A California theater sprouts among the beets and broccoli
Santa Maria, Calif. — Nestled in the heart of California's Santa Maria Valley, a theatrical pehnomenon has blossomed in agricultural land that also nourishes row-crops of broccoli and beets.
The Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, a 3 1/2-hours drive north of Los Angeles on highway 101, is offering seven productions this summer, ranging in style from Shakespeare to Shaw, from Chekhov to Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In the 15 years of its existence, PCPA has expanded from its production center in Santa Maria to include nearby Solvang, replica of a Danish village on American soil. So with two theatres, the same company has emerged from summer repertory to a full-year operation with a budget of $500,000.
Originator of this burgeoning activity, wich draws some of its audience from as far away as the San Francisco Bay area, is Donovan Marley, Texas-born, New Mexico-raised, dreamer of professional theatrer in the heart of the hinterland. There are 26 all-around professionals, who, in the summer, expand to a total staff of about 50 -- professional choreographers, directors, designers, and administrators. (Fifteen of his actors are members of Actor's Equity, nine of whom have a 52-week contract, including vacations with pay."
Upon completing college at Eastern New Mexico University in Protales, N.M. (pop. 8,000), including a stint in the Army, Marley decided he wanted two important things in life: a chance to do theater of the highest quality -- but to do so in a setting away from large cities, where he could enjoy solitude. In Santa Maria, he can find escape from pressures by driving a short distance in three different directions, and, if he owned a boat, west to the Pacific Ocean.
Marley began humbly in Santa Maria High School where, as drama coach, he directed, designed, and painted scenery, supervised lighting and makeup. This gave him the all-around theatrical experience for his later professional work. The high standard of hs high-school productions attracted the attention of Alan Hancock College nearby, and he was soon tapped to head its Drama Department.
With Santa Maria possessing only an earthquake-condemned high school auditorium, a drive was undertaken to pass a bond issue for the building of a permanent college theater. After the failures of two bond issues, one finally succeeded, so the construction of the future home of PCPA was assured.
Santa Maria and its environs take in 60,000 people -- and a grand total of 60 ,000 people attend his theater annually. Granted that many are from out of town , Marley is nevertheless aware that the theater is an important event hin the life of his community -- as important, he feels, as schools, churches, libraries -- and that is a huge responsibility.
Important to Marley is having artists work together over a longe period of time. In that way they can achieve a cohesive company style. To him, theater is not an individual artistic effort, but a collective acehievement. "One of the reasons that theaters sometimes don't catch on in communities," he says, "is due to the fact that when artists go into a new community they expect that community to invest in new community they expect that community to invest in them, but they fail to invest in the community."
In Santa Maria, his professionals buy homes there, have families, live there, and have the financial resources have families, live there, and have the financial resources with which to exert a commitment to the community. Some of his directors and actors have worked there for 12 years -- a rare situation in American theater.
To do a single production, then disband that group and assemble a new one for a new production, is to Marley the most nonproductive experience in American theater. That constantly entails starting all over each time, with the preparation period always ending up with questions such as "Who are you?" "Who am I?" "How do you work?" v.m hat do you think about the art from?" "Do I trust you enough to reveal myself enough in your presence to do my best work -- or to take risks that may result in being laughed at?" Certain PCPA actors have worked together in 35 to 40 productions, amounting to hundreds of performances together in the same cast. This common experience makes for great emsemble playing.
Two theaters operating simultaneously mean more personnel and financial support are needed, but this also means the PCPA impact on the overall community is doubled. This season, attendance is 13,000 seats ahead of the same date last year. Should that continue throughout the summer, it is possible that 20,000 more people will be seved than were anticipated.
PCPA feels a double responsibility -- bringing to its audiences the best artistic tradition of the theater, and offering contemporary playwrights an opportunity to have their works staged. "You don't know Shakespeare until you have seen Shakespeare in production," says Marley. This is equally valid of the Greek Theater, the Roman theater, medieval plays, or Restoration comedy. PCPA feels an obligation to explore that tradition. But Marley is equally aware that if there is no commitment to change the art, to keep it growing, there is always the danger that the company will become only a museum.
