PICTURED: Bill Walthall, Mike Marsalisi and Stephanie Rice in front of The Elite in Oxnard. Photo by Jen Garcia

One of the most thrilling things about live theater is its unpredictability. Every performance is different. Every audience has its own personality. From the moment the house lights go down and the actors take their places, anything can happen. 

But sometimes when a theater meets the unpredictability of life — namely the unexpected loss of a rental partner, a sudden dearth of suitable grants and rising production costs — a theater can find itself in danger of closing. The Elite, formerly known as The Elite Theatre Company, has found itself in such a predicament.

“It was a perfect storm,” Mike Marsalisi, The Elite’s artistic director, says about the spate of unfortunate events.

With just enough funding to carry them through January 2020, an emergency board meeting was called. It involved “a tough, real conversation about how to move ahead,” explains Marsalisi, who began asking himself, “How do I save the theater from closing?”

The answer?

“Let’s go all out,” Marsalisi says.

The Elite is confronting challenging times with a bold plan to make the rent (and all the other bills) by making art that matters. This should come as exciting news for anyone who loves the theater.

For starters, The Elite’s 2020 season lineup is comprised of plays that Marsalisi and other members of The Elite team have wanted to do for a long time. That includes the season opener, Wit, Margaret Edson’s brilliant Pultizer Prize-winning play about a woman confronting a life-threatening illness. “No matter what, I wanted to do Wit,” says Marsalisi. “I instantly fell in love with it.” Although Wit deals with life and death, Marsalisi adds that “parts of it are incredibly funny.”

The rest of the 2020 season is comprised of other passion projects, including Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin, She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen and The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, which will be set in present day in a border town on Día de los Muertos. Other main stage productions will include A Pair of Lunatics by W.R. Walkes, which will share the bill with another one-act play, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell with music by Stephen Trask.

Leading up to the new season, The Elite has been hosting The Beacon Theater Company’s production of Walter Cronkite Is Dead by Joe Calarco, through Nov. 24, 2019. The play is about two women with opposite political views who find themselves stranded together at the airport during a storm delay. In December, Teatro de los Américas will perform.

Other projects include The Elite’s new conservatory program and Arts Are for Everyone, which offers free tickets to members of the community who cannot afford them. A recent playwriting competition was a great success, as is the ever-popular monthly open mic nights. 

The Elite’s ETCetera Stage, the theater’s smaller space (formerly known as the South Stage) will stage two ambitious productions for the 2020 season: God’s Country by Steven Dietz and Eleemosynary by Lee Blessing. The plays, one about the rise of a white supremacist group and the other a story about the relationship between three generations of women, challenge the audience to wrestle with difficult issues. “It’s a risk,” Bill Walthall, the ETCetera stage coordinator, says about producing “edgier” fare. Like Marsalisi and others at The Elite, Walthall is approaching the do-or-die situation as a call to create his best work ever and as the chance to bring in talents that have been building at The Elite over the years — from actors and production craftspeople to young directors. For the sake of Ventura County theatre, the plan deserves to work. If it doesn’t, Walthall says,“At least we go out swinging for the fences.”

“These are exciting times,” says Stephanie Rice, The Elite’s managing producer and president of the board of directors. Rice explains that community theatre is “about pulling together to bring the best of the best to those who come to share in the joy of what ends up on stage. It’s a place to connect with the community. And it’s, oh, so much more.”

Now is the time for the community to save The Elite (#savetheelite). As Marsalisi says, his “goal is for The Elite be so important to the people of Oxnard and Ventura” that it will never close. Make no mistake; it’s never been more important. 

Walter Cronkite Is Dead, onstage through Nov. 24 at The Elite, 2731 S. Victoria Avenue, Oxnard. For more information, visit beacontheatercompany.com. For more information on The Elite, call 805-483-5118 or visit theelite.org.