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Arts Beat: A look behind the scenes at PCPA

Carol Tangeman/KCBX
The set of the play "Arcadia."

In the Central Coast city of Santa Maria, there is a community college-based conservatory that teaches students everything they need to pursue a professional career in theater. For decades, the Pacific Conservatory Theatre has offered a two-year vocational program, and alumni include stars like Robin Williams and Kathy Bates.

Carol Tangeman recently visited PCPA while the actors were rehearsing for the production of “Arcadia.”

“The actors are the last thing to show up before the audience,” said conservatory director Roger De Laurier. “The design process started six months prior. Everything that’s on the stage: the costumes, the way the lighting and sound cues work...we work a long time getting that part of a play ready.”

Pacific Conservatory Theater, known as PCPA, has been training performers and technicians since 1964 through Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. It’s a year-round professional theatre company, and as a conservatory, artistic and technical students spend eight to ten hours a day learning from the resident and guest professionals.

On any given day at the conservatory, crews in the various shops work on a number of different productions. Some plays won’t hit the stage for another six months or longer.

Assistant props director Erin Finnegan takes authenticity seriously. For instance, a newspaper from the year 1809 which is onstage in the production of “Arcadia.”

“It's a paper from the actual day, down to the headline, down to the color the newsprint would have been,” Finnegan said. “Would it have photos yet? Would the type be straight? Even if you can’t read the text, we can, and you feel that from us. You feel the energy from our props and that’s why it matters.”

PCPA’s costume shop has a room full of sewing machines, and another room for wigs and crafts.

“I run this whole room,” Eddie Barrows, costume designer and crafts room supervisor said. “If we have hats, we make hats. Tia does the wigs.”

He’s working on costumes for a future production of Peter Pan. Each drawing on the table shows a single costumed figure.

“Peter Pan is a great fantasy. I get to do pirates, brave girls, lost boys and Edwardian clothing,” Barrows said. “All these bodies have clothes on them. But earlier this morning, these bodies were naked, So I do everything in pencil, and then I paint all the flesh, and then I start painting the costumes, and adding the detail, then I ink them. And then I sign and finish them.”, Barrows says.

This is long before audience members see the end result—clothes on an actor on stage.

“When you have 65 to 80 drawings to do it takes a long time. And if there are 65 to 80 drawings there are 120 or 140 on the floor,” said Barrows.

In the main theater, the lighting crew works with master electrician Tim Thistleton.

“It all starts with a concept meeting with four or five designers and the director sitting in a room, and we talk about themes of the play,” Thistleton said. “Myself, the scene designer, the sound designer, the costume designer... We go off into our own realms and we pull out these pieces of research that are all going to strike these specific themes, but in our own specific ways given our different mediums. Then we work on that cohesive collaboration on stage.”

Since the day of Tangeman’s visit to PCPA, the show “Arcadia” has finished its initial run at the Marion Theater in Santa Maria. The whole production is being moved; getting ready for opening night August 30 at Solvang’s outdoor Festival Theater.

And while the audience enjoys “Arcadia” in Solvang, those who work behind the scenes in the PCPA shops are already well into future productions.

The KCBX News Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.

Carol started as a newsroom volunteer at KCBX in the summer of 2017, inspired by her daughter's internship with KCBX News. She joined the KCBX staff in January, 2018. Carol started her radio career at Cal Poly’s KCPR, then moved on to become the director of programming and a morning host at KKUS (US98). Her voice was heard on advertisements and on KSBY TV for many years as well.