Local actors were thrilled to perform in 2021 for a live audience
For the first time in history, two actresses jumped out of an airplane on the Garvin Theatre stage.
The cast and crew of Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College’s “Ripcord” created the thrill of skydiving, which seemed dramatically appropriate in the year that live theater returned to Santa Barbara County.
The pandemic caused the cancellations of live theater productions planned for spring 2020.
But live performances resumed with San Marcos High School students’ outdoor rendition of ABBA’s “Mamma Mia!” in May, followed by the resumption of live indoor theater shows this summer and fall throughout the county.
Before the state’s reopening this summer, theater companies had to improvise.
That meant recording performances that streamed on viewers’ computers, which has its limitations. Actors couldn’t benefit from the energy of a live audience, and viewers lacked the unpredictability of a performance that could change from night to night.
The Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College got creative last spring by presenting a recorded performance of a radio play, “The Thin Man,” which featured the kind of rhythm, classic costumes and old-school but imaginative sound effects that lured actress Jenna Scanlon. She starred as Nora Charles, the wife of detective Nick Charles.
“I’m a fan of old movies that feature fast-talking, smart people,” Ms. Scanlon, a fan of films such as “My Girl Friday,” told the News-Press at the time.
“The Thin Man,” a murder mystery with a healthy mix of drama and comedy, was filmed on the Garvin Theatre stage without an audience, with the actors wearing costumes but standing behind microphones, as they would be if they were recording a radio play.
“It feels more like a play than anything I’ve done in the last 16 months,” Ms. Scanlon told the News-Press. “I’ve done things purely on Zoom. This felt like being in a play. It was so challenging and rewarding.”
Actors had fun with the play, which had featured puppeteer Laksmini Wyantini bringing Nick and Nora’s dog Asta to life.
But imagine actors’ delight when the theater doors opened this summer and audiences returned for indoor plays from City College to the New Vic in Santa Barbara to PCPA in Santa Maria.
Live theater was back.
Companies took COVID-19 precautions, and audiences could again enjoy the experience of seeing a play in person.
The Theatre Group at SBCC kicked off its live performances this summer with a Broadway revue.
“There’s no way to describe how incredible it is, to be a performer with a live audience,” said Katie Laris, director of “Here We Go Again! A Musical Revue.”
It was the first Theatre Group at SBCC production with a live audience since the pandemic interrupted the troupe’s performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in March 2020.
“It (the thrill of a live performance) is because you’re sharing the same moment in time. It means every single member of the audience impacts the experience, as does every single member of the cast and every single member of the crew,” Ms. Laris told the News-Press at the time.
No two performances are the same, she noted. “If an audience comes in and they’re in a good mood, that affects the performance. If that’s not the case, that affects the performance.”
In October, the City College theater troupe took its plays to new heights by having actors jump out of an airplane on stage in “Ripcord.”
“I read 80 to 200 scripts a year,” Ms. Laris told the News-Press. “This is a play that is incredibly entertaining. At this moment, we wanted to offer our audience something that would allow them to escape into a different reality — a New Jersey retirement community with these two women who have found themselves to be roommates, unexpectedly, who are very different in their personalities.”
“But they’ve both been through a lot in their lives,” Ms. Laris said about the play, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. “It’s really about them getting to know each other. They go through so much in the play, and the audience is taken on a roller coaster ride.
“We’ve never seen two actresses jump out of a plane in our theater, and I’ve been here a long time,” Ms. Laris said.
In August, PCPA resumed live productions at the theaters at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. The latest production was “The Secret Garden, Spring Version” at the college’s Marian Theatre, where the stage extends into the audience for an immersive experience.
And back in Santa Barbara, Ensemble Theatre Company reopened the New Vic to audiences in October with “Tenderly,” a musical about movie star Rosemary Clooney.
Two months later, the longtime Santa Barbara theater company recreated the world of Jane Austen in “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley,” which recently concluded its run at the New Vic. The play was among those that was canceled from the 2019-2020 season because of the pandemic.
Director Michael Butler said the play, an original story inspired by Ms. Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” had a lot of heart.
“The humor comes from a very human, character-driven, somewhat situational place,” he told the News-Press. “It’s certainly not a farce. It’s not zany.
“The two playwrights (Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon) were very interested in being true to the tone, the style, the period of Jane Austen,” Mr. Butler explained. “And they try to recreate that world. It’s a realistic creation of Jane Austen’s world of 1815.
“Within that, they push the envelope on the theme and messages,” Mr. Butler said.
A short distance away, Center Stage Theater, upstairs in Paseo Nuevo, resumed its on-stage productions of plays, dance productions and concerts.
Throughout the county, plays resumed in community theater and school productions. Even before plays could resume indoors, San Marcos High School staged a musical last spring outside, one inspired by ABBA: “Mamma Mia!.”’ It was reportedly the first live theater of any kind in the county since the pandemic started.
“I think for the Santa Barbara community in general, it’s going to be not just a high school show that you’re going to see, it’s going to be the first live theater you’ve seen in a year and a half,” San Marcos senior Maddie Thomas told the News-Press in May. “And I think that’s going to be really emotional and a big deal for our community, just because I think that Santa Barbara does have a very live theater scene and not having that for so long was disheartening. And so I think we’re lucky that we kind of get to be the first (live) show that happens.”