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

by Emily Dodi

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

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

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

“I love this trend of elevating women into positions of power. Ventura County is full of talented women,” says Stevenson. “It’s quite an upheaval we’ve seen,” she jokes with a wink.

Each of the women brings extensive experience both in the spotlight and behind the scenes, whether directing, producing or working in a myriad of other ways to get productions off the ground at some of the region’s most popular venues. They all boast a lifelong love of theater and have been engaged in it since childhood, accumulating a wealth of experience and knowledge.

An eye for “transportive theatre”

DeCicco graduated from the California Institute of the Arts after living in various locations across the country, from New York to Colorado and Florida. Settling in Ventura in 2013, she soon met kindred spirits at the Flying H Theater Company, founded by Taylor Kasch and Cynthia Killion. DeCicco has starred in several productions at the Flying H, as well as other local theaters including the 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 Theater 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 pieces that make you think.”

She explains that when the world was just beginning to emerge from lockdown, she saw that “a very small window opened and everyone was hungry”. That said, theater people were dying to get back to doing what they love.

DeCicco issued an appeal to her theater peers. “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, inclusive Picasso in the Lapin Agile, penned by comedian and actor Steve Martin; the one woman show The Beauty of Amherst, with Anna Kotula, who played two weekends in March; and “Night motherwhich is already on stage until May 22nd. More provocative productions are planned for this summer, and a special month-long community event called Día de Los Muertos is also in the works The Latin Experience.

“I want the audience to be swept up in it,” explains DeCicco. If newer productions like the wonderful Elemosynary, separation game and Andronicus there are indications that The Elite has great, not-to-be-missed things ahead of them.

raise new voices

Coincidentally, 2021 was also the year Stevenson took over as director of the Santa Paula Theater Center (SPTC).

Stevenson, who was officially named Artistic Director in November 2021, is following 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, Irvine who worked with Boston’s American Repertory Theater, Stevenson was already a fixture at the SPTC as an actor and director. She recently starred in the critically acclaimed production of SPTC rapture, bubble, fire and directed Things I know to be true which ran until March.

Stevenson explains that her goal is to raise exciting new voices and engage a new generation of theatergoers to join the many who have loved and supported SPTC over the years.

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

“I’ve read hundreds of plays,” Stevenson explains, looking for outstanding works to resonate with.

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

“Feel Good Theater”

Sutton is a long-time actress and producer at the Ojai Art Center Theater (Ojai ACT) and explains that “since she was a child, she was always, always in the theatre.” 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 to teaching drama in high school and college.

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

Tracey Williams Sutton, Artistic Director of the Ojai Art Center Theatre. Photo by Chris Mortenson

The opening show was wonderful Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, starring Sutton as the unforgettable Masha. The show was a hit when it opened in January, heralding a hopeful new beginning for the theater and an impressive debut from its new artistic director.

Sutton’s vision is to bring “feel good theatre” to audiences weary of the turbulent years of recent years; Pieces, she says, that make us “laugh and enjoy together.”

True to her word, Sutton has ushered in some delightful productions. Ojai ACT followed the Chekhov satire with the Southern comedy/drama by March Steel magnolias and the raucous one-act collection Everything in time (which just closed). Keep an eye out the music man this summer.

“Feel Intrepid”

DeCicco, Stevenson and Sutton all have an incredible passion for theater and a deep love for their own theaters in particular. Although each has a different vision, they all believe that theater can not only entertain but also heal.

As Stevenson wrote in her accompanying notes Things I know to be true: “As we have passed two very harrowing years, I believe that we need the meditation of storytelling more than ever. And live theater not only does this, but creates a space where it’s appropriate and encouraged to feel undeterred. When we reflect on these feelings in all their complexity, we feel less alone.

“Theatre brings people together as a community. And as we breathe in sync with the wonder of the story unfolding before us, it subtly lends insight and sympathy to the works. That’s powerful. That’s soft. That is the magic of art.”

The Elite Theater Company, 2731 Victoria Ave., Oxnard,

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

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

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