In a daring new venture, the City of Ventura, the Rubicon Theater and Cal State University Channel Islands have taken a big chance and together invited a world of talent to come to Ventura and show off onstage.
The world has responded. Over the next two weeks, from July 12-27, the Rubicon International Theater Festival will premiere worthy new productions from prominent theaters in Dublin, Tel Aviv, Caracas, Paris and London, among other cities.
Although neither Ventura nor the festival’s chief co-sponsor, the Southern California Gas Company, will talk about the funding numbers, it is an unprecedented effort for the city. The festival will not only bring in artists from around the world to perform, but college-age apprentices from across the country as well, many of whom will stay at CSUCI and help out around town in putting on the shows.
Although this year is being called a “preview” for the official launch next year, the festival will mount a dozen performances, in numerous locations, from the Rubicon to Ventura College to the Bell Arts Factory, representing a major new commitment to world theater.
It’s kind of a big deal, and yet no one knows exactly how it’s going to work out. Jim O’Neill, one of the founders of the Rubicon Theater — now entering its 10th year in Ventura — admits the festival is brand new and something of a shot in the dark. But he is confident, because he believes in the Ventura County audience, and thinks they believe in the theater.
“Over the years a trust has built up between us and our audience,” he says. “Even if they don’t really know what they’re getting into, they know they can expect a level of quality, and they know it will expand their horizons.”
Conor Lovett, an Irish actor who has performed in four Rubicon productions over the past few years and will solo in a new production for the festival, echoes O’Neill’s assessment.
“I love the Rubicon audiences,” he says. “They’ve been around the block and know what’s what. When you stand in front of that audience you know you can’t pull any tricks. They’ll spot any actor who’s not pulling his or her weight and let you know about it. They keep you on your toes, and I’m grateful to them for it.”
Lovett will be premiering in this country a unique drama by the late great Samuel Beckett called First Love, a story he wrote as a young man in l946, reportedly semi-autobiographical, about the death of his father, the comfort he took in graveyards at the time, and a romance with a lusty young woman named Lulu. Beckett wrote the piece in French and put it aside for 25 years, apparently so as not to cause pain to the woman. In 1970, he translated the play into English and published it as a short story. Lovett is currently touring with it in France, but by e-mail promised that it will be nothing like a reading.
“Someone coming to the show if they knew no better might think it was written as a theater piece,” he writes. “An actor, some lights, a little design. Beautifully directed. Nobody reading a book.”
The association with the actor Lovett and the writer Beckett came out of a major festival the Rubicon put on three years ago, but most of the other plays were found by Rubicon mainstay Linda Purl, an actress and producer who has been traveling the world for the last two or three years, looking at productions in places such as Tokyo, the United Kingdom, Russia and France. The French consulate went to great lengths to woo her by inviting her to Paris, taking her to scores of productions and introducing her to Parisian talents, all in an effort to encourage her to bring a French production back to Ventura.
Perhaps the highest profile performance came out of that trip: a solo performer named Julian Cottereau, formerly of the Cirque du Soleil, who has won the French equivalent of a Tony Award, and who Purl promises will entrance crowds with his antics, acrobatics and mime skills.
“There are no words in Julian’s piece, and no props,” Purl says. “He does use sound, and microphones, but part of his appeal is that he creates so much wonder all by himself. I think that’s true with all our shows: They speak to the power of what one person, one writer, can create.”
It has been such a whirlwind tour for the well-known actress that she can’t recall certain details. She is especially excited by an outrageous writer from Venezuela named Gustavo Ott, but can’t remember where she first heard his name.
“In the last two and a half years, I’ve been to 14 countries, and seen festivals in each of them, I think,” she says. “What’s been thrilling is seeing the similarity in themes from playwrights around the world. Whether it’s in Bogotá or Moscow, writers are feeling our collective pulse, and they seem to be picking up the same rhythm.”
She thinks she may have first heard Ott’s name at a party in Tokyo, encountered him in person at another festival, and heard a rave about him from a friend back in the United States.
When she actually came to know his work, she loved it immediately. The festival will mount a production of his newest play, Tu Ternura Molotov (Your Molotov Kisses), in a reconfigured space in the Bell Arts Factory on Ventura Avenue, featuring Oxnard’s Teatro de las Americas. The wild comedy will be performed in Spanish with English supertitles. The story concerns a young couple about to have their first child. The atmosphere is filled with tension and mistrust, fueled by a wife who keeps hinting to her husband that the child might have been fathered by a terrorist from Hamas. Or maybe she is just goading her husband. In any case, when performed in a theater in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, the tagline read: “Prepare to be offended.”
Jim O’Neil, one of the co-founders of the theater, admits even he hasn’t seen the play, but has complete faith in Purl.
“Her travels are at the core of the artistic mission of the festival,” he says. “We want to see what things work in other countries, how other people have solved certain problems. The world has changed so much over the last 20 years. The more dialogue we can have, the better we will understand each other, and the better our chances of getting along.”
Part of that mission will be the inclusion of theater interns from schools around the country. The mostly college-age students will be staying on the campus of CSUCI, helping build sets, sell tickets and pick performers up at the airport. When not working for the festival, in the mornings they will be trained by an eminent team of theater producers and teachers, Nina and Monei Jakim, who teach at Juilliard.
O’Neill stresses not just the size but the collaborative nature of the festival.
“Everything has come through connection to other people,” he says. “I hadn’t thought about the environmental impact of the festival — that was outside my experience — but after meeting with the Green Team from Sempra, we’ve committed to a major reduction in waste and use of toxic substances.”
The festival will even take a step into the racy world of vaudeville, with a newly-added show called Café Burlesque-O! at the renovated Elks Lodge on July 24, in the landmark building at the corner of Ash and Main streets. Elena Brokaw, Ventura’s cultural arts director, says one of the challenges the festival faced was finding appropriate venues for performances, but she thinks the success they have had in finding new venues bodes well.
“The Elks Lodge has been undergoing renovation and hasn’t hosted anything for quite a while,” she says. “But it’s a natural performing space, and I’m interested to see how the festival will use it as a stage. We’re looking to it as one of our main performance venues in the future.”
The festival will also include: readings of the Sufi poet Rumi; a strong performance from two African actors in a play from the Ivory Coast called Eye of the Cyclone; a play about the Spanish Inquisition called Confession from the Israeli actor, writer and director Ami Dayan; and an evening of cabaret songs from Londoner Giselle Wolf.
For more information about the Rubicon International Theater Festival, call 667-2900 or visit www.rubicontheatre.org.