Eric Lehman thinks ahead, well ahead. When he was in his mid-20s he wanted to “keep something going and age with it.”
That something was Summer Stock, the Santa Barbara-based theater summer camp for schoolchildren that has been introducing young kids, from 6 years old and up, to the thrill of stepping onstage. Lehman and his wife Maureen have been at it long enough that their grandkids will be joining the cast for this summer’s first performance “The Cosmic Cools,” featuring kids aged 7 to 11, showing Friday at Center Stage Theater. That’s followed by “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” for 12 to 15 year olds, opening Saturday.
“The Cosmic Cools” comes from the pen of Lehman, and marks the third time he’s put on this story of superheroes who arrive to sort out a town’s odd set of problems. The three vignettes allow a large group of kids to play all sorts of roles. The costumes are fun and colorful, and the dialog is comic-book style, with broad declarations, in all caps VERY IMPORTANT. “It’s corny on purpose,” Lehman says.
“The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” is based on the C.S. Lewis classic, pared down and simplified, with alternating cast allowing the actors to all get a crack at playing main characters.
Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Some years are like the one when, Lehman says, nobody wanted to play Cinderella and everybody wanted to play a mouse. The younger the child, the less chance fame is on her mind.
“In the older group, everybody wants to be a star,” Lehman says. “In the younger group, for the girls for instance, they just want to be pretty.”
Marco Andrade, director of “Lion/Witch/Wardrobe” received twice as many kids for the production as last year. “Our motto is everybody gets a part,” he says. “There are no auditions. If you sign up you get in. You will be singing, dancing, acting, all of that.”
Lehman mentions another motto: “We like everybody to have work.” That means no sitting around for the five hours a day, five days a week (the younger kids get four) that the kids put in. Lehman has a memory of his own experience as a student in high school theater. “I was in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a guard,” he says. “And I remember my direction was just ‘Don’t look at Romeo.’ ” That sort of minor-character wasteland made him set out to create a theater camp that would spread the equality, with no downtime.
“I think the short amount of time adds to the intensity,” Andrade says about the month-long schedule, especially for the older student. “If they have too much time, kids this age will take too much time. The deadline makes them step up.”
During the year, the Lehmans work at Open Alternative and Santa Barbara Middle School, as does Andrade. Compacting their theater classes down to four weeks is exhausting, but rewarding, Lehman says.
“It answers a need in young people,” he says. “It’s a really enjoyable process. In our culture, theater is not recognized as a need. It’s seen more as an extra. But in other cultures it’s important, this storytelling and acting out.”
SUMMER STOCK presents:
‘THE COSMIC COOLS’
‘THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE’
When: 2 p.m. (Cast 1) and 7:30 p.m. (Cast 2) Saturday and Sunday
Where: Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo (upstairs)
Cost: $12 adults; $10 children 12 and under
Information: (805) 963-0408 or www.centerstagetheater.org