatre he’s built and the next production I expect to love there.

Leona Laurie: I have to tell you that going to the Chance is the best theatre experience I’ve had, like, ever. To the point where I kind of don’t care what’s on; I know I’m going to have a good time.

Oanh Nguyen: You are amazing. You are now our poster child. Thank you so much for sharing that.

LL: You’re a founder of the theatre. Are you the founder?

ON: There are four of us. Erika C. Miller (Development Director), Casey Long (Managing Director), Jeff Hellebrand (Box Office Associate) and myself.

LL: Why start a theatre? Was it a life-long dream?

ON: We were all itinerant artists. While wandering between different theatre, T.V. and film projects, we felt something was lacking. We weren’t collaborating on the stories we were interested in, and we didn’t have the community or home we were craving. So a handful of us started writing plays and self-producing. After a little success combined with youthful optimism, we started thinking: “You know what we should do? We should start our own theatre!”

Almost 20 years later, it’s been an incredible journey. Telling stories to bring people together, telling stories to help people better understand each other, telling stories to inspire people to think differently or to think more creatively… has been guiding principles from start. It’s more succinctly stated in our mission statement. Contributing to a more connected, compassionate and creative community defines what we’re trying to do here, in Anaheim.

LL: Anaheim! I mean they’ve got the sports, and they’ve got the Disney, but theatre and culture? I didn’t know they did that.

ON: There’s actually much more here than people know, and it’s only growing. But to your point, when we applied for our conditional use permit so many years ago, the City Council was not too sure about our intentions since a couple of other “theatres” in Anaheim were strip joints.

LL: So, it’s not just me.

ON: Not 20 years ago.

LL: What about the name? Was that the one you were doodling on your notebook in high school and couldn’t wait to use some day? 

ON: Yeah, actually! We lost our drama teacher in high school, so the drama students got together and said, “Well, that’s not going to stop us.” We started producing plays and musicals for the school under the name Theatre of Chance.

Fast forward to 1999, when (the founders of the current theatre) were exploring possible names, we went back to the word “Chance.” Opportunity, adventure, serendipity—you know those “magical moments of chance”—all that seemed like a good fit for what we wanted to create. So, yes, it literally was something I jotted down in a notebook in high school.

No one’s ever asked me that question like that before.

LL: I guess you haven’t been interviewed by that many high school drama nerds.

You’re in the Anaheim High School Hall of Fame. Does that mean that that is where you went to high school?

ON: That is where I went to high school, absolutely.

LL: So, between that origin and where you’ve chosen to stake your claim for almost 20 years now, you are a hardcore local theatre guy who has decided to bring his artistic perspective to Orange County—a place that is not terribly well regarded in terms of being a cultural center.

ON: That’s going to change. It has to change. Orange County is so diverse. There are so many different ethnicities, cultures and interests here. We have the resources and the educational institutions to support it. I am personally looking forward to a time when the theatre landscape in OC is deep in professional, mid-size theatres. So in addition to the larger theaters producing work for a much larger demographic, we would have many more intimate, 150- to 250-seat houses telling more of the stories that need to be told. Aside from helping theatre reach deeper into the community, it would also make it much easier for artists to call OC their home. Orange County deserves it, Orange County can support it and we’re hoping that as we grow, we are helping lead the charge.

LL: One of the productions that you directed at the Chance was The Who’s Tommy, which began at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.

ON: Right.

LL: Like the La Jolla Playhouse, you stage a lot of new work. Are you aiming to become a launchpad like they are, sending plays off to Broadway?

ON: Helping to develop new work, absolutely! Wind up on Broadway? Not sure if that’s a goal, but we would be happy if it happened.

Artists who have workshopped scripts at Chance go on to premiere these and other works in major regional theatres, and have garnered national visibility, such as Jenny Connell Davis’ and (former resident playwright) Lauren Yee’s recognition from The Kilroys. Additionally, Adam Szymkowicz received LA and NYC premieres of Nerve after our production. His play Rare Birds received a workshop reading in the 2016 On the Radar (OTR) series, then a world premiere at Red Fern Theatre Company, and was published by Dramatists Play Service in 2017. Nick JonesVerite premiered at LCT3 after a Chance reading. Chance’s production of Marshall Pailet‘s Triassic Parq – The Musical won the Ovation Award for Best Musical. After the OTR reading of Pailet’s Who’s Your Baghdaddy?, it premiered Off-Broadway and garnered a New York Times Critic’s Pick. Chance premiered his latest musical Loch Ness, which was developed entirely within the OTR series and will be produced at a much larger theatre in New York this year. Lauren Yee’s Samsara was published by Samuel French after the 2015 Chance production of the piece. We were so proud and thrilled when we saw her production of Cambodian Rock Band at South Coast Repertory.

RELATED: I LOOOOOVED Cambodian Rock Band.

Loch Ness Chance Theater Oanh Nguyen

In The Heights at the Chance Theater, Directed by Oanh Nguyen. Image courtesy Chance Theater

Speaking of SCR, longtime Chance director, Kari Hayter, and longtime company member, Kelly Todd, are both making their magic there this season. (Kelly’s also choreographing Big Fish). Our lead actress of the first show in our new space, Devon Hadsell, who played the title role in Lysistrata Jones, is making her Broadway debut right now in Mean Girls. We were thrilled to see her performing on the Tony’s!

