Bye Bye Cabrillo? Not so fast

Financially troubled theater company announces it’s out of the woods — for now

By Jenny Lower 08/07/2014

 

Cabrillo Music Theatre will open its doors for the 2014-2015 season despite ongoing financial struggles that have threatened to shutter the nearly 30-year-old musical theater company, the largest between San Francisco and Los Angeles.


Artistic Director Lewis Wilkenfeld announced the danger during a pre-show talk for Bye Bye Birdie, explaining that if the company did not meet its fundraising goal of $250,000 by Aug. 1, it would be forced to close. At press time, Cabrillo had raised more than $211,000, or 84 percent, of its target, allowing the company to cautiously proceed with next year’s lineup. The 2014-2015 season will feature Memphis, Mary Poppins, Oklahoma! and Company.


“We felt like we could and should move forward,” Wilkenfeld said. “The community was sending us a message that they want us here. It’s nice to be loved.”


Over the last three months, the company has rolled out an aggressive fundraising campaign, including an appeal letter, a 24-hour dance marathon and a benefit concert hosted by Cabrillo alumni and Broadway performers in New York City. Local businessman John Notter partnered with the Conrad Hilton Foundation to provide matching funds up to $30,000, and the city of Thousand Oaks has pledged $9,500.


But the bulk of donations has come from more than 800 individuals contributing amounts under $1,000, including a student who raised $14 selling lemonade, senior citizens living on fixed incomes, and the actress who played Kim McAfee in Cabrillo’s first production of Bye Bye Birdie 16 years ago — now living in New York City and expecting her first child — who said that Cabrillo helped launch her career.


The income will be used to market next season and to appoint a full-time development director to pursue fundraising, grants and partnerships with the local business community.


Wilkenfeld cautions against too much optimism, however, noting that the company must continue working to raise 30 to 40 percent of its annual $1.6 million operating budget to stay afloat. Cabrillo has faced falling season ticket sales for the last eight years, as well as a decline in business donations and an increase in rental fees from the Fred Kavli Theatre, its longtime venue at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.


Cabrillo productions cast a mix of Equity actors, aspiring professionals, recent college graduates and youth from the local community. Its shows have garnered a host of Ovation nominations and awards, including three nods in 2011 for The Sound of Music and a win in 2010 for best featured actress in a musical (Sally Struthers in Cinderella). In addition to mainstage productions, the Beyond the Footlights program sends young thespians into the local community to perform for senior citizens and at the Port Hueneme naval base.


Roxanne Chevalier, a member of Kabrillo Kids and soon-to-be seventh-grader at Lindero Canyon Middle School in Agoura Hills, has raised more than $2,225 going door-to-door singing show tunes from Frozen and Wicked. The 12-year-old saw her first Cabrillo musical in 2009 and two years ago joined the junior performance troupe, with whom she has serenaded Alzheimer’s patients and participated in the annual SeniorPalooza.


“Cabrillo has been such a big part of my life,” said Chevalier, whose ultimate goal is to appear on Broadway. “I wanted to be on that stage by the time I was 16, and if they closed their doors I wouldn’t be able to do that. I just wanted to help in any way that I could.”


In order to achieve solvency, Cabrillo’s challenge will be expanding its season subscriber base to younger audience members and “people who believe that subscriptions are for their parents,” Wilkenfeld says. “We’ve gotten the low-hanging fruit, and now we have the people for whom subscriber is a dirty word.”


Those theatergoers tend to be younger and prefer the flexibility that comes with buying tickets show by show, instead of committing to a performance date months in advance. Though the season ticket route results in less total income for the company — subscribers get the best seats but generally pay about half the cost of regular tickets, once online fees are factored in — the stability lets Cabrillo anticipate its audience levels and budget accordingly.


At $600,000, the company’s annual fundraising target isn’t unreasonable, Wilkenfeld says. The amount is a third of what many other nonprofit organizations require. “In these times, people have cut way back and everybody is asking for money,” he says. “We know where we are in the food chain. But we’re looking to carve our own spot that still has a place in the universe.”


Cabrillo continues to accept donations through mail and on the company website. In the meantime, next season is moving full steam ahead: Auditions for Memphis start Aug. 9.


For information visit www.cabrillomusictheatre.com.

 

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