Cool Britannia brings U.K. style to the stage

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
nancy@vcreporter.com

Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, P. G. Wodehouse — and of course The Bard himself, William Shakespeare. These are among the greatest playwrights to come out of the British Isles, and they have served as the inspiration for Cool Britannia, one of the county’s newest theatre companies. Founded by Terry Fishman and his daughter, Debra Price, in the summer of 2014, Cool Britannia aims to bring “theatre steeped in British tradition” to Ventura — and he’s hoping audiences will consider it their cup of tea.

“In England, there’s so much more depth of involvement in the arts,” says Fishman, who hails from London but came to the United States in 1975. The veteran actor and director is perhaps best known to local theatergoers for his various performances in A Christmas Carole, staged every winter by the Thousand Oaks Repertory Company. “Shakespeare, Wilde, Shaw — they convey emotions and situations, really drawing word pictures. There are good American playwrights, but I think English theater is better theater in general.”

Cool Britannia’s first production was Jeeves in Bloom, a madcap comedy staged in June 2014 at Elite Theatre in Oxnard and based on Wodehouse’s iconic characters, the idly rich Bertie Wooster and his reliable valet Jeeves. For this British farce, Fishman took his cues from the BBC series made famous by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. “It wasn’t possible to get the television scripts, but Margaret Raether [of Artist’s Ensemble Theater in Rockford, Illinois] had adapted these stories for the stage. I read it and thought, this is as close as we can get to the concept.”

Jeeves in Bloom was a full production, but most of Cool Britannia’s ensuing performances were on a smaller, more manageable scale. “Last season we did a series of readings,” Fishman explains. These types of performances don’t require costumes, extensive rehearsals or elaborate sets, so they are easier — and cheaper — to put on. “If we do it slowly, we won’t get in too deep.”

Fishman is wise to proceed with caution. Watching Cabrillo Music Theater flail and nearly go dark this year (the company was saved at the eleventh hour by an infusion of cash donations and a streamlined schedule) “only shows how difficult it is to mount professional theater,” he notes. And Fishman intends Cool Britannia to be a professional theatre company, “where everybody is respected and paid. I as an actor have been paid very seldom,” he chuckles.

Cool Britannia’s latest production is an ambitious one. Called Shakespeare and The Beatles: A Surprise Concert, it’s a mashup of classic theatre and classic rock. Performers will enact scenes from various Shakespearean tragedies, comedies and histories followed immediately by a musical performance featuring a Beatles tune that somehow “parallels the context, spirit and sentiment of The Bard’s written word.” A staged reading in October proved very popular, and Fishman has high hopes for the full-scale production.

“The show is probably going to have a life of its own,” he says. “It may go to other venues. The concept is so popular . . .. It’s likely to be an adjunct to [the rest of the season]. We know it has legs — we just don’t know where those legs are going to take it.”

Going forward, Fishman would like Cool Britannia to offer more full scale productions, which have been very popular with audiences, despite the additional time and funding they require. Another Jeeves show will probably launch in the fall, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is under consideration and Fishman intends to bring Shakespeare, Shaw and Wilde — “giants of the playwright scene” — to the stage as well. “I think Cool Britannia as a company has a goal to raise standards for theatre across the county,” he says. “So much wonderful theatre comes out of England. And what could be more English than Shakespeare and The Beatles?”

Shakespeare and The Beatles: A Surprise Concert plays through April 24 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts, 403 W. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. For more information call 277-7223 or www.coolbritannia.org.