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Walking the Walk

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Ask artistic director/associate dean R. Michael Gros what he wants for Santa Maria's Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, and he'll show you his whiteboard. It hangs immediately behind his desk, filled with miscellaneous reminders. Midway down the list of things to do, it says, "Tony."

"That doesn't mean coffee with my friend Tony," said Gros, who's now entering his third year at the helm of the 38-year old organization. Gros means he wants to start lobbying for PCPA to earn its regional theatre Tony Award. He's read the rules, he said, and PCPA qualifies as a theatre he believes has most certainly "contributed to the life of American theatre, or through whose work the American theatre has benefited."

When you look at the list of actors who have trained at or worked with PCPA, you realize he may be right. Mercedes Ruehl, Boyd Gaines, Kathy Bates, Robin Williams, Michael Winters, Laird Williamson, and Rent star Jim Poulos are alumni.

"You can't have a long career until you've started a career, and we are a place that does create that opportunity," said Gros.

The conservatory defines itself as a professional theatre company that teaches. For a lot of reasons, PCPA is in a category all its own. On the one hand, it's a professional theatre company of six to eight resident artists. As a company that houses resident performers, PCPA is one of the last remnants of a once thriving regional theatre movement.

"How many resident theatre companies are there left in California right now?" said Gros. "The Mark Taper Forum doesn't have one. The Geffen doesn't have one. South Coast Repertory used to have one. American Conservatory Theater had a hiatus for almost 10 years until last season, when they finally created a core of four actors. But we have six to eight full-time, year-round URTA contracts."

On the other hand, PCPA is a conservatory program with a vocational slant, nestled in a few unassuming buildings on the campus of Allan Hancock College. For students, PCPA provides a rigorous two-year associate's degree program, at a bargain price of $11 per unit for California residents. For resident artists PCPA offers a yearlong opportunity--usually longer--to teach while you act.

Back in the Spotlight

The organization has come a long way since its beginnings in 1964, when founder Donovan Marley began working with a group of 21 students in a makeshift theatre at the college. Now PCPA produces 10 full productions on a $2.7 million operating budget. With around 4,000 subscribers, it sells more than 80,000 tickets per year, producing the winter season at its two theatres in Santa Maria--the 448-seat thrust-stage Marian Theater, and the 185-seat black-box Severson Theater. During the summer, it produces at the Marian and at the 712-seat festival theatre in Solvang.

While PCPA may have needed to turn its focus inwards in the 1980s and '90s to stay afloat--thereby pulling away from the national theatre scene--staffers say PCPA seems to be slowly regaining a national profile.

"PCPA went through a real renaissance from 1964 until about 1980," said Judith A. Ryerson, the conservatory director of technical theatre. "The whole United States knew PCPA when we first started. Then I think there was kind of a disconnect, and frankly I think a lot of it had to do with California's economy. For survival's sake we needed to turn in and just work on keeping the lights on and producing plays. Particularly in the last five years, I've seen growth again. When we go to the national conferences, it seems more and more people know about us. It's a reconnecting with the national scene, which we're working on, and we need to keep that up."

Many give credit to former artistic director Jack Shouse for keeping PCPA afloat when many regional theatres were collapsing. Now, with Gros at the helm and a handful of ambitious staffers and resident artists continuing their commitments to excellent work, the company has made it a priority to re-engage with the national scene.

Surrounded by farmland as far as the eye can see, Santa Maria might be better known for its barbeque than for its theatre, but if the current team of passionate artists has anything to do about it, that may be changing.

Do as I Do

"PCPA began with the premise of learn by doing," said Gros. "In the early days the idea was that you learned while being in the productions." These days the school offers a much more formalized two-year curriculum based on the master teacher/apprentice model. While there's no guarantee students will be cast in one of the seasons' productions, some 80 percent are. The rest are given studio productions and projects.

"It's a very old way of training," said conservatory director Mark Booher. "The thing that distinguishes us is that we teach from experience into knowledge rather than from knowledge into experience, which is the more academic model. What students get here is an immersion process of being in the practice of making art, and the people they're learning from are really in that process themselves."

