Tag Archives: theater

The Curtain Rises Once Again: Ensemble Theatre Company Announces Full Slate of Productions for 2021-22 Season

Ensemble Theatre Company (ETC) executive artistic director Jonathan Fox was already talking about reopening when he was interviewed for the original Giving List book connecting philanthropists and nonprofits that we published last November. At this point, to the surprise of no one, six months later that still hasn’t happened as the pandemic pounced once again with a third wave over the winter, resulting in continued lockdowns and scotching any plans to offer even a vastly reduced 2020-21 season.

But the coronavirus crisis only served to confirm Fox’s desire to serve the community — both artistically and otherwise — with whatever ETC could come up with. 

“Like every other organization, we had to think fast to figure out what we could do in lieu of performances with live audiences,” Fox recalled, noting that ETC considered outdoor productions, Zoom readings, and even screening its archive videos as some other Santa Barbara performing arts companies did.

“But I was not very happy with the archived videos that were available to stream because we don’t have the library of, say, the National Theatre in London, and I just didn’t want to present something that I thought was not up to the quality that we are now used to.”

Indeed, figuring out a direction required reexamining the role of theater in a modern society, Fox said.

“I think theaters in general are grappling with the question of, ‘What is our mission?’ Is it to sell tickets to live performances or is it our mission to serve and present theater to the community?”

Fox, of course, opted for the latter, but things still had to happen “in ways that made sense for us,” including measuring up to Fox’s and ETC’s ever-increasing standards of quality as the only professional theater company in Santa Barbara. 

Want to get involved? Scan this QR code with your smartphone’s camera to learn more about the Ensemble Theatre Company.

Initially Fox turned instead to education, one of ETC’s core missions, and turned the Young Playwrights Festival into a virtual program complete with presentations of the student-created, 10-minute plays that culminated months of work including weeks of study and personal guidance from professional playwrights. (Ironically, this year’s Young Playwrights Festival, which aired last weekend, might be the last production to be shown only virtually due to COVID restrictions. The replay is available on demand on ETC’s YouTube channel.)

For the larger community, Fox also arranged a virtual town hall discussion about American Son after ETC’s planned Santa Barbara debut of the gripping Broadway show about racism and the police was the first victim of the lockdown. After the George Floyd killing, subscribers had asked if ETC could offer a play reading, but the rights are controlled by streaming behemoth Netflix. Instead, Fox asked Coffee with a Black Guy’s James Joyce to co-host, and they were joined by more than 100 local residents over Zoom for what Fox called “a very lively discussion, to say the least, about the play but also about racial issues here in Santa Barbara.”

As winter approached, Fox found himself “wanting to give a gift of theater for the season to the community,” and approached the actors’ union about producing an adaptation of A Christmas Carol live with the actors on stage but no audience in the seats. When that fell through at the 11th hour, Fox instead created an enhanced virtual offering that found the actors in modified costumes in their homes, with the intended radio play becoming a little more like a parlor reading, intimate if not quite as interactive.

In February, ETC offered a valentine to the community via connecting local actors Meredith Baxter, Michael Gross, Gregory Harrison,and Amanda McBroom, among others, along with beloved Montecito author T. Coraghessan Boyle, for The Look of Love, a free on-demand streaming program of short tales and music — all meant to offer healing as the pandemic neared its one-year anniversary.

But this wasn’t your typical Zoom issue: longtime ETC-associated helmer Jenny Sullivan directed while professional videography came largely from ETC education director Brian McDonald (although Boyle’s reading of I Walk Between the Raindrops, written in the aftermath of the 2018 debris flow from his Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, was shot by his son). 

“We tried to do something where people weren’t just sitting in front of their computers with their headphones on reading to their iPhones,” Fox said. “It was much more like a performance, although it wasn’t even close to coming to the theater and seeing something live.”

Stretching further, just last month, Fox mounted his most adventurous and ambitious project yet, producing and directing An Iliad, a 100-minute-long version of Homer’s epic poem reimagined for the 21st-century stage as a one-man show. The production featured the return to ETC of the virtuosic actor John Tufts, accompanied by original cello music performed live onstage by Santa Barbara Symphony’s Jonathan Flaksman, with multiple cameras and a highly polished, well-rehearsed presentation, although, again, viewers could only see the searing production via video on their computers, TV screens or other electronic devices.

This last event actually lost money. But that wasn’t the point of producing it, Fox said, alluding to the earlier question of the theater’s mission.

