A friend calls—meet her downtown in an hour. The National Theatre of Scotland is performing at a bar in Santa Ana. Say what? The invitation has a pop-up feel, too spontaneous to pass up, and we find ourselves standing with a small group in a library in the old Empire Market Building. Suddenly, the shelves swing open, and we are ushered into a rustic bar with live fiddle music.
The bartender hands us shots of single malt Benromach (a Scottish whisky), and the musicians put down their instruments and become actors in a play, “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.” They are close enough to touch as they wander among the audience, sometimes climbing on a table or directly talking to one of us. By the second shot, I am ably cutting through the Scottish accents delivered in rhymed couplets.
The excursion is unnerving in a good way—the acclaimed theater troupe, the tiny audience, the hidden speakeasy, the actors engaging us as if in conversation.
The play is the 12th production of Santa Ana Sites, a groundbreaking artistic venture that makes art more immersive, in part by presenting the entertainment at various, sometimes unusual, locations. Past shows have featured cellist Maya Beiser playing rock tunes at Logan Creative, a 20,000-square-foot artists complex in what used to be a staircase factory by the train tracks. There was the classical-experimental group Bang on a Can All-Stars, which took over the eSports Arena downtown. And Pasadena sound artist Steve Roden filled a racquetball court with ambient noise.
Santa Ana Sites stems from the edgy vision of Allen Moon, a 45-year-old UC Irvine theater graduate and former professional dancer turned arts manager who has represented luminaries such as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the Kronos Quartet. Working with John Spiak, director of Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center, Moon kicked off the Santa Ana Sites project four years ago by squeezing 80 guests into his home, a downtown loft, to hear David Harrington of Kronos Quartet talk about music.
Moon might be a one-off genius, or the leading front of a trend, a pioneer for a new approach to the fine arts—spontaneous, nomadic, interactive, and made possible by the speed of modern media. The events have a few months’ advance notice, which is not much notice at all in a business where concerts are planned years ahead of time. Moon has the moxie to throw performances together in a matter of weeks; he relies on his digital media mailing list of about 920 followers to get the word out, and it works. His events sell out.
Despite the offbeat locations, the performances are top-quality; presentation costs range from $5,000 to as much as $50,000. With ticket prices kept low (usually around $20), Moon needs funding for the project to survive. The person footing most of the bill is Jack Jakosky, a Newport Beach developer who bought three buildings in Santa Ana, including the Santora, and developed Logan Creative. (Jakosky took heat for ending the monthly leases for artists who had lived for years in the Santora Building, but he says the building was deteriorating and he needed access to rehab it.)
A USC business school success story, Jakosky sees Sites as a way to bring more people to downtown Santa Ana and to his buildings. He says Moon’s day job—as a touring director and artist manager for David Lieberman Artists’ Representatives of Newport Beach—dovetails well with his Sites mission.
“It’s being opportunistic,” Jakosky says. “Because of the business Allen is in, he’s privy to open dates performers might have as they’re moving up and down the West Coast. They embrace what he’s doing. They’re willing to do their best to make the economics work.”
I meet Moon on a Saturday at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. Wearing jeans and a dress shirt, he’s scoping out an alcove in the courtyard as a stage for a dance performance this spring.
“This place is a poem at night,” he says, his eyes sparkling. I suspect this is what most people notice first about Moon—his eyes, which are Siberian blue framed by thick, dark eyebrows the color of his salt and pepper beard and hair.
He is also peripatetic, challenging and engaging just about everything and everyone he sees. We wander around the different niches of the courtyard while he visualizes which spaces can be turned into small performance areas. He takes it all in, the way the natural light falls, the transmission of sound, the corners and the cornices. He’s imagining the space as a performance venue as we walk. For Moon, I’m learning, putting the space together is the art form.
We run into his partner for this project, Emily Mahon, senior director of education at Bowers Museum. She has been waiting a long time for Sites to come to the Bowers. “This is the type of programming you see in New York or Los Angeles,” she says. “I like the fact that they’re bringing such high-quality art to the community and using the resources that are already here.”
Moon has presented some “Off Sites” productions, including a musical dinner at Five Crowns restaurant in Corona del Mar, where chefs and musicians collaborated, making the music match the food.
“We’re tapping into an audience’s desire to have an alternative performance experience, one that is more immersive and more interactive, that reframes the performance itself,” he says. “We can have more provocative and more challenging work by changing the environment, by removing the barriers people often encounter in understanding the work. … It becomes a little more accessible. They have a different entry point.”
Moon worries whether he’ll continue to find open sites for Sites as the economy roars back and some of the funky downtown spaces fill up. He also realizes he needs to find additional funding.
Hooked by “Prudencia,” my friend and I venture out to the next performance, DakhaBrakha, a Ukrainian quartet that plays world music, a mesmerizing fusion of Eastern European cadences with music and chants from Africa, Asia, and Arabic countries, at the Yost Theater in Santa Ana. It, too, sends us into another stratosphere.
I’m becoming a Sites fan. I don’t know what I’m going to encounter next, but I know it will be something I’ve never experienced before.