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Writer/historian: Eric Marchese
While lining up his first semester of college, Brian Kojac thought he had his life figured out: He would fulfill his basic requirements, study pre-law, transfer to a school with a four-year degree program, then attend law school.
That was before he arrived at Fullerton College and almost accidentally encountered the school's Theater Arts program.
During Kojac's first semester in 1983, he enrolled in many of his general education requirements. To fulfill his Fine Arts requirements, he enrolled in Introduction to Theater. As part of that course, instructor Bob Jensen brought in some student performers from an upcoming production of "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail" which he was directing.
The student actors presented a scene from the play to Jensen's class. Kojac was spellbound. He immediately picked up tickets to see the entire production. It was only then that he entertained the possibility of a life in theater. "I thought, 'I would like to try something like this'," Kojac said later. "It would be fun to do while I'm studying law."
Through the same course, one of the workshop directors had lost an actor during rehearsals of a new production of "Wait Until Dark" and announced that auditions were being held to fulfill the role of the husband. Kojac was the only one to show up at the audition. He won the part, and because the role was small, he later said "it wasn't intimidating" and "it was a good way to see what it was like" to act in a play.
"Of course," he says now, "the experience is addictive. I told myself, 'This is too much fun – I've got to do more of this.'" The experience transformed him and the direction of his higher education – and of his life. He had been bitten by the acting bug – or, more accurately, by the theater bug. By the 1984 fall semester he had dropped all of his pre-law classes and replaced them with theater department courses.
Brian Kojac was born in the city of Torrance, California, on February 15, 1964. The family moved to Orange County while he was in third grade, and he attended James Madison elementary school, then Trident junior high and Loara High. He describes himself as "not a serious student" but one who still "got good grades."
Late in his senior year of high school, he decided to pursue a career in law – but this was primarily "to fulfill my father's expectations." Yet, fearful to "jump in" to a four-year program, he decided to start with a two-year school, enrolling at Fullerton College. It wasn't long before he discovered the world of theater and realized he had found his calling.
Kojac jokingly states that he continued on in his Fine Arts studies long after he had fulfilled the requirements of his Associate of Arts degree because he loved the Theater Arts program and didn't want to leave it. During this time, he also received a Man of Distinction award from the Fine Arts Division (in 1985) for all of the work he did in the theater department during the school year. Kojac fondly recalls that on the night of the ceremony where the awards were being given out, he was on the campus and on stage in a production of "Pipe Dream": "I had to run across the campus between scenes – in costume – to receive my award," he says with a laugh.
Even after obtaining his AA degree, Kojac stuck around the Theater Arts department, acting as a liaison between students and faculty and assisting with various production workshops. "Being around that kind of creative energy was different and exciting," he later said, and the department was "a nest of impressive talent."
In the process, Kojac befriended Jim Breslin, who was also theater-crazy, and the duo started Kobre (for Kojac + Breslin, and pronounced "cobra") Theatreworks. Using theater students from Fullerton College, the company would play to audiences dining in the outdoor patio of Rutabegorz Restaurant in downtown Fullerton and several other restaurants and bars in Fullerton and Anaheim.
Kojac said the troupe's process of putting up shows was loose and disorganized as compared with the structured environment of college theater courses. He also compares the experience to a laboratory experiment, for he and his colleagues were writing and staging original murder mysteries once every two weeks. Among the Fullerton College students involved were Todd Langwell, Steve Spehar and Andrea Stevens, all of whom would later join Kojac with his many and varied theater companies.
While running Kobre, Kojac took classes at the college and acted in and directed various shows. After two years of Kobre, though, Kojac wanted to see what it would be like to act in Los Angeles-based productions – so he and fellow student Terry McNicol formed Crossroad Productions, which rented space and produced shows at various small theater venues in Los Angeles, often utilizing the talent pool of up-and-coming Fullerton College student actors.
Kojac said that all along, his interest and focus was in pursuing theater activity, not film or TV. Though he saw his stage work in Los Angeles as "great training," he didn't enjoy much else about the experience, whether the long commute or the town itself. "I really love the live experience of the stage."
That combination – dislike of L.A. and love of theater – drove him to search Orange County for a place to open a theater of his own. That's when he developed the concept for Stages Theatre, found an industrial space in Anaheim, converted it into a small theater, and began producing shows.
That was in 1993. Since then, Stages has moved to downtown Fullerton (at 400 W. Commonwealth Ave.) and, over the past 18 years, put up nearly 300 productions, which averages out to a whopping 16+ shows per year.
More awards from Fullerton College's theater department were to follow. Kojac received the 1985 Leonard T. Elberston Achievement Award and, the following year, the 1986 Paul Scop Memorial Award. He later received the Distinguished Alumni Award, twice – once after starting Crossroad Productions, the second after starting Stages Theatre.
Among the most valuable lessons Kojac said he learned while studying theater was to abolish all fear connected with performing any role. He credits his instructors – specifically, Gary Krinke and Bob Jensen – for instilling this within him.
Both men, Kojac said, allowed him the luxury of failure, letting him learn and grow from his mistakes – and Kojac, in turn, has tried to replicate their nurturing methods with each new theater company he has founded, trying to inspire others in the same way that Krinke and Jensen inspired him.
Kojac also notes that because the school's theater department was at that time much smaller than now, it generated more productions each semester than it does now – and he took advantage of this by having a hand in every show he possibly could.
