by JENNY LOWER
When Cabrillo Music Theatre — a family-friendly musical theater company based in the upscale suburb of Thousand Oaks, California, for more than two decades — announced in March 2016 its plan to close, the news elicited sorrow but little surprise.
Cabrillo had nearly shut down two years earlier, but managed to rally after a fundraising push backed by the local community. Those contributions hadn’t been enough to put the theater permanently in the clear, however, and it had continued to suffer from low donations and audience turnout in the wake of the recession. It wasn’t alone. Further south, the Colony Theatre in Burbank was also teetering on the brink of collapse.
“This was a painful and difficult decision,” read the announcement from Cabrillo’s board, citing flagging ticket sales, rising rent, and troubles with the box office of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, the city-run venue where Cabrillo performed all its shows. The company would suspend productions at the end of the current season. Cabrillo’s community outreach to senior homes and military bases would also shut down, as well as its arts education program, Kabrillo Kids. To do otherwise would be “fiscally irresponsible,” the statement contended.
But only a couple weeks after issuing that press release, Cabrillo suddenly reversed course: A new announcement said the company would remain open after all. In a statement, Cabrillo said it had worked through its box office issues and secured new donors. Board Chairman Bart Leininger thanked the local community for its outpouring of support.
“I am particularly grateful to the benefactors that came forward to allow us to responsibly move forward into the next season,” he said. Cabrillo would proceed with most of its planned 2016-2017 lineup, including Evita, Sister Act, and Peter Pan. It was cancelling its fourth show, Tarzan, which had been expected to lose money.
The local press celebrated. VC Onstage, a local online arts publication, hailed Cabrillo’s “Lazarus-like resurrection.” The Ventura County Star’s editorial page declared, “Cabrillo Music Theatre is saved for the good of all of us.”
By the time Evita’s opening rolled around last October, expectations for Cabrillo’s comeback were high. A few critics were sprinkled through the audience and loyal subscribers had filled most of the 1,800 seats at the Civic Arts Plaza’s Fred Kavli Theater.
Even the play itself signaled a change. Cabrillo touts itself as “Broadway in your backyard,” and its selections have historically trended toward the classics: The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, Damn Yankees and Grease. But in recent years, the company has also embraced more culturally and ethnically diverse offerings with In the Heights and Memphis, which won an Ovation award for lead actor in a musical. Cabrillo had never mounted Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mildly sexy operetta about the rise and fall of Argentine first lady, Eva Peron. The production signaled the subtle shift the revived Cabrillo was making — toward attracting a younger, more diverse audience base that could help carry the company forward.
And then, in the first 20 seconds of opening night, a director’s heart-stopper: The projector wouldn’t start. The ensemble, dressed as Argentine moviegoers, waited onstage for the black and white film to set the play in motion. For several endless moments, it seemed as though Cabrillo’s comeback production might be doomed before it started.
Seconds passed before the black and white film finally flickered to life. The actors and the audience cheered. The show — and Cabrillo — rolled on.
As the only professional theater company devoted to musicals in Ventura County, Cabrillo fulfills a distinct niche in the local arts scene. Its productions star a mix of professional, Broadway-caliber Equity actors and community performers, including children. Graduates from Kabrillo Kids, the company’s program for talented, arts career-minded youngsters, have gone on to perform on Broadway and the Disney Channel.
For many young audience members, Cabrillo represents their first exposure to local, age-appropriate, professional theater. Further north, the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura puts on professional productions, including some musicals, but those productions are largely geared toward adults. For supporters unable or unwilling to venture south to the Ahmanson or Pantages, Cabrillo has no local rival.
Since last April, Cabrillo has expanded and reorganized its board of directors, secured a loan from anonymous donors, and healed tensions with the Civic Arts Plaza. Cabrillo’s leaders say the changes will allow the company to meet its financial obligations now and for the foreseeable future. But they’re also taking a pragmatic, long-sighted view of how Cabrillo needs to adapt to ensure its ongoing survival. Its success rests, in part, on overcoming the unusual financial model established for the Civic Arts Plaza more than two decades ago, which has added to Cabrillo’s financial struggles at a time when many theaters are already struggling to survive.
