Steve Julian

Steve Julian

Steve was KPCC's host for Morning Edition, an actor, and director from Southern California. He served on the boards of two theater companies and wrote about theater for LA STAGE Times. Steve passed away in April of 2016, and will be sorely missed by the Los Angeles creative community, his family, and friends.

Lewis Wilkenfeld Holds the Reins at Cabrillo Music Theatre

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Cabrillo Music Theatre occupies a venue that Cabrillo artistic director Lewis Wilkenfeld describes as the largest theatrical house between Los Angeles and San Francisco — the 1,800-seat Kavli Theatre in the Bank of America Performing Arts Center at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. You cannot miss it when driving past on the 101. Opened in 1994, it still looks new. Inside, however, is theatrical antiquity — a set for The Sound of Music built in 1972.

Lewis Wilkenfeld

“It was created for LA Civic Light Opera. I would guess for [longtime LACLO producer] Edwin Lester,” wagers Wilkenfeld, Cabrillo’s artistic director since 2006. Wilkenfeld has led Cabrillo to 24 Ovation Award nominations and seven wins. He has all but taken over running the place since Carole Nussbaum, who served as president and CEO, left in February after Marvelous Wonderettes. “Carole held a unique spot here at Cabrillo. It’s a role you cannot re-cast.”

Wilkenfeld was familiar around Cabrillo, after a few jobs as a freelance director. Nussbaum, he says, recognized the need to give the theater a consistent artistic vision, so she brought him on board full-time, a “step of maturity for Cabrillo,” as he calls it. “Since Carole left, I’m continuing to produce the shows as I have. Our musical director, Darryl Archibald, has stepped in as managing director for now.  Alexis Eaton, who assisted Carole for years, has taken on additional duties. The board of directors has stepped up in a big way. And our volunteers have stepped up. Carole cannot be replaced by one person — it’s taken about 20.”

Nussbaum was a force who could not be held back, Wilkenfeld says. “She’s always been destined to paint on a broader canvas. And, really, it’s been a wild ride [since she left] and we miss her terribly.”

He gives Nussbaum credit for turning around a teetering theater company, thanking God every day, he says, when he stumbles across something that she repaired or improved. “She is a fixer. And we were in tremendous turmoil when she arrived.”

A corporate lawyer whose family relocated to southern California more than a dozen years ago, Nussbaum understood how the company needed to run more like a business. “Her work with Cabrillo will forever leave a positive impact.”

She also was responsible for instituting Cabrillo’s outreach programs, including performances at a nearby naval base and free tickets to military personnel on Cabrillo’s home stage. “She also developed an outreach program to seniors, another for college students and, coming up, we’ll have an animal adoption effort during Annie,“ notes Wilkenfeld.

He admits Cabrillo Music Theatre, like most companies, is suffering financially once again, after Nussbaum pointedly paid off company debts in 2004, before becoming president and CEO the following year. For today’s debts, Wilkenfeld blames the 2008 recession.

“We are working really hard through fundraising and donations and an honorary producers’ program for our community members. We’re stepping up our season ticket drive, just trying to offset the economic challenges.”

One tactic Wilkenfeld proposed four years ago, and Nussbaum instituted, was presenting four shows a year instead of three. “In a way it takes four shows to complete the meal. You’ve got to have your carbohydrates, your proteins, veggies and your dessert. Our upcoming season has Annie, which appeals to one side of the audience; Meet Me in St. Louis appeals to another side; Once Upon A Mattress feels new even when it’s old because it’s not done very much except by schools; and then a smaller show each year. This year we’re doing Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash.”

Shannon Warne with the Von Trapp Children

Opening next, however, is The Sound of Music. “Our musical director, Darryl Archibald, remembers seeing this with Florence Henderson (The Brady Bunch) and Edward Mulhare (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) in the 1970s, with a very young Crispin Glover as one of the boys. He’s been talking about that set ever since. Well, that very set is now on our stage.”

Stagehands, all volunteers, are spending several days piecing it together. “There are no instructions, only this massive three-story set we’re putting together.”

Wilkenfeld traces its provenance. “It’s currently owned by Musical Theatre West (MTW) in Long Beach. It was owned by San Bernardino Civic Light Opera for a time; they probably picked it up from Los Angeles CLO. When San Bernardino went under, they sold the scenery to Santa Barbara CLO, and they rented it out for many years and then it went to The Set Co. in Oxnard. I feel like we’re barbarians at the gate. Set Co. went under just about the time I got this job in 2006 and all these sets were given homes. We bought a few ourselves, including The King and I and The Music Man. Nobody has used this set since at least 2006.”

MTW artistic director Steven Glaudini says his company purchased several large, national tour sets from Set Co. when it went under. “Many came pretty trashed and without documentation. I thought it would be a win/win for both organizations to let Lewis rent it for a very affordable price and, in return, he would refurbish it and provide current photos with its ‘facelift.’”

Wilkenfeld laughs at a stagehand’s discovery. “Someone jokingly has written on the back of the set how many nuns and how many children have been hurt since it was built.” Admittedly not sure, he suspects it a joke. “But now, when we share sets, whether it’s with Musical Theatre West, McCoy Rigby, the Norris Theatre or whoever, we take pictures of it and document it and pass it on to the next company using it. It’s very much like a kibbutz.”

