Will Ojai say "Yes" to OYES?
The youth theater company raises the curtain on its first fundraising campaign
By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer 01/02/2014
When Theater 150 closed its doors in December 2011, it gained new life as the Ojai Youth Entertainers Studio, a nonequity, youth-oriented performance space in downtown Ojai. Since opening in January 2012, OYES has stood on its own (somewhat shaky) legs for nearly two years, serving up family-friendly fare such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and James and the Giant Peach starring a cast of local children. Times haven’t exactly been prosperous, but the organization has broken even. Now, with an eye toward going beyond a shoestring budget, OYES has started its first fundraising campaign this fall, with a $40,000 goal.
“We’ve been dependent on school tuition and rental fees,” explains OYES Artistic Director Krista Kim. “That’s how we’ve been getting by. But we’ve been running around with our heads cut off to make sure the facility is being used all the time. Sometimes that means working with projects that aren’t in line with the mission statement.’’
In addition to providing a platform for young aspiring actors (children sign up for weekly classes, which culminate in a series of performances), OYES offers classes in theater tech, animation and musical theater. A free choir has been available for the past two years, and a free weekend teen troupe just started in October. In addition, the space — which features a stage, movie screen and projector — is available for rent and has hosted events such as the Ojai Film Festival and “speakeasy nights” for local vocalists and musicians. Tuition, ticket sales and rental fees have kept the institution afloat, but with the economy continuing to limp along, that well could run dry. “That’s the first thing that goes,” Kim laments. “People cut back on donations, classes, theater districts.”
When Kim and Richard Kuhlman, both seasoned theater professionals who had put on productions at Theater 150, took over the space as co-artistic directors (Kuhlman left in September, although he remains on the board), many suggested that OYES start fundraising immediately. Instead, they felt it was important to solidify its reputation first. As Kim explains, “I don’t think anyone expected us to last the first year. After Theater 150 went under, many felt that if they didn’t do it, how could we? We’re finishing up our second year now, which is a huge coup for us. Our challenge has been that when we took over, we didn’t have a product yet. The last two years we’ve put together quality programs on our shoestring budget.”
A laudable achievement, certainly. And with numerous productions and an enrollment of some 185 students to boast of, OYES has shown itself to be a viable theater. But this self-sufficiency has come at a cost: Kim hasn’t seen a salary since she took the helm, many staff members put in extra hours, and attracting top-notch teachers for the various classes can be challenging without compensation to match.
The free choir has been a point of pride for OYES since it started in 2012, but funding (provided through grants from the Rotary Club) runs out in January. Another complicating factor is that successful endeavors tend to generate more buzz and, thus, more donations, but trying to capture the attention of a community on such a small budget is a challenge. “We’re kind of in that loop of wanting to hire top-notch teachers for quality programs, but then not being able to pay for the top-notch teachers,” says Kim, but she remains optimistic. “If we’ve made it for two years, it only gets bigger and better from here. The more successful the theater is, the more people will want to support it.”
The $40,000 goal that the OYES fundraising campaign has set will cover OYES’ rent for 2014, allowing the organization to pay for teacher and staff salaries, around 10 people total. But more money would of course open up more possibilities: spiffing up the space, reducing tuition and offering more free programs. Her “pie in the sky” dream for OYES; “Somebody with a big name in the movies would sponsor the theater!”
As of early December, OYES had raised around $14,000. Whether it’ll reach or even exceed its goal remains to be seen. Regardless, plans for 2014 continue apace, with a production of Mulan in the works for spring and an adult improv ensemble that meets every Monday night.
“We’re all getting by and doing what it takes, but we know that that can’t go on forever,” Kim says. “This is the reason we’re starting our campaign now. We’re putting out a quality product. Now we need support.”
For class schedules and other information, visit OYES online at www.oyes.org