Entering the Dragon

Theater company's new leaders foresee challenges and opportunities

Since its beginnings two decades ago, through its first permanent home on Alma Street in Palo Alto to its current home in downtown Redwood City, Dragon Productions Theatre Company has been under the steady leadership of founding Artistic Director Meredith Hagedorn. This year, with Hagedorn having stepped down at the end of 2018, the scrappy theater company will be led by the husband-and-wife team of Bora "Max" Koknar and Alika Spencer-Koknar.

"I'm so excited about their youth and energy to be willing to try anything to take Dragon to the next level of sustainability." Hagedorn told the Weekly. "I'm thrilled that they believe in the mission that we have fostered creating more opportunities for more people and to help burgeoning artists and designers explore their ideas and push the limits of their creativity in our intimate space."

Koknar and Spencer-Koknar are quite familiar with the Dragon community already, having served as its education director and company manager, respectively, as well as teaching, acting and directing in productions there.

"I always wanted to be an actor. I never thought I'd run things. But it's funny, because on every project I've worked on I've always been the kind of artist who had opinions on how we should do stuff. I guess running a company is the best way to do that," Koknar mused.

Both Koknar and Spencer-Koknar studied theater in college and eventually gained experience in many theater techniques and traditions, as well as in behind-the-scenes roles such as set building and running a box office.

The pair has been working as a team, both professionally and personally, for a while, starting when Turkish-born Koknar (he moved to the U.S. during middle school) met Californian Spencer-Koknar during a production of "A Clockwork Orange."

"We were fight partners and I almost killed her during one performance because we did the fight choreography a little incorrectly," Koknar said, turning to Spencer-Koknar with a laugh. "I screwed up and then I saved you."

It was love at first fight, it seems.

"The show was OK but I was very happy to meet him," Spencer-Koknar said.

They've worked together on a number of creative projects and for a number of theater companies, including founding their own. They've also worked various non-theater day jobs, including Koknar's stint doing administrative work at Stanford University Medical Center and Spencer-Koknar's decade as a barista (they got married -- giving their parents a week's notice -- in order to take advantage of Spencer-Koknar's insurance through Starbucks after Koknar quit his Stanford gig).

How do Koknar and Spencer-Koknar balance the stresses of sharing a job while also maintaining a personal relationship?

"Well, obviously he's the talker," Spencer-Koknar laughed. "She's the doer!" Koknar retorted.

"We work well together. We've discovered, being performers together, we don't have much actor egos that get in the way," Spencer-Koknar said.

The Dragon, Koknar said, has always seemed to be there for him at critical moments in his theater career, from his first Bay Area audition to Hagedorn offering him the space to produce a 24-hour-theater experience at the old Palo Alto location, to eventually giving both him and Spencer-Koknar their most recent positions with the company itself. When Hagedorn decided to step down, the two seemed to be her natural successors.

"Meredith was always so freakin' supportive. She really made it an artistic home for us. She started the company because she wanted opportunities she couldn't find anywhere else and that's something that we really connected with," Koknar said.

"I love the Dragon's mission: producing uncommon works and also making it accessible to artists and the community," Spencer-Koknar added.

Over the years, the Dragon has evolved beyond traditional theater into a venue for music, stand-up comedy and more. In addition to its main-stage productions and its theater classes for youth and adults, it offers the Second Stage mentorship program, Monday Night Play Space (which lets local artists use the space for whatever project they'd like, with a donations-based entry system), Dragon Late Nights and the Circus Arts Series; serves as the host for the radio show "In Deep with Angie Coiro" and has a new open-stage series, "Enter the Dragon," with the hopes that artists from all genres might come together and find common ground for exposure and collaboration.

"What it does is create opportunities for these instant communities to form around whatever's happening, that's the magic thing about it, the ability to experience something live with a group of people. To experience stories," Koknar said.

Koknar and Spencer-Koknar plan to continue to nurture these branches of programming, not only because of their value to the local artistic community but also as a source of support and revenue. While December has traditionally been dark at the Dragon, last month the theater hosted a successful "The Making of the Star Wars Holiday Special: Live!" and a New Year's Eve show.

Running an artistic venture in the Bay Area isn't cheap and since its start, Hagedorn and her husband have been a large source of financial support for Dragon (including Hagedorn not drawing a salary as artistic director).

"It stopped being about the art awhile ago for me and was mainly about struggling to pay the bills. My husband has been Dragon's biggest angel and bail-out for sometime now and I felt as if Dragon couldn't really find its own way financially until I, and my husband, stepped away," Hagedorn said.

"It's honestly terrifying. So, this is a year to see if Dragon can survive without that. It's also one of the large impetuses behind starting all of this other programming," Koknar said, estimating that it costs around $15,000 a month in rent and utility costs to keep the theater running.

The team is looking into grants "constantly" and has received a small amount of support from the Redwood City Civic Cultural Commission and the San Mateo County Arts Commission as well as from other sponsors. It also hopes to form deeper collaborations with other local arts organizations, including Broadway By the Bay, which is located right across the street.

"What are the ways we can combine forces to create more opportunities for the community to participate in the arts?" Koknar said. "It's so expensive here; it's so tough to survive here. Collaboration's the only way to really support each other in ways that we can."

Dragon's post-Hagedorn era will most critically rely on the continued interest and support of local arts patrons.

"It's going to take the Redwood City Community and the Peninsula community at large actually stepping up and going, 'Yeah, we want to keep this place alive.' Otherwise it's going be really tough going," Koknar said. "We hope, with the strategy being multicultural and multidisciplinary, there's something to do for everyone. So far, so good."

"I always hear people say, 'I walk by and think about going in,'" Spencer-Koknar added. "Well, you should! Come in! Now's the time!"

As for Hagedorn, she hasn't left the Dragon behind altogether. She'll be playing Marie-Antoinette in the Dragon's first main-stage production of the year, the comedy "The Revolutionists," which opens Jan. 18. After that, her plans are uncertain.

"I have been trying to think about what my life would be like without Dragon for years now and after 19 years, it's extremely hard to come up with anything that could compare. ... I am looking forward to volunteering in my community in many different and important aspects," she said. "I will also definitely enjoy supporting my friends in the theater community from the audience while I explore my next adventure."

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