BY CARY GINELL
Cabrillo Music Theatre’s recent announcement of the production company ending its 22-year existence at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza was a devastating bombshell to dedicated theater fans throughout Ventura County, but like everything Lewis Wilkenfeld does, it was a well thought out, logical decision based on the realities of what has happened since he took over as artistic director five years ago. We sat down with Lewis for a frank, open discussion on the causes of Cabrillo’s current dilemma and what’s to come in the future, for him as well as for the company.
VCOS: When you took over Cabrillo, what were the challenges that you faced and do you have any theories as to what challenges were met and which ones were not?
LEWIS: Are you asking five years ago after Carole [former CEO Carole W. Nussbaum] left or ten years ago when I became artistic director?
VCOS: When you became artistic director.
LEWIS: I’ll answer both. When I was hired ten years ago, it was to bring artistic consistency to a company that was, at the time, running shows that were produced by four different sets of producers, who often didn’t even get along with each other, so there was no consistent artistic vision. That’s a great answer for ten years ago. Five years ago, the challenge was a drastically reduced subscriber base, a non-existent donor base; other than donations that were being solicited with subscriptions, and a debt of $270,000 that had been hidden from us by a couple of board members. There was a sense in the community that my predecessor was kind of a divisive personality. Some people loved her, some people disliked her. I found out that a lot of people had stopped renewing or stopped coming to shows because they didn’t like her pre-show speeches. And I also think her presentation, which is almost a political philosophy of “Everything’s great! Look how great we’re doing! Join us!” doesn’t work if you’re a polarizing figure. There’s something to be said for people wanting to be part of something that’s successful, I get that. Do you want to reach a larger audience for your business? [pointing to packed Cabrillo audience ad poster] Don’t show an empty theater, show a full one. But, at the same time, if you’re a polarizing figure, you take a risk that people don’t want to join that. So my goal was to be a benign, inoffensive figure. At the end of the day, I didn’t want people to not like Cabrillo because of me. If they want to not like Cabrillo, for whatever reason, they can, but I didn’t want to give them a reason to dislike it because of our personalities. And my goal was to also get away from being the “face of Cabrillo” like my predecessor had become, and try to expand that to everybody who’s involved with Cabrillo. The first thing I did to that was start “The Road to 1776,” where we had 300 different people be a representative for Cabrillo Music Theatre, one day at a time as a little daily history journey. So those were the challenges I faced. And no board. We were down to one person. And then he resigned about a week later. She asked all of us to resign before she left.
VCOS: Despite what you said about being a benign figure, you have to acknowledge the fact that you are Cabrillo to many people.
LEWIS: Yes, but I hope I’m still inoffensive (laughs). If you could put that on my headstone…
VCOS: “He never offended anyone.”
LEWIS: Well, I’ve offended a few people I know, and there are a couple of people, during the course of the five years, who got upset at me or Cabrillo and walked away, but not a lot, and I really just wanted to keep putting the company first.
VCOS: Is Cabrillo’s decision one of “fall back and regroup” or is this it for the company?
LEWIS: There is a portion of our board of directors who want to see it fall back and regroup, probably in another venue, perhaps in another incarnation. On our board is Ray Mastrovito – I call him “the godfather of Cabrillo.” He goes back to the last time Cabrillo had to fall back and regroup. He’s the guy who says, “you know, we’ve done it before, we’ll do it again.” But I think there is a realistic view among many members of the board that this is the end of THIS Cabrillo, the Cabrillo that people know, the Cabrillo that gives back to the community, that performs at the Civic Arts Plaza with a full cast and full orchestra. That presence is done after The Little Mermaid in July. Something may come up down the line. These folks may throw something together, so we’ll see what it becomes. But I would say it’s closer to the latter.
VCOS: Was the 2014 emergency fundraiser a temporary fix and did you know all along that this was going to happen?
