At a Meiners Oaks home, marked by enormous foam sunflowers at the door, Elizabeth Ridenour is doing a first run-through of Illusions Theatre’s fall production of “Walk in My Moccasins.”
Dressed in a tank top, baggy pants and rubber sandals, the 60-year-old director stands on her patio facing about 20 cast members, most of them children, who make up Ojai’s popular children’s theater. Everyone old enough to read holds a badly typed script.
“Those who are inclined to that sort of thing can point out the errors,” Ridenour says jokingly of her typing abilities.
What is on paper, though, probably isn’t as important to this production as the mood that Ridenour, a former elementary school teacher, is able to impart to the group.
To explain the collection of American Indian animal tales that are central to the production of “Moccasins,” which she wrote and produced, Ridenour relies heavily on body language: She bounces, sneers and waves her arms. Special effects also are conveyed through gestures.
“All right, here come the frogs. Frog music! Whrrrup, whrrrrup !” she says, waving her script excitedly. “Can you guys all croak for me now?”
A chorus of “ ribbet " begins. The croaking sounds reach a crescendo as Ridenour calls out the action that will be happening on stage: A fair maiden is faced with betrothal to an amphibian.
“Frogs have got her!” Ridenour says dramatically, stomping her feet. “You’ve got that girl!”
It is that kind of energy and creativity that Ridenour has been bringing to the stage for the last 12 years.
Begun in 1980 as a creative outlet for her own students, Illusions Theatre is now a nonprofit group that performs four plays each year at places such as Ojai’s Libby Bowl, the Ojai Art Center and local schools. The theater is funded by a variety of grants, including funds from the California Arts Council, as well as private donations.
Ridenour “has a tremendous talent in casting people,” says longtime cast member Walter Rilling, a Caltrans supervisor who has performed as a king, a tap dancing reindeer and an animated moneybag in green knee socks.
“If I’m not in a play, and I watch a show, I go, ‘That’s perfect!’ I’ve seen this happen a lot.”
Teri Mettala, director of the Ojai Art Center, says Ridenour is on the cutting edge. “She’s very innovative and creative. She’s not afraid to take risks.”
Part of the appeal for children performing in Illusions Theatre’s productions is the improvisational skills they acquire along the way. Although Ridenour begins each play with a script that she hopes will contain a certain message, the final product is often completely different.
“You have to be careful because you don’t want to preach,” she says. “Children don’t see the same thing in shows that grown-ups do.”
That perhaps explains a few twists in some of the theater group’s recent productions. In Illusions’ version of “Pinocchio,” for instance, the puppet boy ended up succumbing to a drug overdose. Sleeping Beauty’s courtyard was trashed by 20th-Century litterers. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer met a homeless child.
The choice of music also has given audiences a surprise. As the wolf prepared to blow down a pig’s house in a production of “The Three Little Pigs,” the cast burst forth with the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.”
Encouraging a certain amount of ad-libbing seems to have had a positive effect. Performances at the Ojai Art Center, according to director Mettala, regularly are standing room only. Ridenour’s work has been honored by the Ventura County Commission for Women. And last year, the company was invited to perform several times at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara.
But Ridenour says she believes that improvisational skills also can teach young cast members to roll with the punches.
“Timing is everything, I guess,” she says. “It’s also being able to accept timing that goes awry. Someone will drop a line, the mike may not work . . . you constantly have to improvise. Those things happen in real life.”
If Ridenour’s comments have a distinctly teacherlike quality, it’s no mystery why. A former elementary school teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District and a mother of seven, Ridenour became convinced a long time ago of the need to teach children creatively. It was something she didn’t see happening in public schools.
After moving to Santa Barbara in the 1960s, she sent her two oldest children to England to attend Summerhill, the legendary alternative school founded by British educator Alexander Neill. Her other children attended alternative schools in the Santa Barbara area until the schools closed and Ridenour was forced to think creatively herself.
Ridenour decided to teach her children at home. After separating from her husband 12 years ago, she moved to Ojai and continued the at-home schooling, taking in additional students to add to her income. Her children and those students--who wanted to perform in a play for their parents--were the seedlings of what now is Illusions Theatre.
“He came out a very well-rounded person, with no blocks about what it was possible to do in his life,” recalled parent Lanny Kaufer of the years from kindergarten through sixth grade that his son studied in Ridenour’s home. Kaufer’s son is now a student at UC Berkeley.
Today, Illusions Theatre is Ridenour’s sole focus. Her family, however, is still a large part of it. Two daughters are involved in choreography and costume design, and three sons build sets. Often one or more of her children still perform in the plays.
In “Walk in My Moccasins,” which begins Friday at Libby Park, two grandchildren have parts. This allows Ridenour to play a role within a role: She cast herself as the tribal grandmother.
“It’s what I am,” she says. “It always works if you use what’s true.”
And always, she says, there is the teaching, which seems to have a life of its own.
“Teen-agers are teachers for lower-grade children, the 7-year-old is a teacher for the 2-year-old and the 2-year-old is a teacher for me a lot of the time,” she says.
“We are all learners and teachers. We must be able to shift roles and adapt.”
UP CLOSE / ELIZABETH RIDENOUR
Profession: Teacher turned theater director.
On casting: “I look for energy, passion, some twinkle in the eye. A lot of children have a lack of passion for anything, except maybe food or Nintendo. And I look for perseverance. If a child can persevere to call me three times (about a part), that says something.”
On commitment: “I tell everyone, ‘If you want to be in a show and I put you in a show, you have to stay in it. If you never want to be in another one, that’s cool.’ They will choose and choose carefully, and do their job well.”
On being a teacher: “I never left, really. It’s the same thing. Illusions is for me a structure for education. I don’t have to teach math for 40 minutes, or have the blue group and the red group.”