One of the Civic Arts Plaza’s three resident performance troupes, Cabrillo receives key perks such as discounted rental fees, priority access to booking dates, and virtually free on-site office space. But unlike some other mid-size and large regional theater companies, Cabrillo doesn’t receive direct public underwriting. And in an unconventional twist, neither does the Civic Arts Plaza, even though it is owned and run by the city. Rather, the arts venue is supposed to support itself through rental fees.
“In other places, the city subsidizes the arts,” says Lewis Wilkenfeld, Cabrillo’s former artistic director, citing La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, about 60 miles south. Wilkenfeld stepped down last spring after 10 years helming the company. “This is the only city I’m aware of where the arts are expected to subsidize the city.”
The model is “a little on the rare side,” acknowledges Barry McComb, the Thousand Oaks cultural affairs director, who manages the Civic Arts Plaza. “We’re set up like an enterprise fund, which means that we operate like a private business would. We’re mandated to cover our costs by the fees that we charge.”
The lack of public financial support for the Civic Arts Plaza can be traced back to the venue’s construction in the early 1990s. Billed as the largest performing arts space between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the structure generated controversy from the beginning, for everything from its $64 million price tag to its signature copper latticework rising over the 101 freeway. The L.A. Times complained that the building was an extravagance that would strip public resources from worthier recipients, with some justification: To finance construction, the city diverted or borrowed resources from funds intended to pay for park maintenance, IT equipment, and affordable housing. In return, community leaders promised voters that once the venue was built, the Civic Arts Plaza would be self-supporting.
In the years since, the Civic Arts Plaza arrangement has raised eyebrows in the arts world because theater seldom functions as a money-making enterprise: Production and overhead expenses typically exceed ticket sales. However, under the Civic Arts Plaza’s financial model, a theater like Cabrillo is also a tenant expected to keep the venue’s lights on.
Starting with the 2014-2015 season, McComb told Cabrillo one of its shows would need to move next door to the Plaza’s smaller space, the 400-seat Scherr Forum. At the time, Cabrillo productions were taking up eight weekends per year in the 1,800-seat Fred Kavli Theater. But the company didn’t have the attendance levels to justify using the large space, McComb says.
“That was creating issues for us in making our own budget when we weren’t doing the business over such a large period of time,” he says. The Civic Arts Plaza earns a $4 surcharge for each ticket sold.
Shifting one of Cabrillo’s four shows to the smaller space was supposed to open up the Fred Kavli for more highly attended shows, generating more revenue for the Civic Arts Plaza. The move would theoretically help Cabrillo too, by reducing the company’s rental fees by half and allowing the show to run for an extra weekend.
In practice, however, the move to the Scherr was a disaster. Cabrillo mounted Company there in 2015 and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 2016. Although artistically the shows worked, they didn’t pencil out financially, says Peter Tompkins, treasurer of Cabrillo’s board of directors since last spring. According to Tompkins, the company did save some money on rent — Cabrillo paid about $10,000 for two weekends in the Scherr, compared to $20,000 for the same run in the Fred Kavli. But rental fees represent only a tiny percentage of a show’s overall budget, which typically runs between $350,000 and $450,000 for the sets, costumes, live music and Equity actors. A large chunk of those costs — about $75,000 to $80,000 — is paid to the city to hire the technical staff to operate the light boards and heavy scenery for each performance. Those costs didn’t go down for the smaller theater. At the same time, the Scherr’s reduced number of seats made it impossible to sell enough tickets to recover the production expenses.
“For the cost of putting on [Company and Forum], we could have sold every seat in the house and not made money,” Tompkins says.
The shows might have fared better with stronger marketing, but splitting Cabrillo’s season across two theaters also confused subscribers, compounding Cabrillo’s losses. The Civic Arts Plaza had promised Cabrillo the Scherr production would show up alongside the regular Fred Kavli shows when subscribers renewed their packages online, but the venue was unable to deliver. Wilkenfeld has estimated the technical hiccup Cabrillo lost $120,000 in subscriber tickets alone.
In 2014, Wilkenfeld announced at a production of Bye Bye Birdie the company would have to shut down unless it received a massive cash influx. The community stepped up, raising $290,000 from more than a thousand small donations. But the amount raised was less than half what Cabrillo needed to make up the shortfall in operating costs each year. By last March, the company was on precarious footing again, prompting it to announce, once again, that it would close at the end of the current season.
