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South Coast theater company tries to become arts hub by adding art gallery, new performance lounge

Artist Michael O'Kelly works on a 32-foot-long mural he's creating for a new cabaret/jazz club space which has been created as part of the Rubicon Theater Company's complex in Ventura.

Ventura's Rubicon Theater Company is trying to offer arts shows and events when it's main theater is dark.

Artist Michael O’Kelly is hard at work. The Ventura painter, and sculptor is creating a massive, more than 30 foot long mural in the basement of a theater.

While many arts organizations in the Tri-Counties are struggling to survive, Ventura’s Rubicon Theater Company is expanding. It’s adding an art gallery, and a performing arts space to its theater complex.

"It's about more art, more art, more art," said Beverly Ward, who's the Rubicon Theater Company’s Outreach Director. "We have the space... we've got to make the most of that space... and in doing so, engaging more people."

She takes us on a tour of the new gallery space. There are two dozen paintings and prints by artist Michael O’Kelly in a long corridor which has been transformed into a gallery. Many of them are scenes of Mexico, where the artist once lived.

Off the corridor, Ward takes us into a large room which was once used as rehearsal space. It’s now a lounge, with sofas and tables. It's called the Rose Room.

At the north end of the Rose Room, O’Kelly is working on his giant mural project. It looks like a giant party, with images of some of the people who've performed in the theater over the decades.

Among those featured are Lisa Minnelli, Joel Gray, Linda Purl, and Ted Neeley, Amada McBroom and George Ball. McBroom and Ball donated money to make the Rose Room possible. McBroom wrote the hit song The Rose, which Bette Midler recorded, and was featured in the 1979 movie The Rose.

O’Kelly says the idea is when people are in the Rose Room, the mural will help them feel like they are a part of the party. It’s a big hometown project for the artist, who has exhibited in around 50 galleries on three continents around the world.

O’Kelly says he’s about halfway through the mural project, so visitors to the theater complex can see it as it takes shape.

Rubicon’s move could be considered to a bold one. Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties are both losing art museums this summer due to pandemic related financial issues. But, the non-profit theater is hoping the expansion will help it become more for an arts hub for the community.

Rubicon Co-Founder and Producing Artistic Director Karyl Lynn Burns said during the pandemic, they tried to reimagine the professional non-profit theater company's role in the community. They concluded that there is the potential to do more to enhance the region's arts offerings.

And, with theater groups across the country struggling with ticket sales lagging because of the pandemic, Ward said they realized bringing in more art will bring in more people.

The new gallery is opened from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. When it’s not being used in conjunction with theater performances, the goal is to operate the Rose Room as an intimate nightclub space for cabaret or jazz performances.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.