To paraphrase Mark Twain: News of the death of the Cabrillo Music Theatre was greatly exaggerated. It’s not that the news was inaccurate; at the time (March 2016) the theater had suspended production of its 2016-17 season. But that was then and this is theater, so anything is possible. In the spirit of the classic story in which the understudy steps into the star’s shoes to save the day, Cabrillo Music Theatre is alive and, well, the show goes on.
In this version of the story, Cabrillo Music Theatre plays all three roles. It is the veteran star, the rescued show and the plucky ingénue whose gumption and resourcefulness save the day. Board Chair Bart Leininger explains, “We paused in March and concluded that we wanted to move forward. The message we got from the community was, ‘Please keep going!’ ” So the theater expanded its board, appointed Will North as the new managing director and streamlined the season. Out went plans to produce a fourth musical and in came a re-energized board with fresh ideas and perspectives.
Cabrillo’s story is a common one. Theaters, especially nonprofessional theaters (although it should be noted that Cabrillo is a professional theater company), face a constant struggle to survive. Take, for example, OYES (Ojai Youth Entertainment Studio). If you walk past the darkened building on the corner of Matilija and Montgomery in Ojai, you might get the sinking feeling that OYES is no more. It lost its space in June, but thanks to sheer will, community support and luck, OYES found a new home at the Ojai Valley Community Church. “It was a struggle to find a space that we could afford and that we could make work,” says OYES co-artistic director Megg Sicotte-Kelly. “It was something of a miracle that we found OVCC.”
IIIn Ventura, another theater space will go dark. The Flying H Group Theatre Company is closing because, as Cynthia Killion, managing director and co-owner, explains, she and artistic director/co-owner Taylor Kasch, “had no time for anything else and we really want the anything else.” After three years at their black box theater, Killion and Kasch are walking away with a sense of accomplishment. “We are thrilled with what we did. No one expected we would do so well, and we accomplished what we wanted,” says Killion. “We opened Flying H with two goals: to do the kind of theater we wanted and keep it affordable.” As for the future, Killion and Kasch are looking at the possibility of producing pop-up theater where a fixed location, with its large overhead, is unnecessary
As Cabrillo, OYES and Flying H prove, the struggle to keep a theater alive is real. It helps to have friends. The Four Star Theater Alliance is a group of six nonprofessional theaters — Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, Elite Theatre Company, High Street Arts Center, Santa Paula Theater Center, Conejo Players Theatre and Ojai Arts Center Theater — that support each other in many ways. In addition to cross-promoting each other’s seasons and making sure they don’t overlap shows, the theaters share resources, from costumes and props to set pieces, even actors and crew members. One of the greatest ways they bolster each other is with the annual Four Star Theater Awards. As Leslie Nichols, a founder of the alliance and primary producer at Santa Paula Theater Center, explains, “The awards celebrate the high points of each theater’s season.” It isn’t so much about competition but a chance for everyone to “get together and feel good.”
Above all, the story of theater is a love story. Most of the people involved do it for little or no money. “We do it for love,” says John Hankins, the alliance’s publicity director. They work long hours and put on countless fundraisers. They rely on the kindness of the community, and try to strike a balance between producing newer works they’re passionate about with old favorites that pack the house. Some even lower ticket prices. In the end, the key to any theater’s survival comes down to public support. Or, to borrow a line from theater and film diva Norma Desmond, “all those wonderful people out there in the dark.”