OCEANSIDE — It’s not easy being a small theater company. Putting on quality professional theatre is expensive. Putting on a musical, which requires extensive rehearsal, choreography and personnel, is even more costly.
That’s why two local professional theatre companies, Oceanside Theatre Company and Scripps Ranch Theatre, have teamed up to bring North County a bigger, better production than either could separately.
“Lucky Stiff” is a frolicking musical romcom full of hilarious hijinks in which English shoe salesman Harry Witherspoon agrees to take his dead uncle’s corpse on vacation to Monte Carlo in hopes of winning his inheritance — which it turns out was embezzled from his uncle’s girlfriend’s husband. The musical farce, written by the Tony-award-winning writing team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and directed by Moonlight Theatre founder Kathy Brombacher, offers audiences a wonderful sense of escapism.
It also requires actors to sing, dance, change the sets, and play multiple characters with a variety of accents.
A production of this complexity takes extensive rehearsal time – and time is money. Much of a theatre’s budget goes to staffing.
“Since Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) went into effect in 2020, industries with gigging artists, like the theatre, have had to adjust from paying modest stipends to actors and crew to paying minimum wage,” Alex Goodman, Oceanside Theatre Company’s Managing Director explained. “While there is no reasonable argument against paying artists a better wage, the added expense is significant and makes producing shows with larger casts much more challenging.”
Small theaters are often thought of as community theaters, but there is a crucial difference between a community theatre, in which everyone involved is a volunteer, and small professional theaters like Oceanside Theatre Company and Scripps Ranch Theatre that serve their communities and pay their artists and employees.
“The more we can pay artists, the less they have to work day jobs, and the more they can focus on the craft of making theatre,” Goodman said. “When we pay artists a living wage, we attract a more invested caliber of artist. Not to say that actors with day jobs are less talented than actors who are able to pay their bills with theatre, but many talented actors will not audition for shows that don’t pay them what they need.”
Professional theatre is also crucial to establishing equity and leveling the playing field for artists. Not everyone can afford to practice their craft for free.
“Theatre has a long history of undervaluing artists. Paying artists a decent wage acknowledges the value they bring, and compensates them for their time and efforts,” said Goodman. “Theatre does not exist without the labor of artists.”
Artists need to eat and the arts feed communities. Local professional theatre is an economic driver for communities. In addition to money spent on theatre tickets, patrons often enjoy a night out at restaurants, shop for new clothes for going out, hire childcare, and pay for parking or transportation. It offers entertainment and a creative outlet within reach and builds closer connections to the community. For North County residents, it’s a pleasant way to spend a night out without worrying about a long drive to San Diego.
However, with Oceanside Theatre Company’s operating budgets of less than $250,000 for the entire season and fiscal year – a sharp contrast to the larger regional theaters like La Jolla Playhouse which had a $14 million operating budgets in 2022 – a production like “Lucky Stiff” would be out of reach.
“If we weren’t splitting costs with Scripps Ranch Theatre, we’d never be able to put on a production like ‘Lucky Stiff,’ ” explains Oceanside Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Ted Leib, who also plays Luigi in the musical. In addition to staffing costs, it’s not uncommon for 20% of box office sales to go to royalties, in contrast to about 5%-10% for non-musicals.
“Lucky Stiff” is the fourth collaboration between the two theaters, which began with “Outside Mullingar” in 2018. The two theaters make it work by dividing the bill evenly for rehearsals while each company pays for production expenses incurred on their own stages.
According to Leib, Scripps Ranch Theatre and Oceanside Theatre Company are so localized that they generally don’t compete for patrons. “One major advantage of teaming with another theatre company is that we can reach an audience that otherwise would not normally travel to our space,” said Leib. “In the case of this collaboration, Scripps Ranch and Oceanside are about 40 miles from one another, so there is very little crossover of our respective patron base. Raising awareness among each company’s audience of our partner theatre benefits both.”
“Audiences have the chance to see one show in two distinct spaces that offer unique dynamics,” Goodman said.
Scripps Ranch Theatre, which is located on the campus of Alliant University in San Diego, seats an intimate 118 in a building with an indoor/outdoor-style lobby and sits in a tranquil area close to Miramar. The design of four long rows and an end stage set-up puts audience members up close to actors. Intermission during “Lucky Stiff’s” recent run at SRT offered glimpses of hooting owls aloft in the eucalyptus trees under a still night sky.
By contract, Oceanside Theatre Company sits in the historic Brooks Theatre in the heart of Oceanside’s designated cultural district amidst the bustling night life surrounded by restaurants and within walking distance of the ocean, pier, and rooftop bars of the new hotels. The 198-seat theater was once a movie theater and its much larger raised stage puts distance between the actors and audience while offering more room for choreography.
Audience members would be remiss not to turn a visit to the Brooks Theatre into dinner and theatre, or at the very least dessert and theatre with a visit to Handel’s Ice Cream across the street. Patrons can also take full advantage of the welcoming lobby, home to the thoughtfully curated Brooks Theatre Gallery featuring rotating art exhibits that reflects each show’s theme. The theme for “Lucky Stiff” is “Take a Chance.”
“I’m reluctant to compare them,” said Leib. “Intimate spaces offer performers the opportunity to connect more directly with the audience. You can really make eye contact with everyone when they’re only a few feet away. And it’s easier for the audience to feel that they’re in the same space – in the case of Lucky Stiff, Monte Carlo – when they’re that close. A larger space, like OTC’s, allows for more movement, and more depth to the set pieces, which can raise the piece to the level of spectacle. Both of these experiences can be thrilling and moving!”
Oceanside Theatre Company and Scripps Ranch Theatre invite audiences to take a chance on small local theater by coming to see “Lucky Stiff” as it moves to the Brooks Theatre in Oceanside through March 19. Performances run Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays after opening night at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets at OceansideTheatre.org or 760-433-8900.