“There were just so many reasons it was worth it to try to do something along those lines,” he explained. “We wanted to see how much interest there was in streaming, and I wanted to work with cameras for the first time. But personally, I got such a joy out of being back in rehearsals for a real live performance. It was definitely a learning experience, but I also thought my instincts were pretty good on how we did it for the camera. 

“We had some people say they wish they could see it live after watching the stream. And we got some feedback that while the production was really high quality, they still really missed the other aspects of going to the theater, being with other people, being inside the space, meeting the actor after the show.”

The productions also reached audiences across the U.S. and beyond, which while not part of ETC’s core mission, can only help with awareness of the company’s excellence and enhance its reputation. Most heartening, Fox said, was a common response.

“We had so many people tell us that they’d almost forgotten how wonderful live theater is and that they were really excited about the Ensemble coming back to the New Vic, which is truly a state-of-the-art theater, a real jewel for the city. It really seemed to whet people’s appetite.” 

Fortunately, that hunger is about to be sated, as ETC has booked a full five-play 2021-22 season that launches in October with Tenderly, The Rosemary Clooney Musical starring the decorated actress Linda Purl and featuring a live three-piece band that was supposed to close out the 2019-20 season. Also, on the board is the long delayed, but still timely, debut of American Son, with three more selections yet to be announced. 

Having a full slate to offer was important for Fox, who said he presented the ETC’s board with two different ideas for the season, one vastly scaled back and the other big and bold.

“The majority said, ‘Let’s go big,’” he said. “We want it to be exciting. We want people to know we’re really back. So that’s what we’re planning.”

The next official event, however, is a fundraiser, a benefit to refill some of ETC’s coffers that, while never truly threatened, did see a sinking of levels akin to a moderate drought year’s effect on Cachuma Lake. A campaign over the winter with a goal of $400,000 actually raised more than $460,000, which Fox called “an extraordinary, extraordinary experience because we had so many people who donated telling us we want to make sure that you are coming back.”

That result was among the strongest evidence of community engagement that buoyed the executive artistic director during the pandemic. 

“We could not have survived this past year, past 15 months, without the financial and emotional support of our community,” Fox said simply. 

ETC will celebrate its re-opening with Curtain (Back) Up! on August 15, the title playing off the Curtain Up gala that heralded the opening of the theater’s home at The New Vic almost a decade ago.

Guests will gather in the garden at the Santa Barbara Club for appetizers followed by a sit-down dinner inside the club before returning to the garden for dessert and an auction, as well as entertainment provided by faculty and graduate students from the music department of UCSB. At the event, Ensemble will also be awarding its first-ever Extraordinary Awards to patrons of ETC who have made exemplary contributions of time, talent, and support over the years. The initial recipients being celebrated on August 15 are Debby and Peter Stalker, Derek Westen, and Dana White.

Single tickets are available for the event at $300; visit https://etcsb.org/support for details and other ways to arrange tax-deductible donations that subsidize ticket prices, fund education outreach programs, and support artistic freedom.

But even before the August 15 fundraiser, community members can show their support by purchasing season tickets to ETC 2021-22, which can go a long way toward indicating that the ambitious program will be rewarded. 

“No one really knows how many people will be coming back or if they will need more time before they do come back,” Fox said. “We don’t know at what level or how close we’re going to get to where we were before the pandemic, both in terms of ticket sales and rentals of the theater. It’s going to take a while to build back that business. So, the community’s financial support is as important as ever. Season ticket sales will tell us that we are on track to getting back.”

Website: https://etcsb.org
How to contact: 805-965-5400 •MJ

Ensemble Means Together

As the pandemic set in, Santa Barbara’s renowned Ensemble Theatre Company was poised to open American Son – a gripping Broadway show. The play centers on a bi-racial couple’s discovery that their 18-year-old son was missing and may have been picked up by the police. 

But, of course, going to the theater during the unfolding spread of an airborne virus stopped the theater company in its tracks. 

Ensemble Theatre Co. – “Husbands and Wives” 10/4/17 The New Vic Theatre

The company’s artistic director, Jonathan Fox, laments that Ensemble couldn’t be there to help the community reckon with both the pandemic and the racial unrest that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. 

“Through our work, we help the community make sense of our world, whether Shakespeare, a comedy, or a play like American Son,” Fox says. “The sad thing about being shut down was that this was the time they needed us most.”

But instead of retreating, Fox and his team set up a virtual town hall where more than 100 Santa Barbara residents discussed American Son’s fraught exploration of how racism creeps into so many relationships – even that of man and wife. The event marked how Ensemble is turning the pain of 2020 into a chance for not mere resumption of operations as usual, but rather a reformation of what theater means to community. 

