BY CARY GINELL
It’s the day after opening night at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse and the house is nearly empty. On stage, a terrific production of the Kander and Ebb musical Curtains is going on (see our review in this week’s Acorn), but there are only about 20 people in the audience; barely outnumbering the cast on stage. I was told that opening night was no better. It’s time something was done about this.
Since 1970, the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse has provided Ventura County theater lovers a place to entertain and be entertained. CSP is part of the Four Star Theatre Alliance, a consortium of six Ventura County theaters (CSP, Conejo Players, Moorpark’s High Street Arts Center, Oxnard’s Elite Theater Company, Santa Paula Theater Center, and Ojai Art Center) that has provided a wide variety of productions and opportunities for the Ventura County theater community. Like most community theaters, the results have ranged from marginal to superior, most of which falling into the latter category.
But of the six theaters in the Four Star Alliance, CSP has always been the toughest draw and I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out why. As I already stated, the quality of community theater performances varies wildly just by the nature of their being mostly staffed by volunteers. But for the most part, the talent on stage and behind the scenes have been exceptional. Since costs are lower, CSP has been able to tackle riskier productions that large, professional organizations like Cabrillo Music Theatre would never do. In 2015, CSP became the first Ventura County theater company to produce the Tony-winning musical Next to Normal. The show was electrifying and, for once, the house was packed on the night that I saw it. There have been other challenging shows that other theaters wouldn’t touch that CSP took a chance on, including Nine, Assassins, and 110 in the Shade, shows that are suitable in more intimate locations. CSP’s recent productions of these, as well as other less familiar shows have been superb.
As in the real estate world, success in the theater business has a lot do with “location, location, location.” CSP has the misfortune to be situated at the Camarillo Airport (who goes to the theater at an airport?), and is not near city centers as are other, more favorably situated companies like Conejo Players and the High Street Arts Center. But the distance and unlikely locale shouldn’t be a problem. It’s still only a fifteen-minute drive from both Ventura and the Conejo Valley and many do make the trek to get there. But as the sparse crowds have evidenced over the past ten years, it’s not nearly enough.
How about the building? As everyone who has been there knows, the CSP building is older and needs renovation, is chilly in winter, sweltering in summer, and the seats are not as comfortable as in other refurbished theaters. But nobody goes to see a show saying: “Let’s go. They have nice seats there!” They go for the entertainment. (I never hear anyone complaining about the splintery benches at the Hollywood Bowl.)
Whatever the reason, it is disheartening to see amazing vocal talent like Will Carmichael, Aileen-Marie Scott, and Sara Marie Calvey, who are starring in CPS’s current production of Curtains playing to audiences no larger than those that would attend a house concert in someone’s living room. The small houses have to have an effect on the performers. Curtains has a very funny script, but when airhead actress Bambi exclaims, “It’s a pas de deux…for TWO!” and when her long-suffering director says, “Bambi, the only thing you arouse is suspicion,” there is barely a chuckle in the house.
If you are one of those who does not go to CSP, shame on you. Performers need audiences. They live for them, thrive on them, and are inspired by them. That’s why home field advantage is so important in the sports world. Performers need large, enthusiastic audiences just as much as audiences need a good performance. If you go to other theaters in Ventura County, check out CSP’s schedule and make the effort to go there, too. You’ll be glad you did. And tell a friend or two.
For information on shows at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, see the VC On Stage Calendar.