Shakespeare, Sweat Revive Deteriorating Foster Bowl

Times Staff Writer

Some theater companies build rapport among cast members by performing quirky exercises, but the Ventura County Repertory Theatre has blazed new trails of eccentricity with preparations for its production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

Members of the Oxnard-based ensemble built psychic bridges to one another while hauling 180 garbage bags of leaves, litter and other debris from Foster Bowl, a much-neglected natural amphitheater in a county park off California 33 between Ventura and Ojai.

"It was a very bonding type of thing," cast member Daniel Lavery said. "We got very close."

The result was not only a tightly knit cast that shines in free open-air performances of the comedy classic at 2 p.m. each Sunday through Sept. 25, but also the rebirth of a long-overlooked resource in the Ventura County Parks Department.

Amid Oak Trees

County park officials said the troupe reclaimed the simple concrete theater, stunningly set amid oak trees, from years of neglect, vandalism and failed renovation projects.

"It's a dusty relic of the past, and these people saw the potential," said Pam Gallo, Ventura County park operations supervisor.

"It's like the dress you put in the back of the closet to save it, but then you forget about it. When you pull it back out, you see that the length is in style again."

The theater--built in 1928 by Ventura farmer and philanthropist Eugene P. Foster--once was all the rage. In 1930, when Ventura County's population was only 55,000, 1,200 concert-goers attended the debut of the All County Chorus.

The bowl hosted a variety of plays and concerts, but interest in the amphitheater--and the county's willingness to maintain it--waned over the decades. It has been virtually unused for at least six years.

Local musicians have repeatedly lobbied to hold concerts in the intimate bowl, which has superb acoustics. But county officials have denied the proposals as incompatible with the houses that over the years have sprouted opposite the theater along Casitas Vista Road, Gallo said.

Too Much Cleanup

Other groups have reached agreement with county officials to use the bowl, but none have followed through. "I've had people come in and say, 'I'll clean it up,' but they never did," Gallo said. "It was too big a project."

Enter Elizabeth Harris, an Oxnard theater arts teacher who shortly after founding the Ventura County Repertory Theatre eight years ago began producing a Shakespeare-in-the-Park series at Ojai's Libbey Bowl.

The well-received series was discontinued after a dispute over rights to the stage at Libbey Bowl, Harris said, but company members began clamoring for a resumption of the Shakespeare productions.

Company members such as Karl Thomas--a 77-year-old veteran actor whose credits include what is believed to be the second-longest running play in theater history, the Los Angeles production of "The Drunkard"--argued that performing in a Shakespeare play would improve their acting resumes.

"Even though I've done practically every kind of play you can think of, I've never done Shakespeare," said Thomas, who makes a convincing buffoon as MalvolioCQ in "Twelfth Night." "It was something I wanted to fill out my career."

Harris, a former New Yorker who fondly remembers attending Joseph Papp's Shakespeare productions in Central Park, needed little encouragement. But finding a theater wasn't easy. By early June, only one county park was still available for a five-week run-- Foster Bowl--and Gallo had described it to her in less than glowing terms.

"She basically told me to wear my rose-colored glasses," Harris said. "And since I never take them off anyway, I was the right person to do this."

Still Harris couldn't help notice the bats screaming through the dressing rooms. Beer cans littered the stage. Two oak trees had fallen across the amphitheater's seats. And the cement stairs leading to the seats were buried in several inches of decaying leaves and dirt.

"The debris was so thick you could have planted plants in it," said stage manager Helen Jordan, a Camarillo junior high school teacher.

Harris saw nothing strange about agreeing on behalf of the company's 15 members to clean the theater in exchange for the bowl's daily rental fee of $100. Her efforts to keep the troupe afloat had already verged on the unconventional--from staging melodramas in local restaurants to holding 'murder mystery' packages for clubs and even giving choreography lessons to magicians.

'Extremely Flexible'

"To survive and grow as a small theater company in an outlying area, you have to be extremely flexible," she said.

Cast members failed to share her vision--at least initially.

"We all looked at her," said Lavery, "and went, 'You've got to be kidding."'

About 60 hours of work, blisters and backaches later, they had changed their minds. Their work had revealed the theater's possibilities.

"Libbey Bowl is very nice," Jordan said, "but Foster Park has a more intimate feel. You feel like you're more a part of what's going on and that helps you relate better."

The group, which has roamed from theater to theater in Ventura and Oxnard over its lifetime, hopes to persuade county officials to allow it to thoroughly renovate Foster Bowl as a permanent, year-round venue for children's theater and Broadway musicals. Harris hopes to tour local schools with 'Twelfth Night.'

For their part, county officials want to secure historical landmark status for the theater, which stands on the edge of the park where, according to Chumash Indian legend, wind was supposed to have originated in a large sycamore tree. The designation may help generate funding for more renovation, Gallo said.

Although cleaner than the decaying mess of three months ago, the theater still lacks electricity, which limits performances to the daytime. The cast compares the dark dressing rooms, complete with barred doors, to dungeons. And sanitary facilities are limited to the outhouses that Harris discreetly tells theatergoers are "Elizabethan bathrooms."

Despite the activities of the theater group, county officials hope that other groups won't get the wrong impression.

No Rock Concerts

"I don't want people to think they can rent it for rock 'n' roll concerts and things like that," Gallo said.

Harris is more generous. The theater director said she is staging "Twelfth Night" so that "people who think they hate Shakespeare might come and take a look."

And judging from last Sunday's performance, Harris succeeded in pleasing the audience with the whimsical tale of a woman who woos another woman to ingratiate herself with the man she loves.

"I've never really enjoyed Shakespeare," said Barbara Gaynor, a management specialist at Hughes Aircraft who had driven from Los Angeles for the performance on the recommendation of relatives in Oxnard. "But they really brought it to life."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World