With its clapboard homes and picturesque Main Street, Santa Paula evokes images of the quintessential Midwestern town, where tables wear gingham skirts, and apple pies cool undisturbed on kitchen windowsills.
But this inland community of 23,000 is also home to a polished and professional theater--one that would be as appropriate off Broadway as off Main Street in Santa Paula.
"The people who live in small towns, they read great books, they deal with problems. They also want to see meaningful theater about real things," said William Lucking, one half of the artistic force that powers the Santa Paula Theater Center.
It was with this vision in mind that Lucking and Dana Elcar, two seasoned actors and directors, started a Monday night acting workshop in a Santa Paula church basement three years ago. The plan, as they recall it, was to test the city's taste for theater and lay the groundwork for a local drama center that would create "great theater with high professional standards."
That quest has proved anything but quixotic. For three years now, the Santa Paula Theater Center has staged plays that shimmer with intelligence and wit, professional shows of the caliber that win accolades from people not necessarily schooled in the fine points of drama as well as from guest directors of national renown.
"The enthusiasm and the artistic vision is high. The acting is good," said New York director Gerald Hiken. "My eyes and ears enjoyed what I saw there far more than what I'm used to seeing in many metropolitan centers of the world," he added. Hiken last fall directed the Santa Paula Theater production of the Harold Pinter play "Hothouse."
Steering away from light musicals and bedroom farces, the fare of many small-town companies, Elcar and Lucking instead concentrate on contemporary playwrights such as Pinter, Edward Albee and Beth Henley. Even when it performs works of such frequently staged playwrights as Thornton Wilder, the theater avoids chestnuts like "Our Town" in favor of his lesser-known "Childhood."
"We can do complicated, interesting contemporary theater, and people who are retired or not, young or old will show up. . . . That's what gives us strength and courage to go on," Elcar said.
Their courage is about to receive a big boost. Today, the Santa Paula Theater Center will take possession of the Ebell Club building on Main and 7th streets, thanks to a gift from the Teague-McKevett Corp* via the Santa Paula Community Foundation.
Built in 1917 when women of leisure met regularly to discuss temperance, suffrage and the arts, the two-story Craftsman-style building is a county historic landmark with hardwood floors, a spacious auditorium and stage, and room after cavernous room on both levels.
Then there's the leafy park that adjoins the gabled building and that one day might serve as an outdoor stage, much like the one at the Old Globe in San Diego. In the center of the little grass square stand trees planted soon after World War I. Lucking imagines that they might one day hang with colored lights to brighten performances.
Terms of the gift call for the Santa Paula Ebell Club, which has dwindled from 300 members to 130, most of them elderly women, to continue their monthly activities there. Lucking says there is plenty of room for both groups.
Plans to renovate the 21,000-square-foot space are already under way. The Theater Center has raised about $35,000 of a projected $85,000 earmarked for a new sound system and stage curtains, an improved lighting system, 125 seats, dressing rooms and administrative offices.
Most of the theater center's support is from local corporate and individual donors, although this year it also received a grant from the California Arts Council and one from the County Arts Commission to host a playwriting competition and to stage the best entry. About 35 entries have been submitted.
The new space will be three times as large as the group's former digs, the 47-seat Basement Theater at the Presbyterian Church of Santa Paula on Davis Street. It also presents several challenges.
Lucking and Elcar are shooting to double the number of season-ticket subscribers, now 350. They need to attract more volunteers willing to learn everything from acting to costuming to stage management and set designing.
"It wouldn't break our heart if we had a writer working out of here" in addition, says Lucking as he stands in front of the majestic old wood-shingled building.
By the time the theater opens in March with George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara," the artistic directors hope their ambitious plans will be well under way.
Meanwhile, they plan to continue the Monday night acting workshops and have invited a children's theater and workshop, The Hundred Hats, to establish residency at the Ebell Club location.
For Lucking and Elcar, the theater is a testament to their belief that theater begins at home, and that metropolitan areas are not the sole fonts of creativity.