Being a hothouse for emerging artists is something we get excited about.

RELATED: Kari Hayter is an amazing director.

LL: Let’s talk about Big Fish. I’m familiar with the movie it’s based on, but this will be my first experience with the musical. 

ON: When we were looking at our 20th season, we wanted to celebrate storytelling and how stories can change us, and how stories can change the world, or how stories can help us cope or give us insight to ourselves or to the storyteller. Most importantly, how stories build communities. Big Fish is very much a play about the power of storytelling.

Big Fish Musical Chance Theater

LL: The only person I’m recognizing is Monika Peña, who was the lead in Violet and was marvelous. Are any of the other members of the cast people who have been on stage recently at the Chance?

RELATED: Monika Peña really was wonderful in Violet.

ON: Yes, there are company members: Monika Peñaas you mentioned, Laura Hathaway from our Secret Garden and Little Women, and Rachel Oliveros Catalano from In the Heights and James and the Giant Peach. There are a few returning artists: Matt Takahashi, from Loch Ness. Devin Collins was in ParadeJason Brewer was in Secret Garden, and he was discovered through one of our youth programs. Plus more than half of the cast is making their Chance debut, including our two male leads, Jeff Lowe and Jared Price.

In The Heights Chance Theater 2014 Oanh Nguyen

In The Heights at the Chance Theater, Directed by Oanh Nguyen. Image courtesy Chance Theater

LL: You mentioned In the Heights, which reminded me that Ruben Carbajal, who has been playing the dual roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in the first national tour of Hamilton, made his professional debut in your production.

ON: We’re so proud of him. He generously donated multiple programs and posters signed by the Hamilton cast for our gala last year. Such a great talent and person.

LL: I’ve heard such great things about the production of A Chorus Line that you directed in 2016, but I don’t like that show, so I didn’t make the effort to go. It was before I had developed this attitude of, “If it’s at the Chance, I’ll enjoy it.” I regret that, but looking through the rest of what you’ve directed I’m like, “I missed Hair in 2009?” There’s a lot of stuff you’ve done that I wish that I could have been there for. 

Hair Chance Theater 2009 Oanh Nguyen

Hair at the Chance Theater, Directed by Oanh Nguyen. Image courtesy Chance Theater

ON: That was a special production for us. Kelly Todd choreographed that, too. Projection & lighting were by KC Wilkerson and scenic by Christopher Scott Murillo. In the final scene of our production of Hair, we projected a representation of the Vietnam Memorial, except only with the names of servicemen from Orange County. So you can imagine the responses we received from our audiences, “That was my grandfather,” or, “That was my father.” And, of course, we do talk-backs after every show, so the conversations between the audiences and artists were intense and beautiful.

LL: Will you be reviving that? I would like to see it, please.

ON: We haven’t done a lot of reviving of shows. We did produce Tommy three times — Segerstrom Center right afterwards, and more recently at Chapman University as the first musical in the Musco Center. So you never know.

LL: I’ve been telling everyone I know since I saw Middletown that they should get to the Chance. What would you say makes Big Fish the right show to push them over the edge and get them to go?

ON: Big Fish is a big romantic, whimsical, magical and funny story about family, true love- and werewolves, mermaids, witches and giants. Approaching this larger-than-life story in our space, we are employing a level of projection and puppetry design that we have never done before. So it’s super ambitious for us.

At the same time, we’re asking big questions because, as you know from the movie, there’s all these stories within stories within stories, so we’re constantly asking, “Who’s telling this story, and why are they telling this story and what are they hoping to get from the story?” We’re trying not lose sight of what’s happening with the present characters and who’s telling these stories and why.

It’s difficult because these stories are sometimes impossibly elaborate and exciting, and romantic and heartwarming, so you can easily get seduced into over-investing in those moments and losing track of the family dynamics actually happening on stage.

I think we’re asking really hard questions, and I think we’re answering a lot of those questions in interesting ways. Even if you’ve seen this musical before, I think you’re going to have a very different experience with it at the Chance. I hope.

LL: I would say, yes. Even though this seems like such a little thing, honestly what I tell people about the Chance is the atmosphere you’ve created there is so comfortable.

ON: Oh good.

LL: People sometimes think, “I kind of want to go and have the theatre experience, but aside from the play, all of it is going to be so draining and costly that I don’t want to go.” In your case it’s like, “Who even cares what the play is, the whole evening is going to be fun.”

ON: Aww. That’s amazing. I like that quote.

LL: And the plays are good!

ON: Even better! We do strive to maintain a comfortable home, because theatre is one of those rare places where people can still engage in person. People with very different ideas, and different experiences and different world views can sit in a room and see something and have completely different responses. We open the door for people to talk about those responses. So, I think for that kind of dialogue to exist, for people to truly engage, the environment has to be safe and comfortable. You need to feel like you’re there as part of a family.

Big Fish runs at the Chance Theater from June 29, 2018  — July 29, 2018. If you can get there, you definitely should. Tickets are available at chancetheater.com. If you can’t make this one, please plan on a visit to the Chance the next time you’re in Orange County!


Leona Laurie