Said Gros, "Our artists have to be brave enough to talk honestly with their students the very next day, if they've been onstage with them the night before. They cannot say, 'Oh, last night the muse didn't arrive and the performance didn't go well.' They have to be able to break down why they felt they had a tough night onstage, or why they felt it went extraordinarily well. They have to be public about their process."

In terms of the acting instruction, Booher describes the approach as one of "informed eclecticism." Said Booher, "There really isn't a right way or a wrong way. There's a way that works and a way that doesn't." He explained that one of the school's advantages is its diverse staff of resident artists, who bring influences from all over the country.

Students at PCPA are a diverse bunch, as well, in terms of the experience they bring: They range from actors coming straight out of high school to actors who already have a B.F.A. and are looking for more focused training. Last year's graduating class ranged in age from 19 to 35.

There's no tracking system, so all students take all of the classes: acting, voice, speech and dialects, technical production, dance, history of world theatre, Shakespeare, and musical theatre ensemble.

"We want people to be working actors when they leave here, so we try--to the greatest degree possible--to resist letting them pigeonhole themselves," said Booher.

Sound great? "The program is not for the faint of heart," warned Booher. Classes are held Tuesday through Sunday, all day and well into the night. A typical day could mean classes from 9 a.m. to noon, rehearsals or project work from 1 to 5 p.m., and rehearsals from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. On performance nights students may not get home until well after 11 p.m.

Competition is steep. The school accepts up to 35 students per year, selected from among some 600 to 1,000 actors it sees on its annual audition tours. During the tours actors can simultaneously audition for the conservatory and the summer company (50 to 60 actors), as well as the possibility of an internship. The tours take place January through March along the West Coast--from Seattle to San Diego--and in Tucson, Ariz.

Journeymen and Women

What are they looking for? "Availability and willingness," said Booher, "someone who can actually be present in the room when they audition, as opposed to being so caught in the past and the future that they're not there. We're also looking for a strong point of view, actors who actually bring something of themselves to the room and aren't making 'like me' choices. We're not looking for people who are at a destination; we're trying to evaluate the authenticity of where they are in the journey. A lot of times you can see someone who is incredibly raw in terms of their skill set, but they are authentically there. That's something we certainly look for: integrity."

Around 80 people are invited to Santa Maria for a callback, at which they engage in a day of workshop classes and interviews. "We love to see people interacting," said Booher, "as opposed to just doing their little bottled monologue. Can they play nicely with others? What do they do in a room with a bunch of other artists? That's really important because we're going to have these people here for two years, and they are going to be working together for almost 60 hours a week."

You won't be having a side job while you study here. "When could you?" said Gros. Technically you're not allowed to hold another job while at the conservatory, though the school does have a jobs board for one-day stints--things that might help actors earn a little cash.

At a mere $11 per unit, classes are a steal for California residents. For out-of-staters, they are around $154 per unit. A select number of students--and all of the interns--receive a stipend of at least $225 per week. The intern positions are intended as a kind of work-study program for students who may already have a B.F.A. or M.F.A.

The program provides no housing, but a housing coordinator can help students find apartments. Many are able to find a room in a shared house or apartment for $300-350 per month.

PCPA also has a technical-training school that is similarly rigorous. The technical classes cover everything "from bits to bytes," said Gros. "They still have to learn how to weld, sew, do carpentry. They also learn how to use computers to do drafting, design, production reports, prop lists, to deal with budgets." Eleven paid internships are available to tech students throughout the year, 70 in the summer.

While many PCPA students go on to graduate school, just as many immediately head out into the workforce. PCPA has solid connections with such places as San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Secluded but Satisfied

Getting hired on as a PCPA resident artist may be the toughest job you'll ever love. Most resident artists who spoke with Back Stage West agreed that the lifestyle is a big draw.

