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Stage Magic

The Santa Paula Theater Center celebrates 100 years of comedy, drama and culture.

By Emily Dodi

Photo by Cecelia Ortiz

CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION: The Santa Paula Theater Center paid tribute to its 100 years of theater, culture and history with a community “birthday party” in September.

“One should never give away all one’s secrets.” 

Cathy Metelak, president of the Santa Paula Theater Center’s Board of Trustees, is giving a behind-the-scenes tour and she’s hesitant to reveal too much lest the theater lose some of its magic. Yet she graciously opens door after door, revealing rooms filled with the stuff of fantasy. Costumes evoking every era. Baubles and wigs that help actors transform themselves into anyone they wish. Technical equipment that conjures any light or sound. Most everything in the building serves multiple purposes. “Who uses anything for just one thing?” Metelak asks. Prop furniture doubles as seating in the Pub, where audiences mingle before a show and during intermission. The Pioneer Room serves as boardroom and storage space for more props. The kitchen is where costumes are laundered, meals are shared and a fake fridge stands next to a real one. (Careful where you put your yogurt.) There’s even a caretaker’s apartment. There are no idle spaces. Every inch of the theater plays a role.

The land where the theater stands was once home to the Star Film Stock Company, a silent-film studio run by French filmmaker Gaston Méliès, whose brother, Georges, directed some of the earliest science fiction films. In 1916, Alice Stowell McKevett, one of the founders of the Santa Paula Ebell Club (a women’s cultural club), bought the property. The McKevett Corporation hired the architecture firm of Hunt and Burns to build the Ebell Clubhouse, now a historic landmark and considered to be an outstanding example of the Shingle Craftsman style. In September 1917, the Ebell Clubhouse opened and hosted dances, cotillion classes, high teas and other cultural events. For the next 70 years or so, the Ebell Club rented the building from the McKevett Corporation for the bargain price of $1 per year.

By the 1980s, the Ebell Club had fallen out of fashion — and the clubhouse was poised for its second act. Dana Elcar and William Lucking, two veteran stage and film actors, had an idea. The men had been looking for a permanent home for their fledgling theater group, which they were running out of the basement of the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Paula. On Dec. 31, 1987, the Ebell Clubhouse became SPTC’s new home. It was kismet. The clubhouse’s original stage, where big bands had played, became SPTC’s stage. The balcony, where Ebell Club members mingled, was turned into the technical booth. Curtains were hung, some areas were gently repurposed, and before long, SPTC presented its first production: Major Barbara. The show was a hit.

This year, the SPTC is shining a spotlight on the 100th anniversary of the Ebell Clubhouse. It held a centennial birthday party and rededication ceremony, and throughout the year it has been celebrating the building’s history in its literature and pre-show announcements. It has also loaned out artifacts that are on display at the California Oil Museum down the road. 

The past, present and future coexist beautifully at SPTC, in the bricks and mortar of the building as well as in SPTC’s artistic vision. “We try to balance interesting, challenging and modern [works] with classics,” explains Leslie Nichols, SPTC’s primary producer. A typical season will include dark fare such as The Birds by Conor McPherson, grown-up comedies akin to Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles and crowd favorites like Calendar Girls. “There’s a lot of musical theater in Ventura County so there is room for Off-Broadway-type of plays in Santa Paula,” Nichols says. “Sometimes a play surprises our audience and gives them something to think about.” One such play was Becky’s New Car by Steven Dietz. Directed by Jessi Mae Stevenson and starring Cynthia Killion, the play is about a woman facing a crossroads. Nichols says, quoting one of her favorite lines from the play, “When a woman says she wants a new car, what she really wants is a new life. It makes us think: ‘Is this the life I really want?’ The play really resonates with people.” 

Another recent production was Kimberly Akimbo by David Lindsay-Abaire. The play is about a 16-year-old girl with a premature aging disease who falls in love with a teenage boy. Kimberly was played by Nancy Solomons, a mature actress. “That was challenging for some audience members,” says Nichols. And yet, she adds, “Audiences are becoming more sophisticated. They mirror society. In the beginning we produced mostly classics from the 1940s and 1950s like The Skin of Our Teeth. But as time has gone on, audiences have come along. They take risks with us. There are things to learn from people not like us. Theater is culture’s way of speaking.”

For plays that might seem especially edgy or that are still works in progress, there is Backstage at SPTC, a black-box theater located behind the main stage. Plays like Harrogate House or Two Little Indians ’Cause the Other Eight Died by Kathleen Bosworth (which opens Oct. 6) allow writers, directors and actors to stretch the limits of their craft, while offering audiences a chance to see exciting new theater. Backstage at SPTC is also home to the annual Playzapalooza! one-acts and First Sundays. On alternating first Sundays of the month, Backstage hosts Full Disclosure, a Moth-like presentation of true stories following a theme, and Ventura Writers’ Block, staged reading of one-acts written by its members. 

As Nichols says, “There’s always something happening at Santa Paula Theater Center.” Concerts are held on the main stage and acting workshops are led by award-winning instructor Taylor Kasch (formerly of Flying H) on the Backstage. One of SPTC’s most popular happenings is Ghost Walk. Every year around Halloween, Ghost Walk takes place in a different Santa Paula location. This year’s locale is the old Ford Dealership and the theme, set in the 1950s, revolves around cars. Some of the “ghosts” include used-car salesman Earl Cheetah. “Earl is down on his luck when he meets femme fatale Della Grey and things quickly fall apart,” explains Ghost Walk lead, Elixeo Flores. “Guests [can] also attend a ghostly senior prom with Tommy and Sally. Creepy crooner Mad Manfred and his Moon Beams are the featured performers.” 

Are there any ghosts in the historic Ebell Clubhouse? Andrea Robles, SPTC’s former caretaker, is often asked that question. “The building is too full of love and excitement for any ghost to call it home,” she says. Cathy Metelak adds, “There are no ghosts, but some of us have been terrorized by the occasional hat on a costume rack.” There might not be any actual ghosts at SPTC, but there is real magic. The secret is out.

Santa Paula Theater Center
125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula
805.525.4645
www.santapaulatheatercenter.org

POWER PLAYERS: Actress Cynthia Killion (left) and Primary Producer Leslie Nichols help make the magic happen at the playhouse, bringing a mix of musicals, comedies and edgier works to the stage.

MERRY MESS: There’s no end to the theatrical hijinks that are made possible with the props and equipment available backstage.

10-01-2017

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