No Square Theatre: Laugunatics Celebrates 20 years

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 Laughing at Laguna

Lagunatics” celebrates 20 years of poking fun at Laguna Beach at No Square Theatre. – By Cheryl Pruett | Illustration by Stephanie Castro | Photos Courtesy of Lagunatics

Schmedlies and schmacting. These two words epitomize “Lagunatics,” the iconic musical parody that came to town 20 years ago. Now the production runs “like a Korean Swiss watch,” according to the production’s founder, Bree Burgess Rosen. “Lagunatics” is the engine that runs No Square Theatre, celebrating its 15th season because of Bree and fellow community theater co-founders and participants. It’s impossible to separate “Lagunatics” and No Square Theatre, and this year brings two anniversaries for entities whose hearts beat as one.

Everyone is a potential Lagunatic at heart. Do you laugh at traffic congestion? You may be a Lagunatic. Do you find humor in Design Review Board decisions? You probably are a Lagunatic. Do you relish a parody called “Pageant of Disasters?” You definitely are a Lagunatic.

Poking fun at city antics is the Lagunatics’ purview—something so well ingrained that the mere mention of “Lagunatics” brings laughter and a rush of memories of past performances about armies of goats, mobs of tourists and city council high jinks.

Chris Quilter, Bree’s “Lagunatics” co-writer since 2004, calls the production “a camp for grownups.” He adds, “We are try-sexual. We will try anything.”

Giving Back

“Lagunatics” delivers more than laughs. Nearly $1 million has been raised during the 20 years for various nonprofits, including No Square Theatre. Among those who have benefited are Laguna Beach Community Clinic, Laguna Shanti, Ballet Pacifica, Laguna Beach High School and SusiQ Senior Center.

The philanthropic aspect comes naturally. The first performance in November 1992 was a benefit for World Aids Day, raising approximately $18,000 for Laguna Shanti (now Shanti Orange County). Bree led the charge in this grassroots effort. “We have morphed quite a bit and benefit many causes now,” says the professional entertainer and educator. As a singer and performer in Las Vegas, she co-founded a charity named Golden Rainbow to assist in providing housing for men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS.

A Passionate Town 

“This is a passionate town,” Bree says. “That can be good and bad. People can be seen in the street shaking fists at each other. We have a high voter turnout. One year the city council was horrible. They were all mad at each other and dysfunctional. They get together at ‘Lagunatics’—like a neutral ground.

“We can’t fix everything and sometimes the only satisfaction you get is laughing at it,” she continues. “We like to think we are part of the solution.”

Chris says Laguna is a town that loves to laugh at itself. “We are a major arts, tourist and rich people destination. If we pat ourselves on the back any harder we’d dislocate our shoulders,” he comments. “I think we are a better community when we are all laughing.”

Cast of Characters 

The 30 to 35 people who make up the cast of “Lagunatics”—and put in up to 150 hours each year—keeps the audience laughing on a good night. And, almost all nights are good nights. One performance caught both cast and audience off guard. As Chris said, it was “when we made it safe for straight men to get back into dresses.”

Three key members—Bree, Chris and Paul Nygro, the choreographer—remembered the same incident. It involved then-Mayor Paul Freeman, who was singing a song and supposed to turn to face two girls.

Paul didn’t know one of the performers (Carol Robinson) was sick and was a no-show. “Since I was the choreographer and the only one who knew her number, I took one for the team, dressed up in her dress and wig and got out there and did the number,” Paul (Nygro) says. His professional acting background kicked into high gear. “We were two girls being sexy backup singers to the mayor’s song. It was crazy and the mayor was unaware of the change in the cast until he was on stage with us. He barely held it together as did the audience and everyone backstage in the wings.”

As Bree describes the scene, “Paul Freeman turned and there he was face to face with Nygro in drag … that was the year we added our first drag show.”

Narrating to the audience is Bill Harris, a veteran of seven “Lagunatics” seasons and syndicated radio show host. He thematically ties things together to help the audience remember what was going on during the year. Between the “Lagunatics” printed program with a cheat sheet for novices and Bill’s narration, everyone in the audience feels like an insider.

Parody, Schmarody

Most subjects are not off limits to “Lagunatics”—except tragedy and death.