Marley is eager to have his artists produce and explore great works of the past, to discover what was said that is still vital to contemporary audiences, then to take those methods and apply them to the development of new plays.
He points out that the playwrights of the past wrote for a specific group of actors, performing in a specific theater, for a specific audience. He is skeptical of a play written by a frustrated novelist sitting in New York, mailing it to 150 theater producers around the country -- because no matter how talented an author may be, plays shouldn't produced that way. As home Swander, UCSB professor of Shakespeare, says, Plays are wrought, they are not written."
To "wrought" a play takes an entire company of artists together -- not a single playwright. Hence, he believes that the presence of writers in the company is essential to all their work. So the company maintains a resident composer and three playwrights: Larry Delinger, composer, and Laird Williamson, Bruce Sevy, and Randy Myler, playwrights.
Marley is proud of the fact that an audience of 5,000 trusts PCPA to come see anything it does. It doesn't mean they will all like it. They may even "hate" it. But they trust PCPA enough to come and see. Fifteen years were required to develop audience support to that extent. PCPA can now do things that would have closed down the entire program only 10 years ago.
Yet Marley admits there has to be a balance, too. He knows friends operating socially conscious theaters in Los Angeles and San Francisco confronting burning political questions of today but playing to empty houses. "They delude themselves into thinking they are doing real theater, because they are not compromising their beliefs -- mainly political. They feel they are being honest with themselves because they are saying exactly what they want to say. But when I go to their theaters, I find a group of people who all believe the same way, always saying the same thing -- in a closed circle.
"Now, you don't have theater if you are not communicating to an audience. Not until an audience adds it energy, do you have a play. So when actors are performing in an empty house, there is no theater."
A good portion of PCPA's publicity effort is not only bringing new people in, but telling audiences about itself -- about its artistic goals -- and how important the audience is in that goal, so that the theater moves together with the audience.
An example of communication with his subscription audience: Marley had planned to do a Sam Sheppard play which -- uncharacteristically of PCPA -- used San Francisco street language. He was aware that some of his audiences would not like it, so he wrote every subscriber to warn him that PCPA was going to do that play whose street language some might find offensive. He also elucidated the theater's reason for doing that Pulitzer-prize-winning play.
But subscribers had been given such a discount on their subscribers had been given such a discount on their subsribers rates that they would still get a bargain for their money, even if they did not attend that one production.
Letters came back thanking him for his candor, some indicating their disapproval, but understanding the reason for his decision. Before making any drastic artistic move, Marley feels it is highly important to prepare his audience. One time he failed to inform his audience -- with a highly innovative production of "Macbeth" done in a half-dance, half-chanted manner -- and he now regrets having missed his responsbility to keep what he calls his "trust bond."
So he maintains a trust bond with his audience; as well as another trust bond as producer/artistic director with the artists he has brought to the community. Occasionally these two trust bonds seem to work against each other. As an artist/producer with his performers he has a trust bond to experiment -- to try, to fail. But he also has a trust bond with his audience that it will be rewarded with plays having insight and joy, tears and pain. He is grateful that he has been as successful as he has in being able to balance these two.
PCPA draws its audiences from a wide area. The Solvang Theaterfest attracts 14 percent of its audience from Los Angeles, 14 percent from Solvang itself, 30 percent from nearby Santa Barbara, 19 percent from San Luis Obispo County (plus the northern part of Santa Barbara County), excluding the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara, while 5 percent coem from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay area.
The current PCPA season includes Shaw's You Never Can Tell," Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," Checkhov's "The Seagull," Arthur Miller's "The Death of a Salesman" With an all-black cast, Laird Williamson's original "The Journey," Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," and Harburg and Saidy's "Finian's Rainbow."
Critical response to last year's "Hamlet" include Clive Barnes's comment in the New York Post, "Donovan Marley's large company sets the highest standards for itself," as well as Lawrence Christon's report in the Los Angeles Times, "on the Solvang Theaterfest's spellbinding production of 'Hamlet.'"
Bernard Weiner noted in the San Francisco Chronicle that Laird Williamson "has uncorked a highly enjoyable version of Shakespeare's "As You Like It's for the summer season."
This year's season, which began in July, extends to Sept. 21, alternating in repertory so that a person spending five days in either city can view seven productions.