"Life on the Central Coast is fabulous," said resident artist Jack Greenman, who has been at PCPA for 11 years, "hanging out in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara. You have clean air, not a lot of traffic, beautiful surroundings."

"We're also lucky enough to have the kind of stability that a lot of actors crave at a certain point," said resident artist David Studwell, "things that most people take for granted--a house, a backyard, a dog. So that's a wonderful thing."

But the key things that attract artists to this job are the very things that make the job so hard: a rigorous, varied production schedule and the need to practice what you preach all the time.

"The most challenging part of the job--and the most rewarding--is to take what you teach in the classroom and demonstrate that in the performance arena," said resident director of music Kevin Robison.

Greenman agreed. "Being in a situation where I have to articulate what I'm doing as I'm doing it has improved my work. If I'm saying one thing in the classroom in the afternoon, and if I'm not doing that at night, then there's a problem, and it will be obvious to them. You can't just sit back and be an academic and say, 'Well, this is my theory about how it works, and why can't you put that theory into practice?'

"The main advantage of being here," continued Greenman, "has just been steady work all the time, and a lot of variety, from Shakespeare to Oleanna to musicals. You name it, we've done it, except for maybe Brecht."

Yet, working six-day weeks, 12 months out of the year, can be draining. While PCPA encourages its artists to do exchanges and work at other theatres now and then, it can be hard just finding the time to drum up new work.

The location itself is also both a curse and a blessing for students and resident artists. While the relatively rural location certainly allows them to concentrate, it also means a distinct lack of cultural resources.

"We are probably the cultural institute in Santa Maria," said Studwell. "When my wife and I were in Chicago, there were great restaurants; you could go to the art institute. Here we can't send the students to the art institute to study a certain kind of art when it's going to have relevance to something they're working on.

"The other downside for students is that I wish the students did get some sort of a degree, other than just an associate's, because they are doing the equivalent of, if not a graduate program, definitely an undergraduate theatre program."

"Like any job, sometimes you have to step back and remind yourself that it actually is a blessing," said resident artist Heidi Ewart. "I get to get up in the morning and I either get to go in the classroom and get a group of young people excited about the profession that I love, or I get to go participate in the profession that I love. To be in a place where you're producing quality theatre, living in a beautiful area--I just don't see how it gets a lot better than this."

The Road Ahead

Like many regional theatres, PCPA faces numerous challenges as an organization. It's struggling to find new audiences, to find programming that will satisfy its artists and its mostly senior audiences. Because it is associated with the college, the nonprofit theatre is also required, by law, to balance its budget every year, which means there isn't much room to venture too far into the unknown.

Yet while no one denies that there are many folks in Santa Maria who want their big, sunny musical dance numbers--always a bit of a challenge on PCPA's thrust stage configuration--PCPA staffers will remind you that the only show in the past 10 years to have its run extended wasn't 42nd Street or Hello Dolly. It was Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.

Gros believes in the potential for bringing challenging new work to audiences--it's one of the ways he plans for the theatre to ultimately raise its national profile. This year's first-ever play-reading series was a success, he felt. He's also been considering the idea of a having a playwright-in-residence, and he is making efforts to re-engage with the casting community in Los Angeles so that more casting directors will make the trip up to Santa Maria. He's also planning for a second space in Solvang, so that summer visitors can see three shows. And then, of course, there's his long-term dream.

"Maybe in a few years we might be ready for that Tony," said Gros. "It takes awhile. I'm going to start the lobbying process. I know that we've had an impact. It's just that we've been kind of quiet in that process, and being outside of a major metropolitan area has not been in our favor in that regard. So we'll be working on that. It all starts with good work. It has to." Judging by the company's recent work, including the currently running production of Sweeney Todd, PCPA is right on track. BSW

For auditions and interviews, prospective actors should call PCPA's conservatory operations coordinator Christina Vargas at (805) 928-7731, ext. 4115, or e-mail conservatory@pcpa.org. You can also write PCPA Theaterfest, P.O. Box 1700, Santa Maria, CA 93456-1700. Visit the organization's website at www.pcpa.org.

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