Among the hundreds of parodies have been: “Montage Cash” done to the tune of “Monster Mash,” “Whatever Wyland Wants, Wyland Gets” performed to “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” and “Circle of Cars” was a takeoff on “The Lion King’s” “Circle of Life.”

Parody is the lifeblood of “Lagunatics.” “We celebrate the silly side of our lives,” Bree says. When she looks down from her office window at Pacific Coast Highway, she sees the traffic—lots of it. “I can think of 10 hilarious songs. Instead of reacting angrily to something potentially bad and annoying, we can celebrate how we survived it all.”

Even though the parodies are specific to Laguna Beach, attendees “get it” if they don’t live here, says Bree. The seats are filled primarily with Laguna Beach residents, but many come from out of town or many people bring guests from out of town. Some people return for a performance after having moved away. “Laguna Beach defies description,” Bree says.

Nuts and Bolts

It was in 1997 that Bree co-founded No Square Theatre, changing it from a single benefit show to a theater company. It is the group that produces “Lagunatics (The Roast of the Coast).”

“We love No Square,” says Chris. “I doubt if it would go on without Bree.”

Performances began at the Laguna Playhouse and have been held at the Festival of Arts Forum Theater, the Irvine Bowl (where the pageant is held), Laguna Beach High School and now back to the Forum Theater, which is rented from the festival.

The complexity of running No Square Theatre and “Lagunatics” includes theater rental, stipends for production staff, royalties for the show based on gross receipts and ticketing service to name a few staples. Grants help keep the curtains rising—grants from such organizations as Laguna Beach Community Foundation, Laguna Board of Realtors, City of Laguna Beach and Festival of Arts Foundation.

Another lucrative source of funds? The auction for a role in “Lagunatics.” This year’s winner paid about $1,500 for the honor. “He says he can’t sing or dance, but wants to have fun,” Bree says. A note: Turnover in the “Lagunatics” cast is nearly zero. There are no open auditions.

While “Lagunatics” is the flagship of No Square Theatre, the theater company produces a range of programs from small concerts to musicals, from comedies to follies—and even funky, cult classics such as “The Rocky Horror Show.”

No Square is also home to “LagunaTots,” or as Chris says, “the love child of ‘Lagunatics.’” “LagunaTots” is a parody about being a schoolchild in Laguna Beach for pre-high school age performers.

According to Bree, No Square Theatre is “pouring resources into our tiny space in Laguna’s original school house” and expanding its programs such as the musical theater camp for kids and classes. Expect to see the theater to continue the American Songbook Concert Series and vocal workshops for adults.

Making People Happy

“Lagunatics” is absolutely therapy, says Bree, “probably more so for the cast than the audience.”

Paul Nygro agrees that the production is a hit because “it’s a little like therapy for everyone involved—cast, crew, staff, audience and community.” He emphasizes that it is hard work. “I think people everywhere, not just in Laguna, are in need of laughter and a little levity when it comes to all the seriousness that goes on in the world.

“And, we here at ‘Lagunatics’ capitalize on that stupidity and silliness. We revel in it. We wallow in it and readily admit we are not above it by any means,” Paul concludes. As a professional actor with such film credits as “You Again” (2010) and “Race to Witch Mountain” (2009), he was drawn in to No Square Theatre—sort of love at first sight and sound. He is one of the original founding board members and has also co-written shows with Bree.

Chris thinks a little differently about the therapy aspects. “It’s therapy of a kind. It’s more fun than I thought I’d be having without getting arrested. I value helpless laughter.”

Therapy, however, is not the best word. He prefers catharsis. He keeps in mind that the mission is to “make people laugh.”

Bree puts it this way: It’s a palate cleanser. The collaborative part of “Lagunatics” is when it all comes together—the writing, the choreography, the music and even the cast taking it to the next level—then the audience responds. That’s the sweet moment, says Bree.

Into the Future

“I don’t know what’s up with ‘Lagunatics’ for the future,” Bree says. “I know it will continue, but I’m mulling the format. It’s such a unique creature … and it’s so much fun doing it. It almost has a life of its own … not to mention the light it shines on No Square Theatre makes many important things possible.”

Paul says, “Maybe Laguna is just ahead of the rest of the world in its ability to laugh at itself year after year—for 20 years. Maybe more communities would be as strong as Laguna if they annually roasted themselves like we do here. Small towns everywhere … are you listening?” LBM

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