BY CARY GINELL
In the conclusion of our somewhat disheartening visit with Lewis Wilkenfeld, we talked about the future of Cabrillo Music Theatre, both the hopeful and the realistic prospects for its future.
VCOS: How do Cabrillo audiences compare to other audiences who frequent the Civic Arts Plaza?
LEWIS: I will say that our audiences are pretty passionate about our shows. I don’t know about our new audiences, but our subscribers who have been with us for 22 years, or 10 years or 15 years, I call them pretty passionate about us. They come up to me all the time in the lobby and they come up to Cindy Murray, our director of internal operations, and they say, “We like you SO much more than anything else that goes on in this building. We love your shows. We love that you do this.” We can do the classics, like Oklahoma!, and they rave, but we also turn around and do a Memphis, and they come up and grab me by the shoulders, they hadn’t heard of the show, thanking Cabrillo for putting on this show. And they’re going to do that again for Children of Eden. I think that generally, audiences take theaters for granted. And that is true. But I love our audiences. One of the hardest things about this has been how loyal these people are. I had a woman come in to me last week and she said, “I’m not sure if I want to see Sister Act and what’s this about this Tarzan?” And after she got finished, she said, “Well, of COURSE I’m going to renew! I’ve got great seats and I love what you guys do!” So she reamed into me for about a half an hour, but she’s sticking with us. I love that.
VCOS: How hard will it be to realize that this is really all coming to an end?
LEWIS: I believe that the curtain always comes down, and our purpose in life is to leave people feeling something even after the curtain comes down. So, the fact that Cabrillo Music Theatre is not lasting forever is not something that’s foreign to me. The fact that it lasted for 22 years, the fact that for 10 years I got to be artistic director, and the last five without any psychological restraints, and to be able to have this kind of impact on the community, and with this many young people, is a gift to me. This has been great. I have no regrets. Everybody should be as lucky to do what God put us on Earth to do the way I have had the last 10 years. So my sadness is not for me. My sadness is for this community. My sadness is for these young people. My sadness is for our audiences, our future kids, the seniors we won’t be visiting, the military – my sadness is not for me.
VCOS: What happens if they secure another venue? To me, the most obvious one would be the PAEC at Agoura High School. It’s a magnificent facility that would certainly be befitting of Cabrillo’s work.
LEWIS: I love what they do at Agoura High and Calabasas High. I love those buildings. They actually reached out to me when they were building them four or five years ago about perhaps moving there. But we feel a loyalty to the folks who built this building [note: referring to the Civic Arts Plaza], because they built it for organizations like us. How do I turn around to – and I’ll name him by name – Harry Selvin, one of our biggest supporters who loves Cabrillo Music Theatre? He built this building for Cabrillo and organizations like that. How do we turn to HIM and say, “We have to go to another place”? The building was built for the community, so in my mind it’s like, “I don’t know. This is where we belong. If we’re not here, we’re not.” But I’m not closed to everything. The other venues I visited won’t let us do the kind of Cabrillo that we do.
VCOS: Is it just about the capacity?
LEWIS: Well, do we need 1800 seats? No. The Carpenter Center in Long Beach, Musical Theater West, has a thousand seats. When they have 800 in their theater, they’re doing great. When we have 800 in our theater, the city looks at it as if to say, “Oh, they’re failing.” It’s the same amount of people. So, a theater that seats 800, 900, 1100 would probably be perfect for musical theater in this community but they have to go to other facilities. One thing we ran into at the Scherr Forum, where we just did A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a very well received show, we maxed out the dressing rooms with 18 people in the cast. And there’s no backstage space, there’s no room to do a show bigger than Forum. Even Company kind of maxed it out, with its changing locations and scenes. Forum worked out because it was all done with one set.
VCOS: Well, would you be able to scale down and still do shows of that caliber?
