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A quarter century in the arts: Center Stage Theater celebrates its local legacy

Motion Theater Dance will perform at the Center Stage Theater 25th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday. Lerina Winter photo

Motion Theater Dance will perform at the Center Stage Theater 25th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday.
Lerina Winter photo

This Saturday, Center Stage Theater celebrates its 25th anniversary with an evening of hors d’oervres, cocktails and special performances from Alma de Mexico, Santa Barbara Silver Follies, Proboscis Theater Company, and more, with the intent to raise $25,000 for capital improvements to improve the theater for another quarter century.

The evening celebrates Santa Barbara’s premiere black box theater, which was wrangled into existence by the Santa Barbara City Council and County Arts Commission in 1990 as part of a deal with the original builders of the Paseo Nuevo mall. Yes, they could have those two prime blocks of Santa Barbara retail real estate, but they had to give back to the arts with an art museum (now the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara) and a theater. Through the mall’s many owners – and despite each owner’s attempts to skirt funding according to one of Center Stage’s founders Tom Hinshaw – the Center Stage Theater has remained, providing a needed space for local arts.

Rich Hoag, shown performing as Will Rodgers, will be the master of ceremonies for the Saturday performance at Center Stage Theater. David Bazemore photo

Rich Hoag, shown performing as Will Rodgers, will be the master of ceremonies for the Saturday performance at Center Stage Theater.
David Bazemore photo

“More than the Granada, the Lobero, the New Vic . . . Center Stage is where the artists of this community can share their art,” says one of Center Stage founders Rod Lathim. “It is designed to support locals, some who may be a bit green, who need their hands held a bit, and to be affordable.”

It’s not just the actors that call Center Stage home, but the playwrights who were able to gets their words performed, the companies that launched themselves here, and the ability to get more dance seen. It’s been the hub of challenging, often fantastic work.

“Twenty-five years makes me feel really old,” Mr. Lathim, who currently runs Marjorie Luke Theatre, continues. At the time Center Stage Theater was in the planning stages, he was running Access Theatre and going on tour. He brought that troupe to Center Stage for its first show, “The Boys Next Door,” with an equity cast including Anthony Edwards, Dirk Blocker and Karyl Lynn Burns (who went on to start the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura). The play went on to win Dramalogue Awards.

“It was an exciting time,” Mr. Lathim recalls. “The good was that we were able to open Center Stage Theater. The bad was . . . we were able to open Center Stage Theater! When you open a new space there’s a lot of bugs to work out. Honestly, the bugs didn’t show. I learned a lot doing Center Stage. It’s very cool that it has thrived and survived.”

Tom Hinshaw had just moved to Santa Barbara to practice law and pursue acting on the side and soon fell into the Center Stage crowd.

“I was asked to be on the board because every board needs a lawyer,” he laughs. “The board was a group of people who wanted to produce things . . . and me.”

“The current owners get it,” Mr. Hinshaw says. “But many past owners were mad they had bought a mall and had to help subsidize a theater.” But those were the conditions set up, spearheaded by the group of Rod Lathim, John Kelly, Eric Larson, Beth Burleson and Mr. Hinshaw, with allies in Harriet Miller (then a council member) and Patrick Davis of the County Arts Commission.

Mr. Hinshaw himself, through Genesis West and other companies, has had a pretty good acting life through Center Stage, as well.

“Center Stage set out what it was set out to do and it has just continued to grow,” Eric Larson says. “But what’s important is who uses it. There’s a little more dance, but there’s a little more of everything. It’s booked much more now.”

“The proof is on its calendar,” says Mr. Lathim. “People fight to get on that calendar. Sometimes you have to book a year ahead. It’s a good problem to have, and it shows that it serves a need in this community.”

Looking ahead to another 25 years, Mr. Lathim’s wish list includes solving a problem that all productions have encountered: the theater’s backstage area is shared by Paseo Nuevo’s janitorial staff, which can make things crowded, noisy and uncomfortable.

“I’d love to see them maintain the best lighting and sound possible,” Mr. Lathim says. “But I think they’re doing everything they need to do to make it what it is, and what it is is what it needs to be. They are a machine and they produce a lot of art.”

Center Stage Theater’s 25th Anniversary Celebration
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Center Stage Theater, Paseo Nuevo
Cost: $50
Information: (805) 963-0408, www.centerstagetheater.com

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