This summer, new leadership takes over for three local theater companies in Ventura County. During the coming months we will be talking with spokespersons for each of the three to find out about their plans for their respective theaters. Later, we will be talking with Patrick Cassidy of 5-Star Theatricals in Thousand Oaks and L.J. Stevens of Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. Today we spoke with three new board members from Conejo Players Theatre: Executive Director Shelley Saxer, Executive Producer Beth Glasner, and President Devery Holmes.
VCOS: As we all know, virtually no one makes a living in community theater. So tell me what your day jobs are.
SHELLEY: I teach law at Pepperdine University where I’m a full-time tenured professor. Doing theater is how I stay sane.
DEVERY: I own an entertainment marketing firm with my husband Jim and moved to Calabasas so I am close enough to do both things that I love.
BETH: I’m a costume designer so my worlds have kind of crossed.
VCOS: The obvious question then is, why now, and how do you have time to do this, considering the busy schedules that you all have?
SHELLEY: Well, I served in administration at Pepperdine for ten years while being a tenured professor, which was extremely time consuming and kept me from doing a lot of things, but I have a lot of administrative skills, which is why I did this work at Pepperdine, and I thought that as I left that position and went back to being a full-time professor that I could lend my skills to the theater, which I had not done previously.
VCOS: So what is your role?
BETH: Shelley is executive director, which is everything that takes place behind the curtain. I’m executive producer, which is everything takes place in front of the curtain. Shelley does all of the parliamentary stuff. And Devery is Conejo Players President.
DEVERY: Right now I’m directing West Side Story, serving as president, and running an agency. This could be challenging for some, but ask the busiest woman you know to get something done and she will get it done.
VCOS: Everyone who steps into a new leadership role in any company has a list of priorities. What are some of yours?
SHELLEY: For me, it’s getting more butts in the chairs, and, to do that, making sure that we have chosen the right season so that people will want to come see the shows. And also, just trying to make connections, because we want the theater to be able to make money to sustain into the future and we want to offer good theater to people. Those are my priorities.
DEVERY: I come back to our fabulous mission statement, which is to provide the community with a year-round schedule of affordable live theater, produced to serve the cultural, educational, and entertainment needs of the community, and to welcome and provide avocational opportunities for all volunteers. So when we all sat down, we said, are we offering enough opportunities in all of these different areas? And since we brought Shelley on board, who schedules all of the teachers and law professors and events for Pepperdine Law School – we thought, we can do this, and offer more opportunity for more demographics from our huge community, more opportunities for volunteers to get involved, and just a way for everyone to feel that they’re a part of our community.
VCOS: The prevailing notion is that the smaller the theater, the more chances it can take creatively regarding repertoire. How do you walk that tightrope between having to produce sure-fire seat-fillers and taking a chance on rarely seen shows?
BETH: We’re a little different from the other local smaller theaters like the Elite, Santa Paula, and Ojai just because we have season ticket holders who expect a certain type of show to be part of their package. We don’t normally stage two-person shows because we’re too big and our audience size can’t support that because we need to sell enough tickets to make that worthwhile. However, that’s why we added our CAT, the Conejo Artists Theater, whose shows are two-weekend runs of smaller shows directed by new directors, unusual things that maybe we wouldn’t do normally, so that we can get different people to come to our theater who didn’t know we were here.
DEVERY: And those are eight performances vs. sixteen, so it’s still a very good run to bring some theater that maybe we couldn’t do for a four or five-week run.
VCOS: The other thing that separates you from Santa Paula and Elite is that you do musicals. Is the balance between musicals and plays going to change at all?
SHELLEY: Yes, we have changed that balance somewhat with the new season coming up. We will still have three musicals, but instead of three plays, we’re going to have two.
DEVERY: The CAT program has both a play and a musical, so there is the opportunity to bring in that third play, in which people submit properties that they want to get behind.