LEWIS: That’s a great question. It was always a temporary fix, because the amount of money we raised is less than half of our non-ticket sales needs each year. So the fact that we got through two years with that is kind of remarkable when you think about it. But here’s what happened. We did this fundraising campaign. We went to our big donors – there were four or five of them at the time – and we said, “Don’t donate. You guys give a lot already. Let’s see what the community does. Let’s see if other big donors step up.” So none of them donated. We raised $290,000, over our $250,000 goal with over a thousand donations. We had one big donor step up, John Notter of the Westlake Village Inn. He was solicited by two of our other donors, Ed Hogan and Hugh Cassar. John heard about our plight and he stepped up and gave a matching donation and the community matched it. So we reached our goal. We had trumpeted it and announced it and we were all excited, and at the time, I said, “This is awesome. We did this the hard way, without any big donations other than that one.” What I should have said was, “Holy crap.” And I cleaned up my speech for this. “Holy crap, we didn’t flush out big donors.” The community, when confronted with the mortality of Cabrillo Music Theatre, those with money said, “We’re OK. Let it go.” And I think that should have been the writing on the wall. Instead, we charged ahead. We used the money to hire a director of development. She’s been working with us for a year doing great work, and really seeding the ground for some potential down the line. But in the meantime, theater companies can’t exist without 30-40% of income coming from stuff other than ticket sales. Ticket sales were doing about what they should do. Two shows made more than they were expected to, two shows made less than they were expected to in a four-show season. That’s normal for a theater company, but the fundraising did not grow. It grew a little bit under our director of development, but it did not reach what it needed to reach. During that time, everyone noticed just a general lack of giving. Our director of development went to charity events to meet more people – charity events for other charities – and people weren’t giving at those either. Our donors were saying to us – and they were not angry at us, by the way – they were complaining, “I’m the only one who gives to anything.” They all came to me. At least two of them have said that to us. When you combine that with the theater aspect of that, which we can talk about, but I think that when we were first told, “You’ve got to move out of the Kavli and do shows at the Scherr,” we finally came up with this agreement where we would do one show a year at the Scherr if the theater could mark the four show season as a single season even though there are seats in two venues. They said they could but they were not able to do that. And that’s what hurt us. But the other part of that “we want you out of the Kavli” was “we’re going to raise all your prices.” They raised our rental by more than 100%. It was actually 150%. They also told us that they were going to go after some grants that usually go to us and take them for themselves. And we laughed and said “how are they going to get away with that?” And they’re doing it. So those were all the red flags. And then, when we had our last meeting with the city as the resident company, when we were applying for renewal of resident company status, there had been an outstanding $43,000 debt that was part of the $270,000 that had been advanced eight or nine years ago to my ex-boss from the former head of the theater. The city had just been saying, “it’s OK, don’t sweat it, it’s all right, don’t worry about it.” Now, suddenly, they said, “We want that, too. Pay that within three years or you’re never going to be able to stay here.” So we looked at all three of those things and thought, we’re always with a gun to our head. We’re always worried about the next dollar.
VCOS: How much of this is the city and how much of it is the Alliance for the Arts?
LEWIS: The Alliance for the Arts has been a great support to Cabrillo Music Theatre. I have nothing but positive things to say about them. Their board is committed to what it says in their title: the arts. They are under the impression that they are raising money for the arts. We love the Alliance for the Arts. As far as the city goes, it’s unfair to the city to blame everything on them. It is probably unique in the nation to have a venue owned by a city whose citizens won’t pay for it. It’s such a lack of personal responsibility. My wife and I own a home. We’re responsible for the upkeep on that home. It’s strange, and I know it goes back to before the building was built. There was an initiative on the ballot and the citizens said, “We don’t want to support it but go ahead and build it.” It’s all over my head; it’s not stuff I understand. I just know that I’m responsible for what I own. The city has benefited for 22 years by the existence of this venue. The arts have proven to keep property values up. A company like ours feeds a ton of money into the local economy. And an entire generation, more than one generation of young people, have found something to keep them interested during their youth. It’s made major streets safer, it’s made schools better because kids have the arts. A kid like me, who didn’t like academics at school, I fell in love with the arts. And all of that is the result of the impact of the people in the building, not just Cabrillo: the New West Symphony, the Pacific Festival Ballet, the Conejo Valley Youth Orchestra, all of them. That’s the impact of this building. The citizens, whether they love the building, come here all the time, whether they never buy a ticket to anything, whether they drive by and curse the building because they hate that it was made, they’ve still benefited from it. They might hate it, but they still benefited from it. And our demise is caused partially by the fact that the folks who benefit from it aren’t holding up their end of the financial support.
When our interview continues, Lewis will talk about prospects for the future. In what form can Cabrillo survive as it goes forward, and what will be his part in this next phase of its existence, if there is one?