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.
Writer/director Rod Lathim first premiered his new play as a one-act in 2012 as part of Dramatic Women’s evening of shorts. But, like the title suggests, “Unfinished Business” wasn’t done, not for the author.
“It was the first peek into that world, and I thought the last,” Mr. Lathim says with a laugh. “I thought it would see the light of day briefly and then move on. But this play really caught me off guard and continues to a year later.”
As the year closes, the biggest change in theater in Santa Barbara is physical, as the back of Victoria Hall remains open and exposed to the elements while major remodeling carries on. By fall, the Ensemble Theater Company will take the big leap from the tiny Alhecama Theatre on Santa Barbara Street and move into these bigger digs. Meanwhile, 2012 featured the unveiling of the remodeled Garvin Theater with its lavish production of “Avenue Q” followed by “August: Osage County,” while UCSB also premiered a refurbished Hatlen Theater.
The Ensemble had a good year with the hilarious “The 39 Steps,” the bleak “Creditors,” “Black Pearl Sings!” “Crime and Punishment” and “Bell, Book and Candle.” Carpinteria’s Plaza Theater proved to be a place for all sorts of events, from one-man shows to their lavish community productions of “Appointment with Death” and “A Christmas Carol.”
Do we take the Center Stage Theater for granted? Board member Laurel Lyle put forth this question on Saturday night at the end of a short but very much appreciated celebration of 20 years of community theater. The black box at the top of the tiled stairs above the California Pizza Kitchen has been this reviewer’s destination several times a year, and to imagine Santa Barbara without it…well, it would be a pretty bleak existence for community arts. The evening — a reception, a comedic performance and a post-show champagne toast — was an affectionate tribute to a space that has been an essential part of the city’s downtown arts scene.
It could have been a formal affair, an evening that celebrated longevity and took it as a sign of cultural importance with a capital C.I. But this is Center Stage, and that means creativity comes first, stuffiness dead last. It says something when the actor in the closest thing approaching a business suit spends his moment in the performance doing a voice over.
Was it really 20 years ago that Center Stage Theater opened its doors in the second-story area of Paseo Nuevo? Even Rod Lathim, one of the theater’s founders, finds the length of time hard to believe.
“Teri (Ball, executive director) called me to tell me, and I said, ‘No, that can’t be right. It must be 15.'”
But indeed, it’s true. To celebrate Santa Barbara’s longest running black box theater, the Center Stage Theater is holding a blowout anniversary party on Saturday, with a specially written and performed journey back through its history, along with a celebratory champagne toast and other surprises.