Michael Angel Maynez was sitting one day in the courtyard of the San Buenaventura Mission. He was reflecting and praying, as he does daily, when an elderly lady recognized Ventura's most enduring--if enigmatic--local theater personality.
"Aren't you Michael Maynez?" asked the woman, gathering an offended air. "The director who does all those vulgar plays?"
"I said, 'Yes, I am,' " said Maynez, the founder and driving force behind Ventura's Plaza Players.
"Well, don't you think it's audacious to go every day for novena when you do those plays like that?"
At 65, with his pointed white beard and shaved head, his round torso and penchant for colorful scarfs, Maynez recounts the tale with delight. Audacious? Maybe. But vulgar? Well, that's not quite the right word.
He pushed his glasses to the top of his smooth head, and his gray-green eyes narrowed into a teasing smile.
"I do wicked theater," Maynez said.
Maynez can afford to smile and tease these days. He and the Plaza Players are part of arts history in the making in Ventura. Last July, they received the largest subsidy ever granted by the city to a single arts program.
The $200,000-plus grant is helping the troupe move from a tiny converted church on Santa Clara Street into the old Livery building on Palm Street, where a crew is racing to finish the theater for a New Year's Eve champagne opening.
This Sunday afternoon, Maynez plans a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate. His printed invitations welcome guests to the "wickedly wonderful world of Plaza Players, where you can be intimately involved or slightly detached, but never indifferent."
The line describes the director as well as his productions.
Maynez is a man who can be gentle and genteel, even courtly. Yet those whom Maynez has directed say he can also be playfully crude and even brutal, preying on actors' vulnerabilities to draw out the best performance.
Actress Terry Lynne, who starred in the Players' production of "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," sees Maynez as a wonderful friend and director, but said he can be rough on an unstudied actor.
"He has been known to throw his shoe at people," she said. "He's brilliant. You have to say he's brilliant." He also enjoys the sexuality in a play, she said. "He likes vulgarity. But he doesn't like it showy. He doesn't think that is sexual."
Actress and sometime director Sherry Resac called Maynez the most interesting person she would ever meet. "He is funny. He is aggravating. He is extremely intelligent. He is a very open person, but he's someone you never know completely."
She claims the vulgarity tag is a bad rap.
"It's a reputation he doesn't deserve," she said. "He doesn't do 'Mary Poppins' and 'South Pacific'; he does very exciting and innovative theater." Resac, who has known Maynez for 27 years, thinks of him as a father.
Miriam Mack, the city's redevelopment administrator who arranged for the grant to move Maynez into his new theater, calls him a shrewd businessman--who also brings her flowers. She, and the Redevelopment Agency board that approved the deal, believe that Maynez's long standing in Ventura entitled him to the unprecedented gift.
"First of all, they were in the redevelopment area," Mack said. "They have been in the community for 40 years. And we want to make sure that the arts stay downtown."
That sits just fine with Maynez.
"Art without subsidy--whether the symphony or anything else--is not going to work," he said.
He talks of the world's hypocrisy one minute, extols Freud for his correct assessment of the power of sex the next, then clowns for a news photographer. "Friends, Romans, countrymen," he bellowed one day during a photo shoot, hanging off a ladder set atop the new wooden stage. "Please take off your togas!"
It's been a long road that has led this local boy, a son of Mexican immigrant parents, to his own new theater, a house that will sport charcoal gray walls and "brilliant London-red seats."
Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1924, he spoke Spanish at home and English at school. At age 12, Maynez, with mother, father, two brothers and a sister, moved to Pasadena, where he was exposed to the arts in school.
"I fell in love with school," Maynez said. On one field trip, the class saw "Madame Butterfly." On another, they visited backstage at a radio theater.
"The biggest shock and disappointment of my life was when I saw that horses' hoofs were coconut halves going 'clop, clop, clop,' " Maynez said. That's the moment his interest in theater was solidified, he said.
Three years later, the family moved again, this time to Oxnard, where his parents set up a little Mexican restaurant that is now The Missile, a bar near the Navy base at Point Mugu.
"Talk about cultural shock!" Maynez said. No more field trips to the theater; no more jaunts to the symphony. But one good teacher at Oxnard High School helped him reduce his then-strong Spanish accent by teaching him to read poetry.