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The most healing thing in the world

Ojai’s kim maxwell connects a community through Theater 150

By Kit Stolz

Photo by Bruce Botnick

Maxwell with members of the Youth Playwrights Workshop she directs every year.

 

en years ago, Kim Maxwell started teaching acting at the venerable Ojai Arts Center. She still teaches acting in Ojai, or claims to, but her teaching is as much about finding out who you are in front of other people, as it is about pretending to be somebody else.

Perhaps that’s why her classes at the Arts Center almost instantly became so popular she outgrew the shared space. She had to find a place of her own, and with her former husband Dwier Brown, soon took over an abandoned pool hall and turned it into the small but vibrant Theater 150, which is still going strong on Ojai’s main drag.

Ask Kim how she convinced students and casual acquaintances to spend hours of their time transforming a grungy pool hall into a surprisingly charming little theatre, for no money, and she will laugh a little, and tell you: “Well, mostly people came by and saw what we were doing and said, what can I do to help?”

This is no doubt true, but it’s also true that Tom Sawyer got his friends to help him whitewash a fence by pretending it was a privilege.

Tom Sawyer was a popular small-town guy, and Kim Maxwell is a popular small-town girl. Walk around Ojai with Kim Maxwell and you will quickly discover that she knows most of the town, and is seemingly loved by all. A great number of Ojaians and Ventura Countyians have taken her class, in part because she teaches all types: kids, preteens, teens, women, mixed classes. Many of those who have taken her class once go on to take it again.

What explains this unending popularity?

Part of it is charisma. Maxwell is a tall blonde with a very loud laugh and an irresistible charm. She’s good-looking, and sparks every conversation, almost always has something bright or funny to say, and never seems out of sorts or ill-tempered.

All this helps, no doubt, but it’s not why people love her. People want to take her class, and want to help out at the theater, before she even asks them.

Maxwell has an idea about why this is, and she gets excited, and even maybe a little tearful explaining it.

“It used to be that everybody told stories, around the campfire or the piano, and everyone listened and everyone shared. Now, it’s just the few and the proud and the elite who are allowed to tell stories for the culture, in L.A., or New York,” she says. “Theater 150 is the opposite of that. It’s about giving people the opportunity to tell their own stories, and well. People love their stories, and they love their friends’ stories, and they love other people’s stories. So technically, maybe it’s true they’re saying yes to me, but really they’re saying yes to themselves.”

Although Maxwell seems every ounce the winner — she has not only launched a theater, but also the Ojai Playwrights Festival, the premier West Coast festival of its type — she insists that’s not at all the way she feels.

Partly, it’s a matter of family dynamics. Maxwell’s older sister was a gifted scholar and went on to considerable success, but Maxwell says that she and her brother barely passed high school and never went to college. But what they could always do is tell a “wicked good story.”

The story might be about the time she put her brother down the laundry chute as “a science experiment.” Or it might be about the time the family went on vacation and her parents left her at a gas station in Yakima, Wash. She loves these kinds of stories, and she knows why.

“We all fear the same things: We’re not good enough. They’ll laugh at us. We’ll be really big losers,” she says. “But if you can get your hideous story out on stage, and not pull back from it, it’s the most healing thing in the world. That’s the heart of theater; the live exchange. Laughing together, sobbing together, that’s what offers us hope.”

To Maxwell’s surprise, the theater has turned out to be much more than a place for classes and student shows. She freely admits that she doesn’t like the usual fare of small-town theatre — such as musicals — and does like new writing and “the dark and bizarrely humorous.” She didn’t expect that a small town in Ventura County would have the same taste, but says there was “a real hunger” for this kind of theater from the start.

One of her first students in Ojai, Craig Schmitman, a director who took her class mostly to learn how to better communicate with actors, points to her first big show, the wildly imaginative Shiva Arms, as an example of the unexpectedly fresh and exciting work put on at Theater 150.

“When you hear the term ‘community theater,’ a lot of stereotypical ideas come to mind,” he said. “But she and all of the people at Theater 150 have gone so far beyond all those stereotypes and expectations. Which is really a very unromantic way of saying ‘wow.’ ”

A crucial step for the theater came after 9/11. Theater 150 was in preproduction of a new play called Three Viewings, a dark comedy about funerals.

“After 9/11, death became instantaneously unfunny,” Maxwell recounted. “I had to pull the plug as an artist and as an administrator, but as a theater, we needed to do something. We had a big meeting and the idea came up of putting together a collective show. So we asked for contributions ... and people started putting little bits of paper under the door and sending in e-mails and dropping off envelopes, and in about a week we had about nine hours of material.”

That, with a lot of editing from veteran writer Peter Bellwood, became the long-running and very moving show, The Human Chain, a collection of songs, poems and stories. Some were big newspaper stories, some were small personal stories, but all were heartfelt.

“After that show, I felt I understood what my place was and why it was important to stay small and connected to the heart of the community, and not to try and entertain people from a distance,” Maxwell says. “It brought out the best of us, and it evolved as it went along, and we all just clung together and got through it together.”

Theater 150 has continued to grow in the years since. A version of Sam Shepard’s classic True West was a long-running hit, and seen and praised by the playwright himself. A first play by an Ojai writer named Deb Norton premiered to considerable acclaim at the theater, directed by Maxwell, staring the writer and Dwier Brown, and went on to even greater success in L.A., where it was warmly received by critics and audiences alike.

One of the musicians in The Human Chain, J.B. White, has since launched Music 150, and has brought countless terrific acts to the theatre’s intimate stage, including the great bluegrass picker John McKuen, of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

When asked what advice she would give to others thinking of launching a community-dependent nonprofit, Maxwell has an instant answer: “Know yourself. Really look at why you want to do it, because it’s going to continually grow as it goes along, and it’s easy to lose sight of who you are and what your priorities are. Take time to talk to people and eat good food and sleep and take a vacation and visit with your neighbors, because stuff is going to happen, and if you don’t have your emotional bucket full, you can become an obsessive freak show. Don’t take yourself too seriously, either.”

Maxwell laughs. For her, that’s never a problem.

10-01-2006

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