SHELLEY: I would also say that as a small theater, we don’t have the luxury of trying experimental things, because we have to maintain our property and satisfy the season ticket holders, as well as attract new people. Since Conejo started, we’ve had many more theater opportunities in the community that we’re competing with, so we do need to do more – getting our name out there and getting shows that are standard ones that people want to see. For several years we felt that we had that luxury and we did not in reality.
DEVERY: And it’s important that we work with the other theater groups in our area and don’t sabotage them by doing the same show right before or after. It’s such an opportunity to give our huge community choices.
BETH: Since we announce our season so far ahead of time, we are the target. I mean, we’ve got eight theaters within fifty miles. What small community can say that? Not a whole lot.
VCOS: As far as taking chances, you did do Reefer Madness a few years ago, which seemed to go against the older demographic that usually comes to your shows.
DEVERY: Conejo Artists Theater can bring in those kinds of shows and we tried it and how wonderful it was that we had that luxury to try a show like that.
BETH: It actually did better than we thought it would.
VCOS: How about the theater building itself? What improvements are you planning?
BETH: We’re fixing.
DEVERY: We just fixed part of the roof but we still have a bigger job to do there. The plumbing – we have a bigger job to do there as well.
BETH: We just fixed the men’s bathroom and now we’re going to do the women’s.
SHELLEY: In the past, my understanding was the initial leadership of the theater did not believe in borrowing money. And they didn’t. We’ve had some loans in recent times but they were paid off. The problem is that even with our budgeting process, we have not set aside a capital improvement fund. So this year we’re going to start putting money into a fund to be prepared to do things like fix the roof, fix the plumbing, and so that’s one of our goals. We’ve worked with the city a little bit but my understanding is that we haven’t worked as closely with them in the years since the Civic Arts Plaza was built. Recently I had a meeting with someone I know from the Conejo Recreation & Park District to get some ideas about who we should be speaking with to get a feel about what’s happening at the city level. So now that we have a name, Devery and I are going to talk to that person. There is a new city manager coming in who was previously in Oxnard and was part of the cultural arts division over there and may have some insights. I think we need to talk to the city and say that we do things that the Civic Arts Plaza is not doing, such as our children’s shows. We also offer opportunities for people growing up in the community to learn more about theater. So I think there is some opportunity there to work with the city.
BETH: Our building sits on city land, so it’s in their interest for something they own should do well.
VCOS: Are there courses being taught on site that are in the Conejo Rec & Park curriculum?
DEVERY: We do have workshops, though. We have improv workshops and right now we’re doing a stage combat workshop. With West Side Story you need that because there is a lot of fighting and rumbling and so we have a professional coming in to teach the actors how to do that safely: how to tumble, how to roll, and how to make it look real on the stage.
VCOS: Since all three of you have directed in some fashion, whether it’s overall direction or musical direction, is there a wish list of devices you need to purchase or improve that would help your job better?
BETH: One of the things that would help the producers the most is a copy machine.
VCOS: You don’t have a copy machine?
BETH: We have one that is part of our printer, but we need a big, heavy duty Xerox-style copier. We were offered one once but it was so large we didn’t have anywhere to put it. But they make them so small now they don’t need a giant space. That would be my first choice.
VCOS: OK, but that’s mainly clerical. What about for shows themselves?
DEVERY: More lighting instruments and more body microphones. We’d also like a higher proscenium but I don’t think we can get that with our building. And more storage space because we’d like to keep so many of the props and sets that are built for our shows and we can’t.
VCOS: Are all the costumes still in-house?
BETH: Yes. We do rent some costumes but our costume loft is bursting at the seams.
DEVERY: There is no room to add even one more item.
BETH: I do my best.
SHELLEY: I would say we need more money for tech. Devery and Jim donated a projector that we used in The Wizard of Oz but we need a new screen as well. Once we get that, it will relieve a lot of our volunteer work that is going away with age. Many people don’t have the skills to build sets anymore so money for that type of technology could be really important. I also want to get money for live orchestras. We just cannot afford it for all shows.
