Today in hell freezes over

Perrier is now served in Hades, water is flowing uphill and clocks are running backwards.
How else to explain the announcement yesterday that Dave Barton, Orange County's longtime theatrical agent provocateur (and OC Weekly arts writer) will program the 2013 season at Stages Theatre, OC's longest established storefront theater?
It's not like Stages is an old fuddy-duddy community theater reeling out tired play after tired play. Sure, it has had its share of Odd Couples, Steel Magnolias and Lend me a Tenors. But in its 20-year history, it's also delivered a host of new plays, along with work by Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Sam Shepard and other top-shelf playwrights. Hell, Fred Willard's even performed there.

Celebrity-Autobiography-Photo-2-Fred-Willard.jpg
NOT Dave Barton.From ...

stageandcinema.com


But as diverse as its scores of plays have been over the years, the programming choices at  Stages--like every other theater in OC's history not associated with Barton-- haven't come close to the visceral, politically infused and sexually driven work seen on the stages at Rude Guerrilla and the Monkey Wrench Collective, theater entities that Barton has run the past 14 years.
But he's now running the show in terms of picking material. And he's the first to admit that his year-long trial run at Stages won't be Monkey Wrench redux.
"I don't think you're going to see plays like Shopping and Fucking at Stages," Barton said, mentioning one of the myriad of "in-yer-face" plays by British playwrights that he's introduced to local audiences. "But I can pretty much assure you that we won't be doing any Neil Simon."
Stages' former artistic director, Mike Martin, stepped down last month due to finding full-time employment. That left a vacuum. Barton, who closed the Monkey Wrench in Fullerton last December,  placed a friendly call to Stages' executive director, Amanda DeMaio, just to see what was up.
"She joked that she thought I was the new artistic director," Barton said. He chuckled and didn't think much of it. But the more he thought about it, and the more people he talked to, the stronger this quite remote possibility became. So he called DeMaio again, asked her if she was serious about considering him for the gig, and she was "incredibly enthusiastic."
Two three-hour meetings later with DeMaio and the rest of the brain trust at Stages, and Barton was the man.
"I'm not going to scare anyone away," said Barton, who has been assured of a free rein by Stages' board of directors. "I'm not going to run Stages into the ground by programming a full season of work that no one's heard of. Some plays people will not know well,  but we'll also have classics and maybe even a musical. I don't think the people who have been going there the past decade (since Stages moved to Fullerton) are going to stop going. They had a fantastic season (box-office wise) last year and my goal is to keep those coffers filled. And that's a challenge for me, because I was basically funding my two theater companies. And I've never produced theater to make money. But now I have someone else's pocketbook to worry about and I have to take that into consideration."
Barton will benefit from Stages' solid audience base, its deep roots in the theater and Fullerton community, and an infrastructure that includes Jon Gaw, merely the county's best set designer not working at South Coast Repertory.
And what does Stages get out of it?
"Certainly his passion and his motivation were factors," DeMaio said. "And his approach to theater was something that we were really looking for. We felt a need to be reinvigorated and we're excited to see if he can get us to a place where we are all surrounded by that passion. We don't want to re-create what we've done in the past, but maintaining our audience base is very important. We don't want to frighten people away, but we also believe that we can broaden people's horizons and give them something different. This is his first chance to program an established theater with a real audience base and the goal is to grow and afford a fuller artistic experience for everyone involved."
This doesn't mean that Stages 2013 will be Monkey Wrench Collective 2013. Though Barton will choose the plays, the board of directors will still have to green-light the projects.
"Not every play has to be ultra-dramatic," Demaio said. "Sometime people come to theater to escape and don't want to think all the time. We're not here to stifle Dave but with that comes the trust that he's looking out for the best interests of the theater. We talked for hours and hours about philosophies and ideas and processes and baggage and I really feel we're on the same page. I can truly say we haven't been this enthusiastic for some time."
It's a year-long experiment and, if Barton's programming choices don't equate to ticket sales, both he and DeMaio said they'll be fine parting ways with no hard feelings.
Whatever happens (and the bet from this quarter is that the fusion of Barton's edgy, gritty sensibilities with Stages' proven track record will work), the announcement makes Stages the most interesting theater in Orange County. Stay tuned.

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