A Black Box to Hold Them All – Center Stage Theater celebrates two decades of community theater

 In this file photo from March 25, 1990, the framework and scaffolding of the future Center Stage Theater can be seen in the upper left of the frame. Nine hundred productions and 20 years later, the building has proved its worth and durability. Rafael Maldonado/News-Press File

In this file photo from March 25, 1990, the framework and scaffolding of the future Center Stage Theater can be seen in the upper left of the frame. Nine hundred productions and 20 years later, the building has proved its worth and durability.
Rafael Maldonado/News-Press File

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.

At top, 'BLUR HEART,' GENESIS WEST, 2005. Above, 'BIRD'S EYE VIEW,' LIT MOON WORLD THEATRE FEST, 2004 David Bazemore Photos
David Bazemore Photos
 At top, 'MUD,' GENESIS WEST, CIRCA 2000. ABove, 'SUMMERDANCE,' TAMAGO & CO., 2005

The Center Stage has always been a place of anxious wonder, because it truly is one of the only theater spaces that anybody can rent. Going to see a show here is a roll of the dice; sometimes performances are in good faith but fall flat. Sometimes you go to see your friend, a colleague or a loved one and it’s just amazing to see them up there, no matter the level of talent. Sometimes there’s an evening of pure genius. But all share the thrill of homemade, local theater, made for and by the community.

There was a dearth of local spaces for performance back in the late 1980s in Santa Barbara. Theater spaces boasted their own companies, something that was of no use if you were an independent producer.

“You could either rent the Lobero or your friend’s backyard,” Lathim says.

When Reininga Corporation came to the city with its plans for the Paseo Nuevo mall, the city insisted it contain an art gallery and a theater. One could read some corporate reluctance from the fact that both art spaces are on the second floor, away from the retail section. But it doesn’t matter, because the corporation gave the OK, and the city then set about looking for a company that would fill it. When no single company stepped in to take the offer, a group of aficionados — Access Theater Director Lathim, World Music & Jazz Society Executive Director Eric Larson, Playwrights Theatre President John Kelly and Dance Alliance Executive Director Beth Burleson — ventured the idea that the theater would be run by everybody. Their allies were Patrick Davis from the County Arts Commission and former mayor Harriet Miller, who was a council member at the time.

“It was an interesting dance,” Lathim says of working between the city and Reininga. He recalls the mall owners took a look at Center Stage’s requirements of chairs, risers, lights and sound and asked why they needed all those things. Reininga, it seems, thought the space itself was enough.

“Our vision of this theater is somebody on a stool reading Mark Twain,” the corporation rep said, “and storytelling for the kids.”

Still, the city insisted that the mall owners also kick in a stipend for annual operations, to the tune of $45,000, a lot of investment in 1990, that has remained unchanged over the years.

The first production was the Lathim-produced “The Boys Next Door,” starring Anthony Edwards of “ER” fame. It went on to win three Drama-Logue awards, competing with all of Los Angeles theater. Over 900 productions later, Center Stage continues to thrive.

Companies like Genesis West, Lit Moon, Dance Alliance and Dramatic Women call it home. Other companies like Woven, DIJO, Summerdance and many more have started to or already moved here.

Lathim has helped script the anniversary night’s performance, which attempts to sum up 20 years and make it more than just a show of greatest hits. He settled on a parody of award shows, here called the Thespies.

“I want to do the kind of awards that you would have liked to see but never knew you could,” Lathim says.

The show also includes four different songs that deal with the history of the theater, the diversity of the shows and a day in the life of Brad Spaulding, technical director. Two past managers will also sing a pithy song about the sometimes-tempestuous relationship between managers and directors, all tongue-in-cheek, of course.

The most celebratory thing about these 20 years, Larson says, is that Center Stage Theater hasn’t changed. Everybody hit the ground running in 1990, and they’ve never flagged.

“What I’m personally most proud of is that the venue has enabled production companies to form and work that would not have existed otherwise,” he says. “I know that for a fact, because they’ve told me so.”

Scene commissioned Center Stage Executive Director Teri Ball to give us a glimpse of what’s behind the scenes and numbers at the Paseo Nuevo community arts hub, and boy did she deliver…

20 Interesting Facts About Center Stage Theater, courtesy of Teri Ball:

1. Center Stage Theater came into existence through an innovative arts-business-government collaboration. It took a great deal of hard work and support to bring it to life and build it into the wonderful community treasure it has become. Special thanks go to Harriet Miller and everyone else who led this charge.