As reopening begins, Ensemble is looking forward to not only raising the curtains of The New Vic, its resplendent 300-seat, Victoria Street theater, but also to relaunch its community building programs: the Young Playwrights Festival, and its Student Matinees that allow Santa Barbara students to enjoy the theater for free. “We work incredibly hard to make theater available to the widest audience, and make it possible for anyone who wants to see a show,” Fox says.

Fox sees a bright future for his company and theater in general. 

“We are all champing at the bit to have real live in-person experiences,” Fox says. “To get out of virtual reality and back into ‘reality.’”

And when that happens, Ensemble will do what it has always done best: bring Santa Barbara together.  

Relighting the Marquee

You are sitting up front in the ornate Granada Theatre. It has been too long since you have had an experience like this. 

The motionless curtain tantalizes. Impatient for its revelations, you look around and up to the balcony: so many people (1,500) sharing the same exhilaration. You feel a richness coming back to life. Then–the curtain rises. 

For Hayley Firestone Jessup, the Granada’s vice president of advancement, that moment, when it comes, will be “relief, huge emotional relief.” 

State Street Ballet & SB Choral Society – “Carmina Burana” Granada Theatre 5/30/08

“It will be the lights, the sounds, the visuals, the excitement,” Firestone Jessup says breathlessly. “The beauty of live artists again. The color of the stage. The sound of the musicians.”

For Firestone Jessup and her colleagues, who have seen the theater’s staff drop from 35 to 10, the long months of the pandemic have made it all too apparent “that without music, theatre, and dance one’s life becomes incredibly flat.”

The theater itself is a beacon of culture for not only Santa Barbara, but the entire state and country. Following a top-to-bottom seismic upgrade and architectural restoration in 2008, the Granada was reborn as the downtown home for eight resident companies including the Opera Santa Barbara, The Santa Barbara Symphony, and State Street Ballet. 

To accommodate the varied performances showcased in the now 96-year-old venue required intensive alterations to what had most recently been a multiplex cinema. This included enlarging the stage for the opera, making the floor flexible for dancers, enhancing acoustics for the symphony, and widening the proscenium arch for Broadway tours. 

The result is a venue where Yo-Yo Ma, the Peking Acrobats, and the Beach Boys all find the amenities and high quality that bring them back time and time again.

Beyond the performances within the theater, the Granada provides Santa Barbara and the region with so much more. Tourists take selfies by the entrance of Santa Barbara’s highest “skyscraper” – the city’s icon of the performing arts and the cultural vibrancy to be found on this particular stretch of California’s coast.

“The Granada adds a dimension to the community life of Santa Barbara just by its presence, just by the lights on the marquee,” Firestone Jessup says. “While we have taken an intermission, we will be back!”

The Community’s Theatre

Not only is the Lobero the longest running theatre in California (founded in 1873), but it is relentless, with over 200 nights of performances a year serving more than 70,000 people. 

For Executive Director David Asbell, whose 23-year tenure seems short given the Lobero’s history, the job is all about serving Santa Barbara and its vibrant performing arts scene. 

AHA! Santa Barbara performs on the Lobero Stage

“The staff and board, we look at our role really as stewards of this great building and tradition,” Asbell says. “The most important thing we can be doing, job number one, is all about our community. The collaborations we are most proud of are with local arts organizations and local artists.” 

The Lobero has four pillars of performance: classical music, jazz, dance, and theatre. While the theatre has been – and is regularly – graced by world-class performers, the Lobero’s staff is heavily focused on giving local artists and youth a platform to thrive and grow into their craft. 

“We are not going to make the music, but we will make sure that a local musician or dance company has the best opportunity at succeeding,” Asbell says. “The most important goal for us is to complement and support the local arts scene.” 

To accomplish this, the theatre heavily subsidizes or gifts the space whether for the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony, a nonprofit youth service provider like AHA!, or the Santa Barbara Vocal Jazz Foundation’s “Journey Through Jazz” residency. Journey Through Jazz is a seven-week in-classroom program during which local grade schoolers learn about jazz music and history, which culminates in a performance at the Lobero. 

Jim Dougherty is the Lobero’s Director of Planned Giving. For him, the Journey Through Jazz performances have their own “special magic” because of the audience that comes through the doors. 

“These are not your typical theatre-goers,” Dougherty says. “You have whole families. The best is watching a sibling watch their siblings up on stage. I just love to see the families’ reactions. It’s absolutely sweet.” 

That is what he misses the most about the theatre being closed for such a long stretch of 2020. 

For Asbell, Dougherty, and the entire Lobero team, it is moments like those that the theatre was built for: community.