Even well after leaving Fullerton College, Kojac continued to work with the school's theater program, having gained the reputation of being to step into a new role, cold, in nearly any show and be able to pull it off. One of the most memorable of such occasions occurred in December, 2000, in Jensen's original drama "Wallenberg," a "Schindler's List"-like story about the Swedish diplomat whose methods and collaborative efforts with other expatriate organizations saved the lives of 100,000 Jews in Budapest during the final days of World War II.
The actor portraying the lead role of Raoul Wallenberg had been undergoing treatment for cancer, and less than two weeks before the play's opening, his symptoms returned.
Kojac says that Jensen, the play's director, knew he could be counted on to take over the role on short notice. Indeed, Kojac modestly notes that he had his role committed to memory in time for the first performance over the course of just four rehearsals with the rest of the cast. He's also proud to recall that every performance of "Wallenberg" earned a standing ovation.
That show, he said, had a "huge" cast, Kojac said, and "it must have been scary for them losing their lead, so I wanted to reassure them that I could make this happen." By opening night, he said, "they could see that I could carry that show."
Kojac looks bemusedly at the idea that he was considered the go-to guy in and around Orange County theater whenever a last-minute replacement was needed, but he says it all goes back to his "basic training" with his Kobre and Crossroad companies: "I work fast and do my homework. You can't do your best acting if you're just hanging onto your lines."
Kojac credits Krinke's approach with helping him forge the theater personality he ultimately grew into. "He kept throwing me in over my head and insisted I could swim. And because of that, I have a fearless streak now. I'm not afraid of drowning. I'm not afraid of failure." He says his Theater Arts instructors were the only ones to see him "as an individual," and that he cannot imagine how his life would have turned out had he not become saturated with the Theater Arts program, known and worked with Bob Jensen and been mentored by Gary Krinke.
All three of the theater companies Kojac launched "drew heavily" from Fullerton College. He maintains that "the best" of downtown Fullerton's numerous theater companies are staffed with dozens who at one point passed through the college's Theater Arts program.
As a matter of fact, Kojac says he immersed himself so thoroughly in all things theater that he paid little attention to whatever was unfolding all around him at the college. "The school was, of course, a lot smaller, and the educational atmosphere was looser. The only things I noticed were, of course, girls – girls and theater."
One national and world phenomenon he did notice was the advent of the AIDS scare and the way it affected the college's handling of any gay-themed plays or characters.
Kojac jests that the reason his name and photo are so prominent on the walls of the theater department and that he has acted in more shows than anyone in the college's history is because "I stayed longer than most people do. I always kept feeling like I could learn more by doing more. I didn't want to leave until I had sucked every drop of knowledge out of everyone there."
Kojac also formed many close, durable friendships with other theater-crazy students such as McNicol and Langwell.
McNicol's time at Fullerton College coincided with Kojac's student days, and he's one of the few people to have been involved in all three of Kojac's theater companies. He described Kojac as "driven, well-organized and detail-oriented" and himself easygoing and laid-back. "In many ways, we're opposites."
Both he and Kojac were at a disadvantage when they first entered the world of the college's theater department, McNicol said, because most of their peers had been grooming for college-level theater all their lives. Kojac, though, made up for this potential handicap by immersing himself in all things theater.
McNicol also credits Kojac not only with having inspired all those around him in the world of theater, but also with generating projects that would keep actors, playwrights, directors and designers constantly working, helping them to continuously hone and perfect their craft. McNicol said that when he and Kojac created Crossroad Productions, nearly all of the 50 or so writers, directors and actors were either current or former Fullerton College students.
McNicol noted that a pivotal event in Kojac's life occurred just prior to his enrollment at Fullerton College: He visited Europe, where he took in dozens of plays. Many of these were productions of Shakespeare, a fact that influenced Kojac and spurred him to excel at the same level as any great classically trained Shakespearean actor.
In his more recent history, Kojac stepped away from his role as the Managing Artistic Director of Stages in late 2009, spending the next year on the theater's board. He left that job in early 2011 and says he has finally begun to indulge himself in the kinds of activities he could only dream of while living, sleeping, eating and breathing theater – such as gardening, yard work, carpentry and other projects at his Placentia home, all of which are "rewarding on a whole other level."
Because Fullerton College has always played such a crucial role in Kojac's love of and interest in theater, he has kept close connections with the school, participating in its annual theater and director's festivals.
"Anytime they ask me for something, I just can't say no to them," as Kojac puts it. "The experience and the people there have given me so much that I want to give back." He does so to this day, judging the college's high school theater festivals and participating in the various director and playwriting festivals.
He said he would counsel anyone interested in theater as a career to "learn everything" – that is, try a hand at set design and building, lighting, costumes, sound design and anything else that comprises any new production. Pursue only a single thread such as acting, directing or playwriting and "you might never have a chance."
"You don't know where you're going to end up, and if you really want to be a part of this craft, you have to learn everything about it," he said. "The wider your breadth and depth of experiences and knowledge," the better – the ultimate goal being to make yourself "valuable in just about any area that a theater may need."
The Theater Arts Department long ago became an integral part of Brian Kojac's life and who he is as a person today. "All the people in my life that I currently know" – everyone he works with, his many friends, and even his current and first wives – he met at Fullerton College's theater department. "It's not only the faculty that I know very well – the facility itself is like a piece of my history."