A Couple of Players

Last year’s short list of locals to watch included Ojai’s Deb Norton and Chris Nottoli. Writer AMBER LENNON follows up on the couple that revitalized Theater 150.

Photo by Andy Gilman


uring these times of recession, war, and a weakened morale, there remains one firefly amidst the darkness—art. And that's just what a couple of Ventana’s “9 For 2009” delivered over the past year. In light of the financial ruin facing many nonprofit arts organizations, Deb Norton and Chris Nottoli, the artistic directors of Ojai's Theater 150, used a tactical move some might call crazy: they went professional and became Ojai's first Equity Theater. “We went out with this message of, ‘We're going bigger,’” says Nottoli. “In a world where uncertainty is king, we're going to give you a place to come where you know it's going to be good every time.”

To up the ante even more, the theater dream team kicked off their new professional status by exploring Shakespeare's “Hamlet” with award-winning guest director Jessica Kubzansky. She says the play was the fulfillment of a “15-year passion project,” thanks to the complete creative freedom she was granted. “I really did tell the story I wanted to tell, with the Hamlet I wanted to tell it,” she says. The response was overwhelming. Not only were 150's regular attendees impressed, but also out-of towners, who comprised over half the audience. Reviewers from local publications to the Los Angeles Times raved about the play's unique set design and unusual character depictions.

Ojai has long been known as a popular vacation destination for actors and Hollywood celebrities, but now theater professionals can discover the town as an outlet for their craft. Theater 150 becoming an Equity Theater means better quality productions for viewers and an opportunity for actors to work in one of California's most picturesque and artistically fertile environments. "You have all these wonderful professional actors that are using Ojai as their sort of bedroom community while still carrying on their careers in L.A.," says Norton.

The Theater began as a tiny 46-seat storefront theater on Ojai’s Highway 150, a place for actors who had moved from L.A. to “keep up our chops and commiserate our actor lives,” says Dwier Brown, who created the Theater in the mid-nineties with Kim Maxwell. In the course of its 10-year run at the Highway 150 location, the Theater started with acting classes, readings, and one-person plays, and then went on to produce larger plays starring Ojai favorites including Zachary Levi, John Perry, and Nottoli and Norton.

In 2007 they were hired as artistic directors and launched a plan to realize larger production goals, the first of which was moving to a more centrally located building on Matilija Street. The decision to convert a mortuary into a theater may have raised a few eyebrows, but theaters and funeral homes do have at least one thing in common, Norton says: they both offer a place to “share stories and go through big emotions in a safe environment.”

The couple’s unabashed approach has positioned the Theater for even bigger contributions to the Arts community in the upcoming season. Two main festival structures will present new works in the winter and Shakespeare at Ojai’s Libbey Bowl in the summer, including “The Winter’s Tale,” directed by Jessica Kubzansky. Which leaves spring and fall open for a new roster of national music acts that can enjoy the Theater’s intimacy and superb sound quality.

Additionally, Oak Grove School has commissioned Theater 150 to run their junior high and high school drama programs. “Instead of going down the road of, ‘We must have a theater of our own,’ we really wanted to create a partnership,” explains Meredy Benson-Rice, Oak Grove’s head of school. “We already have this fabulous theater in Ojai, and it seems a shame not to use it.”

Rick Kuhlman, a resident acting instructor at the Theater, leads the class, which performs a final play for elementary kids, with professionals and students onstage together. Norton and Nottoli hope this pilot program will extend to schools throughout the region as a “kids for kids” drama education series.

It turns out that Deb Norton and Chris Nottoli really were a couple to watch in 2009. These recent developments reach down into the bedrock of the community, bolstering the Theater’s position as an outlet for the Arts, with first-class theater and music productions as well as acting, writing, and improv classes. As Scott Eicher of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce puts it, “Theater 150 is good for Ojai, certainly, but Theater 150 is also good for the soul.”


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