Producer T.J. Dawson has been busy. He developed 3-D Theatricals production company with his family, launched its first season last year at the OC Pavilion in Santa Ana, learned his first season there would be his last, then negotiated to assume Fullerton Civic Light Opera’s subscribers and debt while taking over as producer and director of its planned production ofÂ The Drowsy Chaperone. Dawson turns 30 in March.
“It’s like the old adage: God helps those who help themselves,” he says by phone.
Dawson attended the University of Northern Colorado’s musical theater program, where he focused on acting and directing. He left in 2004 before graduating and signed on for an eight-month European tour of Grease. Once ensconced again in Los Angeles, Dawson’s agent found him a lot of auditions. “I was becoming the Callback King,” he says. “I was down to the final two guys for Avenue Q in Las Vegas. I was getting callbacks for films, reading opposite guys like Tom Hanks, but not booking anything because I was either too young or too old.”
Frustrated by loving the industry so much yet working so little, he directed plays, mostly in 99-seat spaces in Los Angeles. The payoff, he explains, is that “there’s a piece of you in every aspect of the show.”
Over time, Dawson grew restless. “I was learning so much but needed to learn more on a larger scale. But the major regional theaters don’t take risks on new people. I know now, as a producer, when you put your artistic team in place, you’re putting the entire show and your money and reputation into those people’s hands. That’s why the larger theaters use the same eight or 10 people over and over again; they’re fantastic and do great work.”
Bottom line, Dawson couldn’t get that first “big” gig.
“I was making my bread and butter at my dad’s company, but that took a toll on my soul. I felt I was selling out and not following my dream.”
He decided toÂ leave the day job and initiated a conversation about his options withÂ his father,Â whoÂ had done well in the oil well tool industry. Â But although the Orange County Register quoted Dawson saying that 3-D was launched with help fromÂ the trust money of him andÂ his siblings, Dawson nowÂ says, “There were some misunderstandings about the financial aspects when we began. This is simply a family venture, and we are working as a family to generate jobs in a down economy and keep live theater thriving in the OC. This has nothing to do with my father’s oil well tool company or inheritance. All are totally unrelated to 3-D.”
At any rate,Â “a year later, my brother, sister, wife and I are running this amazing theater company, getting to follow our dreams.”
He credits his dad and brother for the name, 3-D Theatricals. “We were playing with different theatrical expressions. There are three Dawson kids ““ me, Daniel and Gretchen ““ and my dad pointed out what we would do is a kind of 3-D live entertainment, so it’s a play on words.”
3-D’s first season began and remained on a precipice. “Unfortunately, at our facility last year, the OC Pavilion in Santa Ana, we found out after our first show, Peter Pan, and into rehearsals for All Shook Up, the building owner wanted to sell. We had first right of refusal, but we hadn’t been in the building long enough to gauge if that was the place for us.”
At issue, he remembers, was an unanswerable question. “Being in just our first season, would we get enough people into that part of Santa Ana to see our shows? It was a gorgeous facility, but without knowing what that struggle would be, we turned down our first refusal rights. We were shot in the foot by the situation.”
Going from show to show meant 3-D could not promote its first season, and there was no guarantee Dawson’s company would be able to conclude its season in full. “We had no idea when our last show would be, even though we had a ton of people clamoring for season tickets. We couldn’t sell any.”
He harbors fond memories, however. “It had a really awesome, kinetic, fresh atmosphere. There was nothing jaded about it. We even had subscribers from OCPAC (Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, now formally known as Segerstrom Center for the Arts) who said we were producing the same quality shows but in a smaller venue, so they felt more connected to the piece they saw with us, not 50 rows back or what have you.”
At the OC Pavilion in Santa Ana, Dawson says the space could flex to 500 seats but 3-D sold 391 because of orchestral constraints.
In July 2010 Dawson heard Fullerton Civic Light Opera was teetering on financial disaster. “We were about to close our production of Hello, Dolly! and had been told it would be the last show in the Santa Ana space. So I seized the opportunity to talk to [co-founder and managing director] Griff [Duncan] about any interest in the two companies helping out each other.”
At that point, Dawson did not know the full extent of FCLO’s financial woes. Duncan and his wife Jan co-founded the company in 1972 and since have staged more than 150 productions in the historic Plummer Auditorium on the campus of Fullerton High School, but last December they announced that revenue shortfalls threatened their season.
“We initially brought to the table the idea of co-producing with them,” says Dawson. “Our meeting went well but we were told they wanted to see first where they ended their season. They were hoping Jane Eyre would pull them out of the situation they were in.”