LEWIS: I would love that. I’ve done that. I worked at the Lawrence Welk Resort theater, did six shows there, and I loved scaling big shows down to small spaces. I just don’t know if that’s where Cabrillo Music Theatre ends up. But personally and artistically, I love that. In fact, my next project after this – I was asked to do another show for Musical Theatre Guild at the Alex – Pajama Game. It’s always about scaling it down and finding the heart of it.
VCOS: So is there the possibility that you could convert solely to the Scherr?
LEWIS: I don’t think there’s enough enthusiasm on the board for that, and the producer side of me says no. Every time we go into the Scherr we lose tons of money. So my guess is no. You can’t do a Cabrillo quality show in the Scherr because the costs are disproportionate to what we can earn. We did the math for Tarzan, which, incidentally, we always expected to be a loss leader, but we can’t pay for Tarzan even if we sell every seat in the house. We can do a bad show. That’s way cheaper. But it’s not my goal to do shows with taped music and shows with only three or four people. Audiences start to get tired of that. South Bay Civic Light Opera was trying to cut costs one year and they did a whole season of small shows, and they lost most of their subscribers. Look at our biggest selling shows. Mary Poppins, Cats, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Singing in the Rain, Beauty and the Beast. Yeah, I could do an eighteen-person version of any of those in the small theater, but I don’t think our audiences, whether they were our traditional audiences or our newer audiences, I don’t think they would like a menu of that.
VCOS: But what about Off-Broadway type shows? The Fantasticks, shows like that?
LEWIS: Uhh, I don’t know if the audience is there for it, but as for me, personally, as a director, sure, I’d go to places and do stuff like that.
VCOS: Was there an on-going frustration for you that you always had to reach for lowest-common-denominator programming?
LEWIS: That’s right. But I also like taking the audience to new places. I think we’ve kind of proven in two years that our audiences won’t follow us into the Scherr Forum. So if Cabrillo wants to do something like that, it’s an ambitious thing. I’ve always wanted to do a season of shows in the Forum. Always wanted to. What you’re describing as Off-Broadway, however, is at a higher level than what can succeed in that venue.
VCOS: The closing of Cabrillo, whether permanent or temporary, is still something that its many fans are going to be wrestling with for a while. The impulse is to pin the blame on one group or another. What is the reality here as to who is responsible?
LEWIS: You know, once we realized we were heading down this crisis path yet again, I sat down at the computer and started writing out some of the reasons why we’re perpetually in the condition we’re in. On my first pass, I came up with twenty-four separate reasons or causes – then I thought of three more. And I’m sure I don’t have them all! And, listen, they’re all over the place. People are looking for someone to blame, but it’s way more complicated than that. You can try to blame the city, but that’s not true – and most of these City Council members LOVE Cabrillo – the city’s hands are tied by decisions made more than a generation ago. You can blame the recession, the Alliance for the Arts, previous Cabrillo leadership, on and on. It isn’t black and white. We can take a good chunk of responsibility ourselves. We choose the wrong show, or place it in the wrong position in the season, that’s on us. Personally, I don’t think we pivoted quickly enough to reach new generations of theater goers. We kept playing to our original subscribers, but that audience kept shrinking. Maybe we priced tickets too high. Maybe too low. I know that, several years ago, Cabrillo was putting out so many discounts – cutting prices on the best seats in the house – that a lot of subscribers dropped, and just waited for the last-minute markdowns. Did we focus too much on outreach? Not enough? And the constant lack of funding really impacts marketing, which then reduces our ticket sales income. And that same lack of funding means we can’t bring in grant-writers, and only a year ago added a development director. All that contributes to a reduction in our non-ticket sales income. Blame is a pie, and there’s a slice for each of us.
VCOS: So what is your next step, personally, and then the second part of that is, where do you see Cabrillo going?
