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Dueling Troupes

Production pact with Ojai Art Center leaves some groups feeling slighted.


Ojai may have the most community theater groups per capita in Southern California--at least seven. So when several factions brawl over the tiny community's major stage, the results to outsiders may appear Shakespearean: a "Tempest" in a teapot.

At the heart of the melee is the 58-year-old Ojai Art Center, whose Theater Branch has traditionally overseen the production of several shows per year, with outside producers taking over remaining slots.

Last week, the center's board of governors approved a contract guaranteeing space for five shows annually for the next three years to local producer Taylor Kasch's Flying H Productions. Kasch, in turn, is obligated to raise funds for his expenses. Profits, if any, will be shared between Kasch and the center.

Only three performance slots go to the center's own Theater Branch each year, leaving some of those affiliated with the body feeling slighted. Some independent groups that have previously used the facility, ranging from Ojai's Illusions children's troupe to Ventura's Plaza Players, are also all costumed up with no place to go as a result of the agreement.

"Even though the Theater Branch is allowed three productions in 1998," Branch director Simone Sheppard sighs, "we have two lousy slots--one just after Christmas (1997), and one right before Christmas (1998)." The third, in June, is "OK," she allows. Even though their 1998 schedule is already firm, she adds, "We won't be selling season tickets the first year, so there won't be a need to deal with exchanges or refunds."

The Theater Branch selections--Carl Reiner's "Enter Laughing" is the best known offering, and that isn't until December 1998--don't sound like they will guarantee big crowds; a low financial return on in-house productions was a major factor in bringing in Kasch's group.

For his part, Kasch has no specific schedule to announce for 1998, although he promises that one of the plays will be George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" and that the others may include some world premieres. He'll be producing Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" in October (before the season begins) and promises a big, splashy show for summer of '98.

His previous productions at the center include "The Wizard of Oz," the little-known drama "Female Transport," and the successful musical "Big River." He's already taken "Big River" to Simi Valley's Cultural Arts Center and will be moving it to Santa Barbara's Center Stage Theater next month.

Kasch says that he's investigating other Santa Barbara venues for Flying H productions originating in Ojai. (Ironically, one of the independent groups crowded out by the Kasch-Art Center pact is Santa Barbara-based Starlight Entertainment).

Kasch vows that while "some of these people are understandably upset, I want them included. The more good people who are involved, the better. If we can all get together and make this thing work, it's for the benefit of everyone."

The Ojai Civic Light Opera began as an offshoot of Art Center productions and has mounted shows in local school auditoriums and at Libbey Bowl.

"The one good thing about what's happening now," notes the light opera's Wayne Pickerell, "is that it's pushed a lot of us closer to putting together a new performing arts center in Ojai. I don't know what the Art Center has accomplished [in the past] other than forcing people to start their own companies."

The last word--this time around, at least--goes to Peter Crane, who works with Flying H in addition to serving as the Theater Branch's vice president.

"Last year, there were [the Ojai Civic Light Opera's] 'Camelot,' the Ojai Shakespeare Festival and 'The Wizard of Oz,' all going on at the same time and the community supported them all. If you really love theater, there's always something you can do. It may be a sideshow now, but it's still the theater."


Casting Call

Director Kelly Johnston is casting "West Side Story" to be produced by Camarillo Community Theater from July 25-Aug. 31. Auditions are Sunday afternoon, and Monday and Tuesday evenings. For further information, call (805) 484-8383 or (805) 388-5716.

A local producer is looking for a leading man, 35-45, for the comic lead in an original one-act play about dating in the '90s. The actor should be at least 6 feet tall. Call (805) 495-3318.

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