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    Posted July 30, 2009

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Theatre in Ojai, CA Goes Equity

Theater 150 Bucks Trend of Cutting Back

HAMLET marks Theater 150ís first full professional production

Ojai, California, nestled in a valley 75 miles north of Los Angeles, lures visitors from all over with its world-class spas, idyllic natural beauty, and friendly, small-town feel. In June, music lovers flock to Ojai for the famous Music Festival; art lovers come in October for the Studio Artist's Tour, and now theatre lovers have their own reason to make the trek to the village locals refer to as "Shangri-La."

Theater 150, already well loved by Ojai residents for its top-notch local productions, recently made a bold leap into full professional status, mounting its first Equity production: HAMLET, in July 2009. Guest director Jessica Kubzansky, co-artistic director of Pasadena's The Theater at Boston Court, had long dreamt of directing HAMLET and temporarily relocated to Ojai to bring Shakespeare's most famous characters to new life for Theater 150 audiences.

Hamlet (Leo Marks), Gertrude (Lee Ann Manley) and Claudius (Paul Sulzman) in a scene from HAMLET

Chris Nottoli and Deb Norton, Theater 150's artistic directors, chose HAMLET to mark the local theatre's debut as an Equity Small Professional Theater (SPT), not only for its 400-year track record, but because they believed there was something very timely about the piece itself.

"Just before HAMLET goes off to his final duel," Nattoli explains, "he tells Horatio that we can't know what the fates have in store for us, all we can do is handle well whatever may come; '...the readiness is all.'" he says. Like so many non-profits, when the economy went into free-fall, Theater 150's survival was at stake. With the knowledge that we can't predict with any certainty what financial ebbs and flows are ahead of us, we took some time and invited the community to help us remake how we create art so when the tide shifts, we have the infrastructure to weather it." The community responded enthusiastically to this new business model by tripling the size of Theater 150's board of directors and contributing huge new sums of money. "This is clearly what the people wanted and we were honored to deliver," said Nottoli. "We have a duty to learn these lessons, to be agile, smart and ready so Theater 150 doesn't end up like everyone in this play: dead on the floor in Act V."

Laertes (Brendan Bradley), Ophelia (Danielle K. Jones) and Polonius (Tim Cummings) in HAMLET

Theater 150's space was completely re-configured to accommodate this play. "We've done 'theater in your lap' and 'tempests in a teacup,' so why not 'fencing at your feet?' asks Nottoli, referring to the theater's tiny (42 seat) original home. "We could do it safely because the actors are professionals, and they are training non-stop. There is no way to 'fake it' when you're this close."

Which is another reason why they did it. Nottoli and Norton, singled out by Ventana magazine as two of the forward-moving "9 for 2009," cite the words of Orson Welles as one of their guiding principles: "Don't give them what you think they want, give them what they never thought was possible." Their vision was to create world-class professional theatre in Ojai, both for the theatre lovers of the community and the visitors who are already lured by Ojai's international reputation as an artistic Mecca.

"Our Hamlet brought together the best artists, working at the top of their game, in Ojai," says Norton. "It was our vision coming true."

Equity member Leo Marks, playing Hamlet, said "It was great to get out of the city [Los Angeles] to do this. It was a huge show and we put it together in a fairly short time. Ojai allows serenity to focus you, not panic." Equity member Tim Cummings, who played Polonius, adds: "To be living in Ojai, doing Shakespeare with Jessica Kubzansky, and getting paid for it, transposed HAMLET --our most renown tragedy-- into an exhilarating fantasy."

Theater 150 is named for the state highway that runs through town. The artistic team plans to bring theatre lovers along that highway for both a summer Classics Festival, and a winter New Works Festival. HAMLET was the summer festival's first "shot across the bow," said Nottoli.

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