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Arts Beat: Black box theater survives on stories, for now

Courtesy of Center Stage
"Personal Stories: The Quarantine Edition" at the Center Stage Theater in Santa Barbara. .

Center Stage Theater in Santa Barbara was almost exclusively a rental venue before the pandemic. But since the shutdown, the theater has been pushed into producing its own shows, including a virtual series of story readings from local authors and performers.

When it became clear that audiences wouldn’t be coming back for some time, Center Stage Theater’s executive director immediately wrote a grant application to the Santa Barbara Foundation for a video production setup. This meant once performers could return, they’d have the ability to produce shows.

“I think that they are being wildly brave and innovative, and I think that that's what this moment calls for — is bravery and innovation — and so they are trying to do different things and also trying to do them really well,” said Tania Israel, a professor and author who performed in Center Stage’s "Personal Stories" digital series.

Israel said she’s admired how Center Stage has been adapting to the new environment so quickly.

"Personal Stories" was one of Center Stage’s primary fundraisers before the pandemic too, but now it’s pay-per-view online. The performances are shorter and neater than a monologue but more structured than free-from stories like "The Moth."

Israel's performance started out about her hatred of spoilers, but quickly segued into a moving tale about her mother’s dementia.

“One of the last movies we saw together was ‘The Wife,’” Israel said in her performance. “I know this for sure because I can't bear to delete the voicemail where she announced the movie selection, where her voice is clear and upbeat, each word enunciated with precision.”

Another "Personal Stories" performer, Laurie Lindop, said stories are critically important right now — we can take lessons from the experiences of others and use them in our own lives.

“Maybe if we look to people that have gone through really hard times in the past, it gives us some comfort that we come through on the other side,” Lindop said.

Lindop’s story strikes a funny, but also topical tone. She hated learning history in school and from her father — until discovering that was only because all she’d ever learned about was the history of white men.

Performer Johnathan Young’s piece chronicles attending his high school reunion, and all the personal realizations that came along with it.

Young said one of the challenges of replicating the "Personal Stories" performances virtually is recreating the same black-box theater experience.

“Part of the beauty of the personal stories experience is how intimate the setting is and how personal the stories are,” Young said.

Still, Young said the theater’s production and direction created an intimacy that comes through a screen.

At this point, "Personal Stories" is Center Stage’s primary mode of income, along with donations. They’ve sold over 300 tickets to the videos, and raised over 7,000 dollars in donations.

The theater has had to drastically cut hours for one position and lay off its part-time box office and house managers. Executive director Teri Ball said the Paycheck Protection Program loans were critical to the company’s survival early on, but now their productions are all essentially fundraisers for the theater.

“We’re definitely looking at, probably for the rest of the year, we’ll probably produce more things than we have in the past five years, ten years,” Ball said.

At the moment, the company is working on a few plays for socially-distanced production. And planning for three separate dance productions, performed without an audience. It’s also looking at scripts for productions staged entirely over Zoom.

Sean Flannelly is a journalist and student at University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He previously reported for KPFA Radio in Berkeley, California, and served as his student newspaper's sole podcast editor. Outside of the newsroom, he can be found hiking, climbing and camping his way around California.
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