LEWIS: Well, I’ll answer both of those, but I’ll actually throw a third thing in if that’s OK. My next step – I’m in limbo right now. Part of this is – as I said – two years ago we did this campaign and no big donors stepped up. This week we were in all the papers. If there is an opportunity for some people to say, “I’d like to see a better Cabrillo built and I’m willing to put some money behind it,” we could do that. We’ve had editorials now in two newspapers, and both have commented on the lack of support for non-profits in general. The people are just not giving. Some of that is left over from the recession and some of that is other stuff. But even organizations for health-related disease issues, which are way more important than musical theater, are struggling. They’re on the verge of closing, too. Once we realize – all right, it’s for real – then we go through this process of finishing out our season, figuring out what of Cabrillo’s assets need to be gotten rid of and what should be kept, how should they be kept; this is when I turn around and go to the board and say, “What do you guys want to do?” We have these storage containers, we have stuff at Hillcrest, how do you want to preserve this while you think about what you’d like to do? But I don’t know. There’s a part of me that wants to somehow keep the Kabrillo Kids and Teens doing some outreach. They get so much from it, and we may still do some fundraising toward that. If people want to support us to go to the naval base, if people want to support us so we can entertain at the senior centers twice a year – you may still see a dance marathon. The board was going to do a big fundraiser for my tenth anniversary and I’m going to hold them to it. I still did the ten years! I should still get the anniversary, even though it’s ending there. But the decision to end before we go into more significant debt is one I’m incredibly proud of our board of directors for. Currently, our debt is one-sixth of what it was when I got here, and that debt is exclusively that long-standing loan made by the city many years ago. That’s our only debt. And I personally wanted to get to that moment when I walk the check into the city. I’m sad that I have not been able to make that happen thus far. Everybody who gets any money from Cabrillo gets it on time. And that’s been that way since I got here ten years ago. We had a little bump five years ago and even then I went to people and said, “You’re going to get this two weeks late, but you’ll get it.” Going forward is what’s irresponsible. I had to write to the cast and tell them, “I want you to hear this. We’re not shutting our doors because we don’t have the money. We’re shutting our doors because we have the money to do THESE shows.” And that’s what they needed to hear. I don’t want the anxiety that the casts of Children of Eden and The Little Mermaid would work now and this summer without a plan. We have a plan to do it. But it depends exclusively on everybody coming to see these two shows. And if there’s anything that I want to come out of this interview, it’s that I would really like people who have expressed their sentiments for Cabrillo through messages on Facebook and phone calls and texts and letters – express it by coming to see these two shows. We don’t have any more fundraising. We can’t ask people to donate to a company that’s closing. All we’ve got is this. And if we’re really supporters of the arts, we need to be making a statement to the community that these shows have value. And if the theater sits empty when we do them, we’re making the wrong statement. We’re making the statement that the arts have NO value here. I think we should be making the opposite statement: look at what’s going to be missed. Look at those people in the picture there. [Lewis points to a poster showing a sold-out crowd at the Kavli] Those folks who were at Mary Poppins are going to see The Little Mermaid, but they’re not going to see Evita. And they’re not going to see Sister Act, and they’re not going to see Peter Pan, and that’s a loss for all of them. Tens of thousands. Everybody wants to turn their sympathy to me and their expressions of grief to me, but I’m going to ask them to put it into action and spend $35, $40, $55, or $70 and come see two great shows. That’s how I would like them to show their appreciation for what we’ve done and their sympathy for what they’ve lost.
VCOS: So are we looking at these last 22 years as “the shining moment that was Camelot”?
LEWIS: (laughs) Camelot is another example of “everything ends.” You’re exactly right! And just because it ends doesn’t mean it never happened. Who knows? Maybe one of our Kabrillo Kids will start their own theater company. Maybe they’ll get an idea for something and they’ll recognize that the way you do it is in finding the best in them, and always giving back and always remembering that we have a bigger calling than just to be drawing attention to ourselves by performing. In fact, I could think of two or three kids that will be forming their own theater companies. And they’re going to be great. And hopefully they’ll give me a job (laughs).
VC On Stage and Lewis Wilkenfeld ask that all theater fans attend Cabrillo’s final two shows, Children of Eden and The Little Mermaid. Watch this page for interviews, reviews, and our usual coverage of the Ventura County theater scene. SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL THEATER!