Cabrillo’s second existential crisis in two years prompted a hard look at internal changes the company could make to ensure its survival. One of those adjustments involved taking a more hardheaded, business-oriented approach to the theater’s future.
After the debacle with the Scherr Forum shows, Tompkins says, “We sort of swore to ourselves that we aren’t going to do shows that we don’t project will make a profit, or at least break even or come close to breaking even.” That thinking drove Cabrillo’s decision to cut the loss leader Tarzan and reduce its current season to three shows, rather than incur more debt.
The board’s composition also shifted, toward an emphasis on appointing active members with business savvy and potential fundraising connections. Previously, the board had taken a laissez-faire approach to Cabrillo’s daily operations, leaving Wilkenfeld to shoulder the bulk of the company’s decision-making. As artistic director, his immediate priorities lay with putting on the best show possible, Tompkins says, but “Lewis was not a business person. He was an artist.”
In the midst of the crisis, Cabrillo managed to secure a major line of credit from an anonymous donor to solve the company’s cash-flow crisis. The crucial loan will allow the company to keep its doors open for the foreseeable future, and pay operating expenses until its next production, Sister Act, opens on April 21.
But by the time the threat of imminent closure had passed, Wilkenfeld had decided to step down. He says serving as the public face of a theater in constant financial crisis had taken a physical and psychological toll. “I just couldn’t be that guy anymore,” he says. He will continue to serve in an informal capacity as a member of the advisory board.
In Wilkenfeld’s place, Cabrillo’s board appointed Will North, whose title — managing director rather than artistic director — signals the company’s renewed emphasis on business operations. As a former actor and director with technical, marketing, and business experience, North wants to shape Cabrillo into a national brand.
“I want us to be on par with the other regional theaters that people consider to be doing the best work, whether that be Paper Mill, the Muny, the Goodman, Sacramento Music Circus,” he says.
For Sister Act, North is bringing in off-Broadway director Misti B. Wills, who has never worked in southern California before, and music director Kyle Norris.
North also wants to expand Cabrillo’s repertoire to fresher shows that might attract more middle-aged and younger patrons. Like many theaters, Cabrillo struggles with graying audiences. A Show Boat or My Fair Lady isn’t going to speak to a young person tempted by Netflix or YouTube videos, he says — but a pop culture sensation such as Shrek or Legally Blonde might.
North’s instincts may be right. Natasha Kissler of Newbury Park became a season ticket subscriber with her husband last year after her first Cabrillo show, Damn Yankees. “We traveled to LA many times to see different shows I thought were way worse, and we paid more money,” she says. When the couple heard the company was in trouble last spring, they upgraded their seats from the balcony to the orchestra section as a show of support.
Having grown up in Moldova, Kissler is new to theater classics that might seem out of date to an American counterpart. But asked what future Cabrillo productions she’d like to see, and Kissler is emphatic: “Wicked. I’ve never seen it. If they would do it, I would definitely go.”
There are signs Cabrillo’s efforts are starting to pay off. The Thousand Oaks City Council recently voted to forgive the company $43,000 in old debt due to several underperforming shows. The move lets Cabrillo move forward unencumbered by the past, McComb says.
A half season into his tenure, North says he has come to appreciate that keeping Cabrillo afloat required a steadfast refusal to accept failure, when closing would have been the easy route.
“I liken it to a marriage. There are those couples — I know them —who have weathered the toughest storms a marriage could possibly weather. And they say, literally, ‘We will not get divorced. So then, what’s the answer?’”
He has two pieces of advice for theater companies in similar straits. The first is to be willing to adapt to evolving tastes and new business models.
As for the second, “Be steadfast and resolved to stay open, and hang on with all your might.”
Note: At its annual ceremony on March 20, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awarded Cabrillo Music Theater its Joel Hirschhorn Award for Outstanding Achievement in Musical Theatre.
NOW PLAYING: SISTER ACT through April 30 at Cabrillo Music Theatre.
It’s Philadelphia in the 1970s, and when disco diva Deloris Van Cartier witnesses a murder, she is put in protective custody in one place the cops are sure she won’t be a found: a convent! Disguised as a nun, she finds herself at odds with both the rigid lifestyle and uptight Mother Superior.