When it comes to the shows produced by the fledgling OB Playhouse Theatre Co., size matters — at least when it comes to the marquee. Since Bill and Jennie Connard began staging productions in 2016 at their Newport Avenue venue, the titles have been short enough to not overtax the street-facing sign: “Urinetown.” “Avenue Q.” “American Hero.” “Hair.” “Reefer Madness.”
But space on the marquee is far from the only consideration when the Connards choose shows for their nonprofit theater.
“We want to pick shows that have name recognition and that have won awards,” said Bill Connard, “and with casts of between 10 and 20 people.” Recognizable titles are important to any start-up theater, of course, and award-winning resumes don’t hurt, either. But OB Playhouse Theatre Co. also programs with an eye toward its freewheeling Ocean Beach community,
“Look at the shows we’re doing,” said Connard. “Not many theaters would do ‘Reefer Madness’ (a musical based on the cult film). We try to do edgy, even controversial stuff.”
The Connards have theater in their blood. Jennie was a student in one of the first classes to graduate from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, founded by Florence Johnson and Ole Kittleson, and now located in Paradise Hills. She’s been acting in and directing community theater for years, including at the Coronado Playhouse.
At OB Playhouse, she directs and choreographs, while Bill produces, manages the house and does promotional duties. All staff is volunteer, handling everything from stage managing to theater tech work. The Connards’ son Jack runs the lighting and sound for productions.
What is now the Playhouse part of the building was once a VFW thrift shop and the adjoining corridor, a public walkway between buildings. Connard said he discovered the availability of the space when he and his wife were looking for a venue by surfing Craigslist.
The theater had been built by Paul Bolton and opened as the Ocean Beach Center for the Arts in 2012 “for the purpose of getting young amateur bands on stage to perform and record,” said Connard. Bolton sold what was left on the lease in 2015, and the Connards took ownership a year later, in April 2016. They opened their OB Playhouse with a production of “Godspell” that June.
Their second show was the naughty-puppet-happy “Avenue Q,” which the Connards are going to stage for the third time beginning Aug. 24. “Everybody loves it,” Connard said. “It’s a great show for Ocean Beach.”
Coming in October to the 80-seat theater is “The Rocky Horror Show,” which seems fitting, given that the “Show” was a midnight tradition at the nearby, still standing (but not operating as a theater anymore) Strand movie house. In November, with the holidays looming, OB Playhouse will present the cross-dressing “Scrooge in Rouge.” Tickets for shows at the Playhouse run between $24 and $42.
For now, OB Playhouse Theatre Co. is surviving “pretty much on donations and ticket sales,” said Connard, and there is a small board of directors. Plans for 2019 include applying for grants and attracting benefactors to cover the expenses of the facility, as well as to make the theater space available for rental to outside production groups. “This year, all of our productions have to cover expenses,” he added. “The costs are pretty steep to run a show.”
Connard and his wife also have a dream that the Strand Theater building, currently a beachwear store, might one day become available. “It’s got a stage, it’s got a back door (which the OB Playhouse theater does not have); we could show movies there, too.”
For now, Connard is happy to tout the assets of the space he’s got. “The intimacy of this theater makes a huge difference,” he said. “It’s a big feature for our Playhouse — everyone (in the audience) is so close. We can do live music, and you can watch the musicians do their thing.”
With expenses to meet and a lot of days and nights on the calendar, the OB Playhouse does host shows beyond the longer-running theatrical productions. A comedy hypnotist, Michel Briar, appears during the weeks between shows. He’ll next be on stage Oct. 6. And running concurrently with “Scrooge in Rouge” during the holidays will be kids-friendly matinee productions of “Elf The Musical JR” based on the Will Ferrell film.
Getting the word out about OB Playhouse has been, Connard said, a combination of word-of-mouth, social media including Facebook, and distributing fliers and business cards to passers-by. But the theater has hardly gone unnoticed.
“We’ve been really welcomed by the community,” Connard said. “Locals are still discovering us. We’re starting to see some of the influential community members coming to our shows, and when they do, they’re so supportive.”
So have been actors and behind-the-scenes people from other theaters in San Diego. The Connards, in fact, do their part for the theater community as a whole with their “Taste of San Diego Theater” board on the interior wall outside the performance space. Individual blackboard squares are devoted to every theater in town, including community theaters, advertising what is playing there and for how long.
— OB Playhouse Theatre Company is at 4944 Newport Ave. in Ocean Beach. Tickets and performance schedule: (619) 795-9305, obplayhouse.com