Taking a Chance on Reborning Dolls

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Jennifer Ruckman and Casey Long in “Reborning”

Since opening its doors in 1999, the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills has evolved into a small dynamo of the Orange County theater scene, racking up nominations and awards in multiple categories. This weekend Chance presents the Southern California premiere of Reborning — a thriller tackling the ongoing challenge of living with emotional pain.

Managing director Casey Long wears two hats with this production, serving in his administrative capacity as well as a member of the three-actor cast.

“Every community has that big regional theater,” Long says. “But then you have the smaller theater, like us, that does the more contemporary works.”

Casey Long

The Chance has produced many world premieres and West Coast premieres during its 14 years. Reborning is a southern California premiere, the second production of the play following its 2011 premiere at San Francisco Playhouse. It was written by Zayd Dohrn, a Chicago playwright and Chance’s 2012 resident playwright. Chance artistic director Oanh Nguyen is staging it.

The phenomenon depicted in the play and its title was first documented in the early 1990s, when dolls of babies were created to be as lifelike as possible in physical appearance, weight and even smell. These realistic creations (called “reborn dolls”) became increasingly popular. The more life-like their features, the more valuable they were to collectors.

Clubs, societies and experts sprouted in the reborn doll field. The process of creating these dolls is called “reborning,” with the artists who create the dolls referred to as “reborners.”

Using dolls to manage the valleys

But what started as artistic excellence in verisimilitude evolved into an emotional tool for those who had lost babies or experienced other forms of trauma. These psychological uses for the dolls are the fodder from which the play emerges.

“It’s a script that’s so new and tackling something so new,” Long notes. “Some of these people have lost children, of course. This only re-creates a small fraction of what the trend is about, but it is definitely a part of this world.”

The three actors in Reborning undertake a story that covers everything from abusive upbringing to how individuals eventually cope with that abuse through their adult relationships. Long believes that Reborning goes the distance with its content. For this reason, it is not recommended for younger audiences.

Jennifer Ruckman

“The show gradually devolves into this real psychological head trip,” Long says. “You do start questioning: Who is this woman? What are her true motives? And what’s going to become of her?”

With two of the characters portraying sculptors of different kinds of realistic dolls, there is plenty of room for debate and dissent when it comes to the buttons pushed by the narrative. Long believes this “meat” of the story is what takes it beyond the psychological thriller and into something more philosophical regarding human need.

“It’s one of those shows when I first read it, I liked it,” Long says. “But it wasn’t until the rehearsal process when I realized how it works on so many levels. It’s much more universal than you would think.”

In an America where people expose their most intimate problems on television talk shows and express themselves candidly through social media, the roadmap Reborning circles around questions the nature of trauma and what constitutes “normal” when it comes to surviving tragic events.

The production team maintained close contact with playwright Dohrn throughout the rehearsal process, asking questions about the script and seeking clarification on the practice of reborning. The play itself creates conversations between characters about the place of art within society and its appropriateness as a tool, particularly when used in such an emotionally charged way as that of a dead or unborn child.

“We even have conversations in the play about the actual craft of sculpture,” Long says. “That and dealing with loss, trying so hard to get the [reborn] baby to take the place of what was lost. How do we then relate to it emotionally when we actually created it?”

Finding terrific new plays is half the battle

Jennifer Ruckman and Casey Long

“We’re an ensemble,” Long reflects, discussing script selection at the Chance. “So we all try to keep our eyes peeled on the national theater scene. We’re always looking.”

But the Chance is not interested only in the latest hot play making the rounds of the usual regional theaters or the Broadway scene. It also takes note of playwrights themselves, particularly new voices emerging on a national scale.

Producing a segment of a playwright’s body of work rather than just one offering at a time is something the Chance has used in its “On the Radar” program, which produces staged readings of two other works alongside a mainstage production by the same playwright. Reborning will be paired with Dohm’s additional plays Magic Forest Farm and The Origin Story of Mister Clean.

Long believes this helps the Chance engage more audiences in the creative process, via post-show and open forum discussions. For Reborning, with a week of previews already completed, the audiences are reflecting back to the artists the diversity of the play’s themes.

“Each audience so far has focused on completely different things,” Long states. “It was fascinating. One talked about characters, another abuse, and another focused entirely on the actual dolls we used in the show.”

A local reborning artist made all the reborning props for the play, providing an added level of authenticity. Long feels the production also benefits from the tight-knit group of Chance mainstays contributing to the creative process.

“It’s an all-ensemble cast and we are all resident artists who already know each other,” Long says. “So there’s no trying to figure out how the dynamic works with outside people. It’s a lot more flexible and fluid that way. It becomes really exciting and visceral in the rehearsal process.”

Jennifer Ruckman and Karen Webster

While purchasing a perfectly crafted baby doll to replace the real thing may seem like consumerism run amok, arguments exist for practical facets of the reborn dolls. In some instances, women who cannot have children use the dolls in order to “feel like a mom” while others cope with painful childhood trauma from abandonment or other forms of abuse by caring for the dolls. While some of this therapy may seem like a placebo for reality, anecdotal evidence supports it, and entire websites and support groups are dedicated to these therapeutic uses.

Reborn dolls also raise a deeper question — do these dolls make us more capable with our feelings or are we simply more detached because of them? Is reliance on such a product to feel better about a child being dead truly healthy or a hindrance? Or, as Long reflects on these ideas, do all these things simply point to the same universal theme embraced by so many dramatists””aren’t all humans always in need of creating meaningful connections?

“All three of these characters are trying to make that connection with somebody,” Long reflects. “They so badly need that human contact. How do you make that happen in this day and age? [Reborn dolls] could very well fill that gap for someone.”

The reborning of Chance itself?

The Chance’s current venue in Anaheim Hills, a cozy 49-seat house, isn’t a permanent home for the ensemble. But Long hopes this will soon change for the company.

Jennifer Ruckman

“We are ready for a permanent home,” Long states. “And we’re also looking forward to becoming more of a mid-size theater with 150 to 200 seats. It’s very exciting taking that next step.”

As the planning stages of a capital campaign begin, the Chance plans to keep moving toward a permanent home that allows for expanded programming while maintaining the intimacy that has allowed the freedom to pursue challenging plays from lesser-known voices.

Reborning, Chance Theater, 5552 East La Palma Avenue, Anaheim Hills. Opens Saturday. Plays Thu”“Sat 8 pm; Sat 3 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through May 20. Tickets $35. 714-777-3033. www.chancetheater.com.

***All Reborning production photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

Amy Tofte

Amy Tofte