There’s a new light shining in Agoura Hills: Playhouse 101, a brand-new theater that launched its inaugural season on April 28. At a time when there is plenty of fear circulating about the demise of the arts, Playhouse 101 is proof that public love for them remains strong. Strong enough to create a theater on the sheer momentum of word of mouth.
“It’s amazing how much has happened in so little time,” says Jeff Wallach, founder and producing artistic director. “There was no advertising, no [official] launch, just word of mouth power.” Playhouse 101 went from being a wonderful idea to a brick-and-mortar reality in a matter of months. “This has all happened since February,” adds Wallach.
The stage was being set for the creation of Playhouse 101 back in 2005, when Wallach founded Curtain Call Youth Theatre. He had been teaching theater in high schools, middle schools and after-school programs for years when he decided it was time to start his own theatre company. CCYT began with 11 teens. Its first show was The Pirates of Penzance, which was produced at what is now the High Street Arts Center in Moorpark. Then, as now, the company focused on the rehearsal process, including “theater etiquette, discipline, teamwork and camaraderie in addition to acting, singing and dancing” rather than on the final product. This approach paid off — the show was a hit. The folllowing season, CCYT moved to the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse for three years. From there it roamed from venue to venue until 2017, when Wallach decided CCYT needed a place to call home.
Wallach put out the word and, to paraphrase Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, at the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspired to assist him. That “universe” included friends, other theater professionals and supporters of the arts. CCYT found a location owned by two attorneys who were happy to knock down walls and turn the space into a black-box theater.
Currently, CCYT is rehearsing The Odd Couple, both the female and male productions, for a June premiere. Wallach can already see the difference having a permanent space has made. “After our first rehearsal the kids started cleaning up out of habit,” Wallach recalls. They were so used to having to put everything away so the next theater group could come in, but Wallach reminded them, “This is our space.” The teens now have a sense of ownership they never really had before.
After The Odd Couple, CCYT will be doing the high school version of Les Misérables as their summer musical. “In our black-box theater,” Wallach says, “the audience will be so involved, so enveloped. The production won’t be huge so [the audience] will be right there, in the round.”
Securing a space gave Wallach the idea that it could be more than a youth theatre. “This could become a union house and part of a 99-seat plan,” Wallach realized. He chose the comedy Bleacher Bums as the inaugural production of what will be a four-show season.
“The cast is good. I’m not a baseball person but I laugh out loud,” Wallach says. The play, written by Joe Mantegna and other members of Chicago’s Organic Theater Company, takes place in the bleachers of Chicago’s Wrigley Field and features a cast of characters that includes a “rabid cheerleader and other die-hard Cubs fans.” It’s not all about baseball, though. “It’s really a bunch of human stories.”
In the future, Wallach envisions Playhouse 101 evolving into an arts complex. Looking to grants and donations, he hopes to expand within the same location to include an upstairs area where they can hold intimate concerts, comedy shows, workshops and an art gallery. Wallach wants Playhouse 101 to be a space for youth in the community, as well as a popular entertainment spot for all ages. Its location right off the 101 freeway (hence the name) means it’s within walking distance of restaurants, so people can see a show, get something to eat and enjoy a nice night out.
Seeing Playhouse 101 coming to life and being embraced by so much community support, Wallach exclaims, “The arts are strong!” To borrow a line from a famous baseball movie: “Build it, and [they] will come.” Seems it’s just as true in theater as it is in baseball.
Bleacher Bums plays through May 13 at Playhouse 101, 28720 Canwood St., Agoura Hills. For tickets and more information, call 805-816-4204 or visit www.playhouse101.com.