But Jane Eyre closed early, Dawson says, because of low ticket sales. “I called Griff that Monday morning, planning to say I was sorry I couldn’t see the show, but before I could get a word out, he said it was time we have that conversation. The next day my family and I went to FCLO and opened discussions that went on for two full months.”
It was by no means a shotgun wedding, nor an easy pairing, in part because FCLO is non-profit and 3-D Theatricals is a for-profit company. “We had the money and readiness to continue and produce a season,” Dawson says. “We wanted to see if we could marry the two companies. Because of how the two companies are structured, and because emotions were running high, we did a handshake deal. We promised to produce the season with one agreed-upon change and honor their season subscribers and any tickets purchased so far.”
The change Dawson and Duncan agreed to was eliminating Pump Boys and Dinettes, a musical which debuted on Broadway in 1982, and inserting Always… Patsy Cline. Dawson cites two reasons. “First, Pump Boys is a wonderful, charming show but it can be difficult to cast. It also has no set or costume package readily available so we’d have to create everything. And with us taking on Fullerton’s debt load, it just wasn’t a good idea.”
The other common denominator is actress Sally Struthers. She had met the Dawson family over dinner a year ago and discovered they were excited by the prospects of working together. She said by phone, “T.J. asked me to do Drowsy Chaperone. We worked it out that I would do it and then come back to direct and be in Always… Patsy Cline later this year.” While Struthers admits to never havingÂ seen Drowsy Chaperone, she knows well Always… Patsy Cline, having performed it often.
Allowing her to be in Los Angeles for two shows this year pleases the woman best known to one generation as Archie Bunker’s daughter, Gloria Bunker Stivic,Â or to another as Babette Dell on Gilmore Girls. “Last year I overheard a mother and daughter arguing in front of a poster of me. The mother was saying I was on All in the Family and the daughter was insisting I was on Gilmore Girls. I know I’m really lucky but I was on the road 10 months out of 12 last year. I’m not complaining ““ I love the work ““ but I miss my daughter [Sam] and my dogs [Scottish Terriers Bob and Bananas] when I’m gone.”
And she has no choice but to go where the work is. “People think I get residuals from All in the Family. I don’t. I don’t have a two-income household. It’s just me.”
Struthers books shows two to 10 months in advance. “After The Drowsy Chaperone I’m going to Kansas to do Chicago and then Hello, Dolly! in Fredericksburg, Virginia, then back here for Always… Patsy Cline and then to Maine for Legally Blonde.”
She also relies on her daughter, Sam, a 31-year old clinical psychologist in private practice, to keep her grounded. “She teaches me a lot, all the time. She’s gotten me to react differently in certain situations over the last six or seven years.”
THE COMING YEAR
Dawson acknowledges 3-D will not be profitable this year. “Griff’s been very forthcoming about the financial situation at FCLO. We took the largest portion of their debt from them ““ their season ticket holders. Griff also has $87,000 of debt owed to Fullerton High School [Plummer Auditorium sits on campus grounds] and another $100,000 in debt. Altogether, it’s about $600,000.”
FCLO will continue its sets and costumes rental business from its corporate headquarters and construction shop inside a former 1942 Lincoln Mercury dealer on Commonwealth Avenue. “They’ll also do their Larry King showÂ [a fundraiser on Feb. 13] and some summer parking lot shows as fundraisers. Hopefully they can bounce back with a full season somewhere.
“Although we’re going to take a gigantic financial hit this year,” says Dawson, “we’re considering it an investment in Fullerton and in these patrons. We hope to do a good enough job instilling faith in the patrons Griff has established. A good sign is we’ve had FCLO patrons who did not renew for this season buy season tickets through us. We’re in high hopes we’ll have a high renewal rate in 2012.”
While Dawson, a man the five-foot Struthers describes physically as “a mountain,” sounds almost winsome over the telephone, his passion also exudes. “We know we need more job opportunities for every facet ““ from the orchestra to crews to cast to designers and artistic teams. We’ll have female chorus contracts in Drowsy Chaperone which you don’t find often. In this economy, we’re really here to invest.”
Besides Struthers, the cast features Michael Betts, Tracy Lore, James Gruessing, Gail Bennett, Danny Michaels, Joseph Sark, Robert Ramirez, Nicole Manly, Justin Jones, Juan Guillen, Carlos Martin and Amber Sneat, along with Casey Garritano , Hannah Simmons, Jon Wailin and Stephanie Wall. The Drowsy Chaperone book is by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, with music by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.
The Drowsy Chaperone, produced by TJ Dawson for 3D Theatricals, opens Feb. 11; plays Tue.-Sat., 8 pm; Sat. and Sun., 2; through Feb. 27. Tickets: $28-56. Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton; 714.589.2770 or 3dtshows.com.