Peter Hunt wants to present "plays that people may have heard about but haven't seen." He also wants to do "epic theater."
Those are the principles behind his picks for the first season of Santa Barbara's Lobero Stage Company--the Southland's newest major-league theater company.
Not all the plays selected by artistic director Hunt and announced last week fit both of his criteria, but the season as a whole reflects his goals. It includes Alberto Casella's "Death Takes a Holiday" (March 22-April 6), Bertolt Brecht's "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" (April 19-May 4), Noel Coward's "Fallen Angels" (May 10-25) and Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac" (June 7-22).
Except for the ubiquitous "Cyrano," the plays are indeed seldom produced--though the titles are somewhat familiar. "I like to get out my library card, find these pieces, dust them off and see if they still fly," Hunt said. "There should be that sense of history in the theater that there is with opera, hopefully with a bigger audience--but one that's just as devoted." Hunt said these are the kind of plays that the Pasadena Playhouse did when he began his career as an 8-year-old actor onstage there.
Funny that he should mention the Pasadena Playhouse. The last high-profile presenter of a season of professional theater at the 680-seat Lobero Theatre, home of Hunt's new company, was the Theatre Corp. of America, whose home base was the Pasadena Playhouse. Theatre Corp. had edged out a bid by Hunt, who was then with the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival, for the chance to program the Lobero.
Theatre Corp. included the Lobero on a circuit of venues that presented Pasadena Playhouse-originated productions in 1992-94. The productions didn't do well at the Santa Barbara box office, contributing to Theatre Corp.'s eventual bankruptcy.
Asked how Lobero Stage Company might succeed where Theatre Corp. failed, Hunt replied, "I don't want to cast stones. We live in a very fragile glass house." He praised Theatre Corp. for bringing the Pasadena Playhouse back to life.
However, he also noted that most of Theatre Corp.'s productions were new plays in contrast to his--and the stars weren't as known as the ones he hopes to use. He said it was probably difficult to cast well-known actors in a production that would take the time to tour to several Southland venues.
His own productions are scheduled for only 19 performances each. And while he eventually hopes to produce new plays too, they would be at a smaller and yet-to-be-chosen second venue.
Hunt has yet to sign any stars, but he professed to be unconcerned about this. Certainly his connections as a TV director (he spoke by phone from the set of "Touched by an Angel" in Salt Lake City) and as the recent artistic director of what he called the "star-driven" Williamstown festival will help cast his shows.
Still, he acknowledged that he chose "Death Takes a Holiday," "Fallen Angels" and "Cyrano" because of interest from stars who have since declined the roles because of more lucrative screen offers. He wouldn't name names.
Because the Lobero's first season is budgeted for $1.38 million, of which $835,000 is expected to come from the box office (assuming the projected 70% of capacity is filled), "a huge star would be a great insurance policy," Hunt noted. "But the naive part of me says, 'If we really do a great show, they will come' "--regardless of star presence.
For "Arturo Ui"--the one production that Hunt said wasn't picked with a star in mind--Hunt said he would "love" for Daniel Davis, who played the title role in a 1988 staging at Williamstown, to do it again. But he thinks Davis' commitment to the sitcom "The Nanny" will stand in the way.
'Arturo Ui," which Hunt said would probably have a cast of about 50 or 60, is an example of what he means by "epic" theater (only 13 or 15 of the actors will be on Actors' Equity contracts; otherwise expenses would be prohibitive). "Cyrano" is another. Although the "Death Takes a Holiday" cast will be much smaller, he said its design will still suggest "epic."
Santa Barbara has many companies doing worthy productions on a smaller scale, Hunt said--and the local civic light opera does big musicals. Hunt wants to demonstrate that "it doesn't have to be a musical to be big." He wanted to mark this territory with the huge "Cyrano" as his first show--but commitments of the Lobero stage to other performing groups before his season opens wouldn't allow enough time to open with something that complicated, he said.
Only "Fallen Angels" won't meet his "epic" description--but, he said, "you always have to have a divertissement." Also, he said "Fallen Angels" will provide women's star roles, in contrast to the other three plays.
Hunt staged "Arturo Ui" three times at Williamstown and "Death" (with Christopher Reeve) once. Plans for "Fallen Angels" and "Cyrano" were underway at Williamstown but never materialized during his tenure there.
Hunt praised Santa Barbara for "coming out in full force" to support fund-raising. Of 11 major donors so far, all but two are from Santa Barbara (the two non-locals were donors to the Hunt administration at Williamstown). So far, more than $330,000 has been raised in the attempt to fill the $547,000 gap between the projected budget and ticket sales.
Still, Hunt realizes it's a hefty challenge to sell $835,000 worth of tickets. "It's my responsibility," he said, "to do pieces of such innate theatricality that people say, 'I'd rather see this than watch TV or buy a book or sit on the beach."