I did not recognize the 805 area code, but after answering my reliably spotty iPhone, I was surprised to learn it was an equity theater in Ojai, California who wanted to produce The Common Air. It was seventy miles north of LA, I was told by a sultry feminine voice.
I had visited Ojai once with a friend and was instantly enchanted. The area has a reputation for being the consummate spiritual remedy to Hollywood’s dedicated shallows. But since when did they have a theater?
As a child of the 70’s, I knew Ojai as the home of Jamie Summers, The Bionic Woman. Ra-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-paaa… On my first visit, I learned about a lesser know superhero named Krishnamurti. He was a spiritual teacher who preached against organized religion. His retreats in the 70’s drew some 15,000 people from near and far. They sought him out as their guru, even though he claimed he was neither profit nor priest. He passed away not long ago, but his institute just outside of town still draws acolytes from around the globe.
Things happen a little differently in Ojai. There’s something preternatural here: a mystical vortex that’s been drawing the enlightened to it since 1837. Ojai means, “Valley of the Moon”, a name bestowed on it by the Native American Cumash tribe, the region’s maiden inhabitants.
Unlike most valleys on the continent, Ojai lays at the base of an east-west mountain range. As a result, the skies produce what locals label a “Pink Moment”: a startling hue of pink above the Topatopa Bluffs. It’s impossible to take for granted, even for life-time residents.
A walk down main street can feel like an outtake from any of Clint Eastwood’s early spaghetti westerns. The town is anchored by a distinctly Spanish-style arcade, and local architecture ranges from sunburnt Cuban to Colonial revivalism. Adding to the hamlet’s authenticity is the constant waft of patchouli, or any variation there of, through the airs of the farmer’s market, and the preponderance of men in white beards and sandals
Just past the end of the main strip, on the corner of Matilija and Montgomery, is Theater 150, a jewelbox of a space with an appropriately theatrical history.
The company began in a pool hall in 1996, True West was their first production and after attending, Sam Shepard said, “Their production was one of the best I’ve ever seen.” A decade later, the company moved into a bankrupt mortuary. It was 2006, the same year that the local hospital closed down their maternity ward. The local joke goes that you can no longer be born or die in Ojai. Thankfully, the theater scene is alive and well.
The morgue’s two smaller rooms have been converted into an office space, and a cozy 50 seat theater. The embalming room, where bodies were drained and painted, has morphed into the kitchen. And the largest viewing room has become a acoustically perfect 99 seat mainstage.
Their production of The Common Air was strong. And their audiences responded. People often ask about the difference between west coast and east coast audiences. I can’t say I have found many. People who attend plays are in general curious and engaged. Some are even looking for a challenge. Even in Hollywood this is true. But there is a certain appreciation in a place like Ojai that is absent in NYC and LA.
We get spoiled in Manhattan with all the options for great nights out. Critics in the city take pride in being unimpressed, even while lobbing expletives at playwrights like Stoppared and Mamet and McDonagh. LA’s nearly tangible desperation often clouds people from letting their guard down enough to be moved. The feedback in that city is inevitably couched in contemporary movie and tv show examples. It’s a tragic vernacular, really. All while they’re telling you to end it up.
In Ojai, the show hit a metaphorical sweet spot with the audience. They were very clear on the message of the show. In today’s complex world, people often lose what’s real. They have seen their share of good work pass through: American Buffalo, Fuddy Meers, Stop Kiss, I am My Own Wife, Hamlet.
Their next production might be the best of all. It’s an original play Chris and Deb have co-written, in which the two leads, played by themselves, will be married, as a way for Chris and Deb to marry in real life. Invited guests are the audience, and ticket sales are going to the theaters budget for the next year. Like I said, things happen a little differently in Ojai.