By Jill Fales
The Costa Mesa Playhouse is everything a community theater should be, welcoming, intimate, diverse, affordable, and funky.
After almost half a century, the not-for-profit playhouse roots run deep and wide. The first show in 1965 was “Send Me No Flowers” and Tom Titus, legendary theater reviewer for the Daily Pilot, played a cameo role in the production.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit with Mike Brown, the president of the board of Costa Mesa Playhouse, and his wife Barbara Brown, who also serves on the board. The board is comprised entirely of volunteers. It is a labor of love for both Mike and Barbara who together have done everything at the theater: act, direct, design scenery, organize ticketing, work the box office and create sets, do lighting, and even scrub the bathrooms.
I asked Mike how he first became involved in theater. “My first play was a Christmas show in 5th grade. In high school I started taking drama classes, that’s when I got hooked, doing school plays.” He became president of his high school’s drama club in Garden Grove and after graduation in 1964, attended OCC as a theater major.
“My first show at OCC was a summer production of ‘The Sound of Music’. I had a small part. Someone named Diane Hall was cast as Maria. That fall, I was in ‘Bye-Bye Birdie’ and Diane Hall was again cast as the lead.” (Diane Hall dropped out of OCC after a year, moved to Manhattan and adopted her mother’s Maiden name Keaton).
In 1967, Mike was cast as the lead in the Old Laguna Playhouse production of “The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd.” Shortly after, he was drafted and spent two years in the army in Vietnam. After Mike’s tour of duty, he arrived home in 1970 and jumped right back in to theater, playing Buffalo Bill in “Indians” at Orange Coast College (OCC).
Soon though, Mike’s lifelong interest and love of movies began to take center stage. He moved to L.A. and dabbled in screenwriting.
In 1974, Barbara Beld was recently divorced with three kids. She decided to go to OCC to pursue a nursing degree. One of her instructors suggested she take an acting class. She decided to give it a try and signed up for Beginning Acting. “My instructor came up to me one day and said, they are reading for a play in the auditorium, I want you to go and audition for it.” Looking back, Barbara, modestly jokes that it being her first audition, “I was really bad.” But she was cast. From there, Barbara became a member of The Crazy Troupe Toad Players, an OCC instructor-developed company. They were invited to perform at the International Theater Festival in Baltimore. She also performed street theater with Subject to Change Theater Company, and The Found Theater in Long Beach where she spent 25 years.
While Barbara never became a nurse, they say laughter is the best medicine, and her comedic timing and natural ability to make people laugh has made people feel good for over 30 years.
Mike and Barbara’s creative and personal paths crossed in 1975. By this time Mike was entrenched in his screenwriting and filmmaking in L.A., but decided to accompany a friend who was going to audition for a show at OCC. Barbara walked in to audition. The director needed an extra person to do an improv scene with Barbara, and because he knew Mike, suggested he act as her scene partner. The only directions given: Mike was to be granite and Barbara, Mud.
“The next thing I knew, this woman was wrapping herself around my legs and climbing up my body,” Mike said.
“I didn’t think anything of it, that’s what mud does,” laughs Barbara.
They dated for 10 years, living separately. Finally Mike moved in with her and a year later (1986) they were married.
While Mike and Barbara pursed their passions in theater in and film in Los Angeles and Long Beach, the Costa Mesa Playhouse continued to grow. By the eighties, it had relocated from an auditorium on the fairgrounds to its present location on Hamilton Avenue, just off Harbor.
The Browns discovered the playhouse in 2003-2004. “A friend who was directing “Anne Frank” invited us to audition. We never knew [the theater] was here.”
It was natural then, that Mike and Barbara, residents of Costa Mesa, continued to deepen their involvement in the playhouse, eventually becoming members of the board in 2005.
“We want to produce shows that we can get an audience for, but also are willing to take risks and offer a diverse season.” They have learned that the playhouse’s risks have paid off. While they sell season subscriptions now, it’s still a struggle to attract audiences to community theater. The exception are the “Nunsense” shows which are doing very well. This season, the playhouse has a wonderfully eclectic group of shows. Theater goers still have a chance to see “Nunsense” through March 11. After Sister Julia Child of God, the Little Sisters of Hoboken’s cook, has accidentally poisoned all but a handful of sisters, they must pay for the burial. In order to raise the funds, the nuns decide to put on a variety show. There are two casts to choose from, the typical all female cast, and a fun all male cast, “Nunsense A-Men”.
In April, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” opens. Followed by “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” Book by John Cameron Mitchell, Music & Lyrics by Stephen Trask.
Every year in addition to their season, there are many projects involving the upkeep and improvement of the theater that must be done. Barbara and Mike are quick to point out that they could not alone, keep the theater thriving. Without the help of many people, the playhouse bringing quality theater to life inside the 73 seat theater, and improvements happen regularly. New carpet was recently laid throughout the lobby and the house. This season, Mike and board members Steve Endicott and actor Travis Stolp, painstakingly removed all of the old seats and installed new ones, (generously donated by South Coast Repertory).
Steve Endicott who is the treasurer and the primary light and set designer, lead the seat replacement efforts and is not only talented but a good money manager. The Browns expressed their gratitude for all that Steve, and his wife Kathy Endicott, also a board member, have done. “There would be no playhouse without Steve Endicott” Mike adds, explaining that his financial astuteness has saved the theater more than once.
One thing that makes community theater, a true community theater, is the close knit threads that bind everyone together, through better or worse, passion and energy is poured into each show, on stage as much as behind the scenes. The audience at the Costa Mesa Playhouse cannot help but experience that passion and energy as well.
For more information about upcoming shows, ticket prices, or auditions, or how to become involved, visit www.costamesaplayhouse.org