“It’s risky,” Tom Eubanks says of the theater. He should know. A writer and director, Eubanks has been a figure in the Ventura County theater community for decades. “It changes every time you do it. That’s what I like about it. I like the risk factor.” His latest project is the Beacon Theater Company, which he recently founded with Steve Grumette, Anna Kotula and Howard Leader, themselves seasoned members of the theater community.
With all the risks involved — and maybe even a little bit because of them — they are diving in with “the insidious intention of creating an epidemic of live theater.”
They are not alone.
This summer will see the inaugural productions of at least three new theater companies in Ventura County. In addition to the Beacon Theater Company, there is Unity Theatre Collective, founded by Laura Covault and Layla Perez, and Center Stage Players and Arts Repertory, founded by Noah and Renee Jacqueline Skultety.
Unity Theatre Collective was the first to launch a full production. In June they debuted a “gender-swapping take” on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at Namba Performing Arts Space in Ventura. Covault, a professor of theater at California State University, Channel Islands, admitted that she and Perez, a CSUCI alum, knew they were taking on an ambitious project by starting their own theater company. “I usually have big ideas that sound crazy,” admits Covault, “but my business partner [Perez] said, ‘Let’s do it!’ ” Together they created a company dedicated to
being “an open door for every person to experience performance pieces that promote social change and inspire insight and empathy.”
They found the perfect venue in Namba, which is ideally suited for intimate, immersive performances. “I love immersive theater,” says Covault, who adds that it makes “the audience your partner.” For Earnest, the audience sat at cabaret tables while the action took place around them. To further get them in the proper frame of mind, the audience was served a traditional English tea and the actors sometimes spoke directly to them and even handed them a prop or two. The production featured gender-swapped roles, actors playing multiple characters and characters in a same-sex marriage, an homage to Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for being gay.
The production was a success. What comes next is yet to be decided. The company will announce its 2020 season soon. Whatever the future holds, Unity Theatre Collective vows to stay true to its mission. “We’ll continue to flip classic plays and address social issues and give voice to the marginalized,” says Covault.
The Beacon Theater Company also kicked off at Namba. On July 12, they premiered the first production: Blue/Orange, a dark comedy by Joe Penhall that won the Olivier Award for Best New Play. Billed as “an incendiary tale of race, madness and a Darwinian power struggle,” the play revolves around a young man claiming to be the son of Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator. After Blue/Orange, the Beacon Theater Company is set to present “a surprise” production in September followed by Walter Cronkite Is Dead in November.
Eubanks and his partners hope to find a venue they can call their own, but for the foreseeable future they’re part of a thriving group of artists who transform the intimate, open space at Namba into worlds of their own making. Jeffrey Willerth, Namba’s director, says the intimacy of the space creates a very unique experience for the audience. “Every performance creates a participatory environment.” He judges the success of each show by the audience’s reaction. “Are they beaming?” He asks. As for Unity Theatre Collective’s first outing, Willerth says it was “spectacular.” He expects the “deeply personal, morally charged” Blue/Orange to be equally memorable.
A few miles away in Camarillo, Noah and Renee Jacqueline Skultety recently founded the Center Stage Players and Arts Repertory. “I wanted to do something fulfilling and I love theater. Theater changed my life.” says Noah Skultety, an actor, musician and former member of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company. His wife, Renee Jacqueline, trained at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and has performed off-Broadway and throughout Ventura County. In September 2018, they sold their share of Twenty88, a restaurant in Camarillo, because they wanted to give back to the community by creating an all-inclusive theater company. Their goal is to “put the community back in community theater and produce the finest quality productions.”
The first show is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which will premiere on Aug. 2 at the Bright Room at Rock City Studios in Camarillo. It will be a fully immersive experience, with 360 degree projections on the walls, designed to make the audience feel like they’re in the middle of the action. In November, CSPA presents Annie. Although the 2020 season hasn’t been finalized, the Skultetys plan on doing one Shakespeare play and several musicals. Next summer the company will launch a youth program. Whenever possible, there will be blind casting and actors with disabilities are welcome. “Everyone is welcome,” says Skultety, saying that CSPA “is more than just a theater. It gives everyone a home — a family.”
Theater may be risky, but isn’t that what makes it so worthwhile? As the Beacon Theater Company points out on its website, Thespis, the first actor, was a risk taker. He dared to step out from the chorus. Let’s applaud these theater companies as they step out into their own. More than that, let’s go see what they have to offer.
Blue/Orange through July 28 at Namba Performing Arts Space, 47 S. Oak St, Ventura. For more information call 805-233-6965 or visit nambaarts.com. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Aug. 2-11 at Rock City Studios, 2258 Pickwick Drive, Camarillo. For more information, call 805-419-1637 or visit csparepertory.com.