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A risky venture in Ventura

Establishing Rubicon, the city's first theater company, in a church six years ago took quite a leap of faith. Now the husband-and-wife artistic directors are risking it again.

June 13, 2004|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

After Julius Caesar's forces crossed the Rubicon River en route to Rome, there was no turning back. "Crossing the Rubicon" became a way to describe a risky but irrevocable decision.

When the Rubicon Theatre Company started in 1998, founders Karyl Lynn Burns and James O'Neil chose the name Rubicon to affirm the value of taking risks. And certainly this married couple's decision to build the first professional theater company in Ventura entailed some risk.

"Everything was a risk at the beginning, because the audience hadn't experienced anything," O'Neil says.

Burns doesn't completely agree, saying some Ventura residents saw and even financially supported professional theater in Santa Barbara or Los Angeles in the pre-Rubicon days. Yet she acknowledges that Rubicon had to educate some audience members about certain theatrical basics. When the group proposed taking a touring version of "Romeo and Juliet" to schools, one vice principal told Burns that the gig was OK "if you take out all the violence."

In this context, it wasn't too surprising that the Rubicon programming in the company's first five years seldom seemed risky. The play titles were usually familiar, and the casting of such well-known actors as Linda Purl, Stephanie Zimbalist, Joe Spano and Harold Gould provided box-office insurance.

When the company presented its first full production of a new play, "Murder in the First," in 2000, the cast included Larry Hagman, and the director was his former "Dallas" costar Linda Gray. John Ritter starred in the next new play, "J for J."

The Rubicon, which occupies a former church now known as the Laurel, probably could have comfortably rested on its laurels for at least a few more years without making changes. But change is in the air.

The opportunity to buy the Laurel arose last year, and the company closed escrow this month on the $1.3-million purchase. The Laurel will undergo a makeover in the coming months. Church pews will be replaced by theater seats and the balcony will be expanded, raising capacity from 210 to about 280.

Behind the scenes, the staff has grown from just Burns and O'Neil to 15 people. Rubicon will take its summer production of "Side by Side by Sondheim" to the Orange County Performing Arts Center in September and has launched a co-producing partnership with Manitoba Theatre Center in Winnipeg.

The programming looks more adventurous too.

A festival devoted to Samuel Beckett -- no one's idea of a summer stock favorite -- opens in September, revolving around "Waiting for Godot," directed by Walter Asmus, who staged an acclaimed "Godot" for the Gate Theatre of Dublin (seen at the Freud Playhouse in 2000).

Jon Lawrence Rivera will create a coffeehouse configuration throughout the Laurel for Jason Robert Brown's relatively obscure revue "Songs for a New World," which he also staged at Los Angeles Theatre Center last year.

A premiere co-production (with the Manitoba company) of Mark Stein's "Mating Dance of the Werewolf" is scheduled for next year. The latter will be accompanied by a warning of "adult themes, strong language and graphic sexual content" and will feature the Rubicon's first nudity, O'Neil says.

The eclecticism of the programming is both a choice and a duty. "It's more fulfilling artistically to jump around," Burns says. But it also meets the needs of a community with only one professional theater: "If we don't do an accessible comedy, we're not providing a point of entry for people who haven't been to the theater. If we don't do classics, students might only read them, not see them." And now, after a few years of comedies and classics, "if we don't offer edgy new plays, we're not stretching the audience." The biggest question now facing the Rubicon is, in the words of Burns, "How do we stabilize to ensure that the Rubicon is here for future generations without losing the heart of the work and the commitment to the community?"

Some of the Rubicon's homespun charm is that it is housed in a building that was a church from 1923 to 1998 -- most recently Pentecostal.

"Boy, it's going to be a sad day when the pews go," says Zimbalist, who has appeared in "The Rainmaker," "Dancing at Lughnasa" and "Defying Gravity" at the Rubicon and will star in "Night of the Iguana" in the fall. The building has "a very deep, spiritual-based feeling."

Besides the pews, the building's history is reflected in stained glass and in a baptismal font that can come in handy when onstage plumbing is needed.

O'Neil first acted in a Santa Barbara Pentecostal church at age 15. He had offered advice to his mother as she was conducting auditions for the Christmas pageant and wound up playing a father who tells the nativity story to his daughter.

"Theater is a sacred experience," says Burns, who grew up in Overland Park, Kan. "The roots of it are based in some sort of spiritual expression."

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