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The Powerhouse : THE NEW VIC AND ITS NEW SEASON REDEFINES SANTA BARBARA THEATER

The exterior of the New Victoria Theatre

The exterior of the New Victoria Theatre

A pool and a splash zone for an upcoming Ensemble Theatre show? Who would have thought? But in the beautiful new space for one of Santa Barbara’s oldest theater companies, anything is possible. Called The New Vic, the $11.5 million remodel of the building on the corner of Victoria and Chapala Streets opened this month, a mixture of state-of-the-art theater construction and a devotion to preserving this former church and its 92-year-old original structure.

When the mayor cut the ribbon at the opening several Fridays ago, it celebrated the end of a construction process that had its high and low points, as well as a new chapter in Santa Barbara’s performing arts district. Mayor Helene Schneider called it the “jewel in the crown” and with its refurbished, stained glass windows glowing during a performance, the comparison is apt.

Insidethe New Victoria Theatre

Insidethe New Victoria Theatre

The reflecting pool — which will appear as part of an adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” — shows the flexibility of this new stage, as it can also be used as an orchestra pit, or it can be raised to simply extend the stage. The front row seats are so close to put you in the lap of the actors, and Executive Artistic Director, Jonathan Fox is just the kind of man to understand the potential of such interaction. The Ensemble’s home for decades was at the Alhecama Theatre on Santa Barbara Street, and that was intimate and cozy due to its size. Yet the New Vic — with its 294 seats — seems to bring the actors closer with better sight lines and sound.

After a tour of the new facility, from the audio-visual room and its computerized lighting design, to the basement, with its large, green room and dressing rooms, and all the behind-the- curtain tech, its plain that Mr. Fox has a lot of new toys to play with. The lighting is a combination of trad and LED, saving energy. Wheelchair access is excellent. A new sound system not only delivers crystal clear sound, but can actually loop into new kinds of hearing aids to personally amplify it. And most importantly, there’s plenty of room in the bathrooms.

The opening night gala earlier this month was expectedly sold out.

“The community loves this space and loves the Ensemble,” Mr. Fox says. “The outpouring of enthusiasm and joy was overwhelming … As (The New Vic) took shape, we’ve had a number of people become supporters.”

Some of those new members were actually older fans of the company, but — according to an audience survey that Mr. Fox had commissioned — had stopped coming because of comfort issues. Now these people have come back into the fold. And Mr. Fox intends to keep pushing the potential of the company. He’s had time during construction, several years’worth, to write his wish list of future productions.

“The list is very long,” he laughs. “And I’m already thinking about next season, and I have several ideas. I just can’t figure out which ones to do first.”

In the Alhecama days, Mr. Fox had dabbled in musicals, doing “The Fantasticks” with two musicians and “Striking Twelve” with a rock trio on its small stage.

But the season opens with Ensemble’s first, full musical, “A Little Night Music.” Mr. Fox has planned on making Sondheim’s work the season opener for years.

“I haven’t done musicals a lot, but every time I direct one, I have the best time,” Mr. Fox says. “The actors are so talented, the singing is so beautiful; I love working with the musical director and choreographer and seeing their artistic process; I love being a part of it.”

Each following show in the season shows off a bit of what makes the New Vic special.

“Good People” by David Lindsay-Abaire hails from 2011 and was nominated for two Tony Awards. “It’s so smart in dealing with a topic that is rarely dealt with in American plays, which is a very subtle class system in this country,” says Mr. Fox. “It’s a fairly naturalistic piece and is a nice contrast to some of the other works we are doing.” “Good People” will demonstrate how the New Vic handles what is essentially a character-driven piece.

The third production of the season is Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” which contains the above-mentioned pool and plenty of other surprises. Ovid’s myths of death and transformation infused the production that Mr. Fox saw in Chicago soon after 9-11. “People’s emotions were very raw,” Mr. Fox says, “And this piece did what art is supposed to do, which is to make sense of things.”

“I wanted to show off the space a bit,” he admits as well.

“Red” is John Logan’s 2009 play about abstract painter Mark Rothko, and though a two-person piece, Mr. Fox hints at set design plans that again will show off the space at its best. (Think Rothko — think big).

The season ends with “Looped,” a 2008 play by Matthew Lombardo that tells of the drunken, eight-hour session in 1965 to get actress Tallulah Bankhead to record one single line of dialog. While very few plays in this season have been cast, “Looped” boasts Marsha Mason in the Bankhead role.

“We’ll learn a lot,” says Mr. Fox, looking forward. “It’s going to be a challenging year; it will stretch us. But I think it’s a powerhouse season.”

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