When the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena — run by husband-and-wife co-artistic directors James Reynolds (Abe Carver on Days of Our Lives) and actor-producer Lissa Layng Reynolds — opened in 1997, the couple hoped to keep the doors open for a few years at best.
"And here we are 13 years later," Reynolds says, sitting with his wife in the now full-fledged theater, complete with proscenium stage and tiered seating.
It's a big change from the original space, which had folding chairs, eight lights and no stage. Nevertheless, the theater's first play was a professional production of William Mesnik's drama Three Songs, about blacklisted folksingers.
That inaugural production was a success, and critical accolades for subsequent shows followed, underscoring the reality that the 75-seat theater — operating under the Actors Equity Association's 99-seats-or-less waiver — is neither vanity enterprise nor parochial playground.
The couple's shared creative vision for new and eclectic works brings an adult edge to a mix of light comedy, romantic drama and thought-provoking historical, cultural and social exploration.
"We don't pull back on the plays that we put on the stage," Layng says.
Suzan-Lori Park's frank and gritty Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, TopDog/UnderDog, was the theater's most recent success. Directed by Reynolds, it starred his son Jed (who auditioned for the part) and Stephen Rider, going on to a full Equity run at New Jersey's Cape May Stage.
Sweet Mama Stringbean, ValLimar and Frank Jansen's tribute to groundbreaking singer and actress Ethel Waters, plays Nov. 26-Dec. 31.
Past productions have been as far-ranging as John Mortimer's legal eagle comedy Dock Brief; Bryan Harnetiaux's National Pastime, based on baseball great Jackie Robinson; and John Ruston and Frank Semerano's double-bill of film noir spoofs, Tangled Snarl and Murder Me Once.
National Pastime and T.S. Cook's Ravensridge are two plays that sprang from the theater's annual New Playwrights Contest — on hiatus due to a backlog of submissions.
"I think people understand that even with a small budget, we're going to aim for the highest quality," Layng says.
"And we try to make the experience accessible," Reynolds adds. "Hopefully when you walk into this theater, it feels warm and—"
"—like family," Layng finishes.
"What I like most," Reynolds says, "is when people who don't go to the theater come to a play here and decide that it is something they want to do again."
Layng and Reynolds also perform their own nationally touring solo shows at the theater. A Woman of Independent Means, based on the novel by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, has become Layng's signature piece.
Reynolds' I, Too, Am America is a "collage of the African-American experience," shaped by personal stories and the writings and lives of historical and contemporary figures.
Literary great Ray Bradbury presents his Pandemonium Theatre Company at the theater, too, finding South Pasadena's small-town ambience and the Fremont Centre's intimate, retro charm a good fit.
"Theater is alive and kicking when it's talking to your life," says Layng. "And depending on the energy of the audience, it becomes a cooperative experience that changes every night."
The ivy-draped, 1920s-era theater building also houses a few small businesses and a soon-to-open small restaurant. It has been a mortuary, insurance office and home to the Reynolds' previous business venture, Classes Unlimited.
With an annual budget of about $150,000, the theater operates as a nonprofit under its producing entity, the California Performing Arts Centre. Reynolds' Days job of 28 years helps keep the lights on.
"People ask us why we started a theater here," Layng says. "It's because we live here, and we love this community."
Producer Layng took over day-to-day operations after the death of her mother, Rosemary Layng, the theater's late managing director and guiding spirit. Rosemary's Garden, a small courtyard off the theater's lobby, was named in her honor. "I still feel her with me every day," Layng says.
Reynolds, who previously ran the Los Angeles Repertory Theater Company at the DeLacey Street Theater in Pasadena, directs shows as his schedule permits, earning critical praise for incisiveness and sensitivity.
"He has a very perceptive eye," says stage veteran Ted Lange, who praises the Reynolds' harmonious partnership as well. "It's all team work with them, and they have a clear vision for what they want the theater to be. I love working there."
The Fremont Centre Theatre has raised South Pasadena's profile "as a thriving center for the arts," says Scott Feldmann, the city's Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer. He points out, too, that Layng — who spearheads the non-profit South Pasadena Arts Council — and Reynolds are leading community boosters, fund-raisers and volunteers for many charitable causes.
Reynolds, an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam, is also national spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospitalized Veterans. He and Layng regularly go on USO and Armed Forces Entertainment tours to the Middle East, Western and Eastern Europe and stateside.
"We feel that's just part of life," Layng says. "To work, to enjoy life and to give back."