It’s a common practice now. “We just used MTW’s Little Shop of Horrors set last year and we took a lot of photos and a scale drawing. This year, when McCoy Rigby did it, they had the photos and documentation. Everyone’s trying to help each other get through the financial times we’re in.” Costumes for The Sound of Music came from Fullerton Civic Light Opera. “FCLO’s sets are usually designed for a smaller space than ours and sometimes they fit, sometimes they don’t. But we love working with them. Our Jekyll and Hyde and Cats sets came from them.”

Not A Repertory Company

Tom Schmid and Shannon Warne

Cabrillo Music Theatre has the feel of a professional-community theater hybrid. “We are not a star-driven company or one that pre-casts a lot. Every role is open to everyone for all shows,” notes Wilkenfeld. “The exception is Ring of Fire which is very specific, and we’ll welcome back Sally Struthers as Mrs. Hannigan in Annie. She won an Ovation Award last year as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella here.”

“We like new faces,” Wilkenfeld says. “We had 512 people audition for The Sound of Music. That’s a Cabrillo record. Three of our five leads have never done a show here before. Only two of our six kids have done shows here. And I have to say that auditioner #1 and auditioner #512 both got in the show.”

Wilkenfeld also likes creativity, recently witnessed when the company staged a flash mob for The Sound of Music. “My associate, Janelle Meinert, came up with the idea for this back in January and we worked with the Oaks Mall here in Thousand Oaks to make it happen. We’ve had over 2000 [YouTube] hits from it so far, and it brought a lot of attention to our show and our presence in the community.”

He says more than 200 performers took part — many of whom had never heard of Cabrillo Music Theatre. “But they know us now! Our choreographer, Heather Castillo, was the artistic architect of the event.” (See video below)

Cabrillo maintains a Guest Artist Tier 3 Equity contract that calls for three Equity actors and a stage manager. Wilkenfeld, an Equity member for over 20 years, says he wants to grow the company. “I worked at Long Beach CLO and studied under Marty Wiviott who’s now [general manager] at Nederlander [Los Angeles]. I’m a big believer in the union and get as frustrated as anyone there isn’t enough work for members. It’s a puzzle that has to be worked out with Equity and producers to find, in a non-confrontational way, how to crack that nut.”

Wilkenfeld looks back on the day when an actor got out of school, got a couple jobs and then landed an Equity card. “Now young actors have to ask themselves whether getting their Equity card is really the best move for them. That breaks my heart.”

He remains confident he can keep the company afloat, grow it and find a way “to get onto a WCLO (Western Civic Light Opera) contract that allows us to continue to use our community — we don’t want to lose that — but also to get more union people on stage.”

Cabrillo pays non-Equity actors a stipend, based on the size of their role. Wilkenfeld is okay with that. “The balance is that we get so many people who are on the cusp of a great career. [Pop singers] Adam Lambert and Katharine McPhee performed here as non-Equity artists; [singer and actress] Amanda Bynes started here. I think that’s partly why we’re here, moving people from our community forward professionally.”

Wilkenfeld’s job is a balancing act, particularly now that the company’s financial picture is not as bright as a few years ago. “We’re just going to keep attacking the financial situation show by show, problem by problem.”

His focus is on creating fiscally responsible seasons. “Our audience wants to see shows with their kids or grandkids. All four of our shows are appropriate for all audiences. They are also within the realm of what we can afford now. It’s the difference of trucking in a set from the East Coast versus Long Beach and the cost of how large a show is and its rehearsal and tech periods. All these are things you decide before you buy.”

Shannon Warne

Cabrillo’s subscriptions, he says, are at about 85% of where they were last year at this time. “Cabrillo historically has not been a huge subscription company, and that has to do with its roots before Carole. We had various producers producing separate shows. There wasn’t a sense of season. Carole did a Herculean job in changing that.”

But he needs the audience to buy into not just one show, but one full season. “It’s what keeps a company like Cabrillo afloat. I know there’s a lot of discussion in the macro world about season subscriptions, but nobody’s really come up with an alternate business plan that allows companies like ours to stay in business. Otherwise, companies will mount just one show. To mount a season, you have to sell a season.”

A generally enthusiastic guy, you can hear tension in his voice. “Am I worried? I’d be stupid not to be worried. I know there are issues, and we’ve had some scary moments the past few months. But we’re in the arts and we’re lucky to have what we have. We’re lucky to do what God put us on this earth to do, so we’re gonna keep doing it. And we’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves.”

If he is lucky — or, if the sun really will come out tomorrow — Wilkenfeld will realize a dream to launch a new show. “We took on a [new] show, [Neil Sedaka’s] Breaking Up is Hard to Do, about three years ago and it went over very well. I wouldn’t mind doing something like that again. I think we’re a couple of years away from that. We just need to right the boat a little and then we’re going to do it.”

**All production photography by Ed Krieger

The Sound of Music, produced by Cabrillo Music Theatre, July 22-31. Thur 7:30 pm, Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sat-Sun 2 pm, plus one Wed performance on July 27, 11 am. Singalongs after each matinee.  Kavli Theatre, Bank of America Performing Arts Center, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks.  805-449-2787.