2. Anthony Edwards (of “Top Gun” and “ER” fame) appeared in the inaugural production, which was Access Theater’s production of “The Boys Next Door, which opened Aug. 17, 1990.

3. Since 1990, Center Stage has housed more than 900 shows by more than 450 different production companies.

4. Center Stage has been the birth place (or early home) for some of Santa Barbara’s best-loved companies: Genesis West, Lit Moon, Speaking of Stories, Dramatic Women, Santa Barbara Youth Theater, Santa Barbara Theater and so many more.

5. Lit Moon has produced the most shows at Center Stage with 52 productions. Since 1992, they have produced something every year except 1997 and 2005.

6. Other frequent renters include: Santa Barbara Dance Alliance (32 shows); Speaking of Stories (26 shows); Access Theater (20 shows); Dramatic Women (19 shows), Santa Barbara Jazz Dance (Now Santa Barbara Dance Arts, 17 shows); Summerdance (14 shows); Genesis West (14 shows), Headless Household (13 shows); and Santa Barbara Shakespeare Festival (11 shows) .

7. Drama Dogs has changed its name most, having before operated under the name Slightly Askew Players, and before that AKA Theater. Collectively they have done a total of 20 shows through the years

8. In 2006, with support from the Santa Barbara Foundation and many community members, Center Stage raised $40,000 to purchase new (and wonderfully more comfortable) seats for the theater.

9. Eric Larson has one of the longest runs of active involvement in the theater. He was part of the group that originally brought the theater to life, served on the Board of Diectors back in 1990, and to this day volunteers his time to maintain the theater’s Web site.

10. Brad Spaulding, the theater’s current Technical Director, was 9 when the theater opened.

11. Jordana Lawrence has worked at Center Stage the longest, having served as House Manager for 12 years.

12. Each year, 35 to 40 different groups rent Center Stage to present everything from dance to theater to music to film, with participants as young as 4 and as old as . . . (well, we won’t talk about that).

13. In 20 years and 900 productions there has been surprisingly little repetition of shows. We have had three different productions of “Annie,” “Dracula,” “Peter Pan,” “Hamlet” and “True West.” No other shows have been done more than twice.

14. Through the years we have had numerous birthday parties, one wedding, one bachelor party and a burlesque show, but no one seems to remember anything about the bachelor party or the burlesque show.

15. For one show we had to tell the teen actors to stop throwing condom water balloons over the balcony into the mall.

16. In the last year, 31 different groups have presented 57 shows at the theater, and those performances were attended by 13,641 people.

17. Of the 31 groups that rented Center Stage in the past year, eight were first-time producers.

18. Center Stage is a self-sustaining nonprofit organization, responsible for all of our own capital maintenance. Rental income covers approximately 2/3 of our annual expenses and donations from the community are raised to cover the rest.

19. On Saturday, we will celebrate our 20th Anniversary with a reception and original performance featuring appearances by more than 20 Center Stage veterans performing original songs, a dance number and generally poking fun at everyone and everything that has crossed our stage in the first 20 years.

20. Everyone at Center Stage Theater is deeply grateful to all of the performers, producers, current and past staff, board members, donors and audience members who have helped us reach this incredible milestone, and we look forward to our next 20 years supporting a new generation of artists.

Top Ten Tech Requests Heard In the Last 20 Years:

1. Can we hang someone upside from the grid so we can beat them and cover them with blood?

2. Is it OK if we hose people down backstage?

3. Do you know where we could find a cat that would enter and exit and cross stage on cue?

4. A special mention for anything involving glitter — also known as the herpes of the theater, because it never goes away. If you can’t use glitter, (technical direector) Brad (Spaulding) is also pretty fond of anything with white feathers.

5. We have a couple hours before the show starts — would it be OK if we paint the floor white one more time?

6. No, no, our actors need reality — we need to use real whiskey in that scene. (Runners-up include urinating onstage, cooking bacon backstage for the smell, and don’t even ask about the paprika.)

7. Do you know where I can get a boob gobo? (Much harder to find that the pot gobo…)

8. Do you mind if we use a car onstage? (First runner-up is the motorcycle onstage)

9. Just how many pounds of sand do you think we can get in here?

10. So we are going to bring in sod and lay a complete lawn onstage. No, I can’t image there would be any bugs in the grass.

When: 7 p.m. reception, 8 p.m. performance Saturday
Where: Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo (upstairs)
Cost: $50

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