BETH: For Guys and Dolls, my son Bennie is music director, and he’s going to start over and audition a brand new orchestra from Moorpark College. We are hoping that since they are college students that they will accept less money just so they can get a paying job and be able to say, hey, I was in a pit orchestra. So hopefully that will happen and we will have a brand new orchestra. Right now, we’re the only theater in Southern California that is 100% volunteer, except for the orchestra.
SHELLEY: We used to have a set amount for the contractor and he would find the musicians but then he went away and we couldn’t afford to pay someone to put together an orchestra. So now we have music directors who don’t get paid and will hire musicians where they can along with some volunteers.
VCOS: Here are a couple of fun questions – First, can you recall the most horrifying, disastrous day you had with a show? And second, which show did you think you’d never be able to pull off, but did?
SHELLEY: I think that the worst day probably was the first day of Candide.
BETH: But we did it (laughs)
VCOS; That probably answers both questions.
BETH: Yup. That’s got to be it, wrapped up all together for all three of us.
SHELLEY: To begin with, we had to cast a major part in a show that hardly anybody knew and couldn’t get anybody to audition. And then we had one person not even bother to show up…
BETH: From the beginning to the end it was going to be a total disaster, but you know what? We did it, and several audience members actually enjoyed it (laughs).
DEVERY: I had that happen with my Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Our actor, Daniel Egan, dislocated his shoulder at the end of Act I on opening night. And Deidre Parmenter, who was our president at the time, came back during intermission, and said, “So who’s your Scarecrow?” Where in the rulebook was the answer to that? But I had a cast member, Kyle Johnson, who was there at every rehearsal, and he was at his computer all the time and was so bright, and so he stepped in to do the rest of the show. We had to cut his pants open and put more straw inside, but we got him out there, and the whole audience was so supportive and he did a great job.
BETH: And you know, Dan came back from the emergency room at the hospital and made it to the opening night cast party. He came “walking” in and said, “I am HERE!”
VCOS: What’s coming up this fall that you’re excited about?
DEVERY: We’re doing a radio show over the Christmas holiday. We’ve never done a holiday show before, which is so exciting for us. It’s Miracle on 34th Street – it was done at the Pasadena Playhouse to great reviews.
BETH: This is being staged like a 1940s radio play.
DEVERY: The actors are dressed in costume, but they’re putting on a radio show.
BETH: We’re also doing a one-weekend special event: an audience participation murder mystery in October. From what I understand, the first act is always the same and in the second act they audience gets to decide what happens.
VCOS: How do you feel about immersive theater?
BETH: I don’t think our older season ticket holders would enjoy it, frankly. I think they’d say, “What? We’re supposed to watch. I don’t want to do this!”
DEVERY: But with the Conejo Artists Theater, we have the opportunity of bringing in these new ideas.
BETH: So we’re testing that with this audience participation thing and will see what happens.
DEVERY: There are some new concepts that we have been discussing this year.
BETH: We’ve thought about doing an additional kids show because we are the only community theater in Ventura County that does not charge for our children’s program. We have auditions, just like real people, and kids don’t always get cast, so it’s not a pay-to-play kind of thing. So kids get a real experience of what it is actually like, and we do two a year and have 25-30 kids.
DEVERY: Think what that means to parents, to not have to pay to be in another musical theater camp. And the training you get at our theater, building sets, learning about how a show is put together and all of the people who are involved, is really invaluable.
BETH: My most important thing about this theater is that we have families who come in together. They work in the kids shows together and then fifteen years later they kids are directing and producing shows, and that’s what truly makes us a family theater. My son Bennie is a perfect example. He has been performing in Conejo shows since he was nine, and next week he will turn twenty-one and he will be directing his third show as well as music directing his first one.
Conejo Players Theatre’s next production, West Side Story, opens Friday, July 20. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.