PICTURED:  Angela DeCicco (The Elite, left), Jessi May Stevenson (Santa Paula Theater Center) and Tracey Williams Sutton (Ojai Art Center Theater) take center stage as artistic director of their respective theater companies. Photo by Chris Mortenson

by Emily Dodi

Three of Ventura’s finest actors have taken on the role of a lifetime as artistic director.

Angela DeCicco has taken the reins at The Elite in Oxnard, Jessi May Stevenson at Santa Paula Theater Center, and Tracey Williams Sutton at the Ojai Art Center Theater. 

 “It’s an honor,” says Sutton, although she adds that it’s a shame that the appointment of women to positions of leadership in local theater is newsworthy. Indeed, it’s a first for the theaters. “Why shouldn’t it be women? It’s great!”

“I love this trend of elevating women to positions of power. Ventura County is full of talented women,” Stevenson says. “It’s quite the overthrow we’ve had,” she jokes, tongue firmly in cheek. 

Each of the women has vast experience in the spotlight as well as behind the scenes, whether directing, producing or working in myriad other ways to put up productions at some of the area’s most beloved venues. They each boast a lifelong love of the theater and have been involved in it since childhood, amassing a wealth of experience and knowledge.  

An eye for “transportive theater”

DeCicco graduated from the California Institute of the Arts after living in various places across the country, from New York to Colorado and Florida. In 2013, she settled in Ventura and soon met kindred spirits at Flying H theater company, founded by Taylor Kasch and Cynthia Killion. DeCicco acted in several productions at Flying H as well as at other local theaters, including Santa Paula Theater Center, the Ojai Art Center Theater and The Elite, where she says she “found such comfort.” 

In early 2020, DeCicco launched The Elite Conservatory. Then, she recalls, “The pandemic hit and everything shut down. But we were determined to keep going.” 

Angela DeCicco, artistic director of The Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. Photo by Chris Mortenson

In 2021, she was asked to step in as artistic director.

DeCicco’s goal is to create “transportive theater . . . thought-provoking and soul-searching plays that make you think.” 

She explains that as the world was just beginning to emerge from lockdown, she saw that “a very small window was opening and everyone was hungry.” That is, theater folks were anxious to get back to doing what they love. 

DeCicco put out a call to her fellow theater creatives. “Bring what’s in your heart. What you’ve always wanted to do,” she said. 

The result was a powerful lineup for the 2022 season, which included Picasso at the Lapin Agile, penned by comedian and actor Steve Martin; the one-woman show The Belle of Amherst, starring Anna Kotula that played for two weekends in March; and  ‘Night Mother, which is on stage even now, through May 22. More provocative productions are in store for this summer, and also in the works is a special month-long Día de Los Muertos community event called The Latin Experience.

“I want audiences to be sucked in,” DeCicco explains. If recent productions like the wonderful <em>Eleemosynary, Severance Play and Andronicus are any indication, great, not-to-be-missed things lie ahead at The Elite.

Elevating new voices

Coincidentally, 2021 was also the year that Stevenson took the helm at Santa Paula Theater Center (SPTC). 

Officially named artistic director in November 2021, Stevenson follows in the footsteps of David Ralphe, whom she considers a mentor. An award-winning actor with an MFA in theater from the University of California at Irvine who worked with The American Repertory Theater in Boston, Stevenson had already become a fixture at SPTC as an actor and director. She recently starred in SPTC’s critically acclaimed production of Rapture, Blister, Burn and directed Things I Know to Be True, which ran through March. 

Stevenson explains that her goal is to elevate exciting new voices and bring in a new generation of theatergoers to join the many who have loved and supported SPTC through the years.  

Santa Paula Theater Center Artistic Director Jessi May Stevenson. Photo by Chris Mortenson

“I read hundreds of plays,” Stevenson explains, looking for outstanding works that resonate.

She says that could include everything from Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to a new work by the award-winning Sarah Ruhl to “the sexy and exciting” The Roommate by Jen Silverman, which opens on May 20. Whatever unfolds on the SPTC stage, Stevenson promises that 2022 is “going to be our most exciting year yet.”

“Feel-good theater”

A longtime presence at Ojai Art Center Theater (Ojai ACT) as an actor and producer, Sutton explains that she has “always, always been in theater since childhood.” Her parents were theater professionals, and it was her father who advised her to get a master’s degree so that the door would be open for her to teach theater at the high school and college level. 

In May 2021, another door swung open unexpectedly when Ojai ACT’s Herb Hemming came to her and said, “We could really use you.” Sutton answered the call and, before she knew it, she was artistic director of her beloved Ojai ACT and putting together the 2022 season. 

Tracey Williams Sutton, artistic director of the Ojai Art Center Theater. Photo by Chris Mortenson

The inaugural show was the wonderful Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, featuring Sutton as the unforgettable Masha. The show was a hit when it opened in January and heralded a hopeful new beginning for the theater and a formidable debut of its new artistic director.

Sutton’s vision is to bring “feel-good theater” to a public that is weary from the past few tumultuous years; plays, she says, that make us “laugh and enjoy together.” 

True to her word, Sutton has ushered in some delightful productions. Ojai ACT followed up the Chekhov satire with March’s Southern-fried comedy/drama Steel Magnolias and the uproarious one-act collection All in the Timing (which just closed). Keep an eye out for The Music Man this summer.

“To unflinchingly feel”

DeCicco, Stevenson and Sutton all possess incredible passion for theater and a deep love for their own theaters in particular. While they each have a different vision, they all hold the belief that theater has the power not only to entertain, but to heal.  

 As Stevenson wrote in her notes accompanying Things I Know to Be True: “As we are coming off a very harrowing two years, I feel we need the meditation of storytelling more than ever. And live theater, not only does this, but also creates a space where it’s appropriate and encouraged to unflinchingly feel. When we reflect on those feelings, in all their complexity, we feel less alone. 

“Theater brings people together as a community. And while we breathe in sync to the wonder of the story unfolding before us, it subtly injects the works with insight and sympathy. This is powerful. This is soft. This is the magic of art.”

The Elite Theatre Company, 2731 Victoria Ave., Oxnard,  www.theelite.org.

Ojai Art Center Theater, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai, 805-640-8797, www.ojaiartcenter.org.

Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., SantaPaula, 805-525-4645, www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.