Breaking the fourth wall: alt. theater in alt. spaces

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Actors rehearse for the first time at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, as executive producer Kate Bergstrom and stage manager Margaret Lazarovits look on. Photo: Kathryn Barnes

For a small city, Santa Barbara holds a lot of venues. On most days, you can catch a flick at one of a dozen movie houses, watch a ballet or symphony at a historic theater or head inside a tasting room for an art show. But, despite the proximity to art spaces, artists are hard at work unearthing new spots to perform. It’s a factor of both necessity and creativity. Amateur groups struggle to find space at more established Santa Barbara venues, and yearn for a new flair.

KCRW’s Kathryn Barnes visited one such theater company, as they rehearse for their inaugural season, in spaces which have never before seen theater.

The six shows that comprise On the Verge Festival will play at three alternative venues: the outdoor courtyard of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, the Narrative Loft’s high ceilinged Funk Zone warehouse, and the pop-up 208 Gallery downtown. The shows are ticketed, but free. A donation, however, is nice to slip at the door if you can.

“I think people can be turned off by theater sounding expensive. And it’s not,” says Kate Bergstrom, executive producer of the festival.

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Kate Bergstrom (left), actress Riley Berris and coreographer Josiah Davis rehearse for Caylee’s First Big Show!!!! at the Narrative Loft. Photo: Margaret Lazarovits

Bergstrom is a Santa Barbara local, along with ninety percent of the actors in the company. She grew up attending and performing in shows all around town, but felt these productions wouldn’t fit in most traditional venues.

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Actors Riley Berris and Andy Cowell at the Narrative Loft, where they’ll perform Caylee’s First Big Show!!!! Photo: Kate Bergstrom

“I have seen some great shows and been involved in City College and Ensemble Theater and the Granada but they’re so intangible for a new company,” she says. “I know they’d all do a wonderful job, but they already have a tight idea of what they want to do, so to start something new seems kind of difficult in those spaces.”

That leaves an opening for new, alternative spaces to fill a niche market. Traditional venues often come with rigid schedules, costly booking and more stringent guidelines as to what kinds of performances they open their doors to. Practically, as Kate puts it, that’s tough for a new, grassroots company to adhere to.

And then there’s the creative side of things.

“I know, from my experiences in L.A., that the best and most fun theater I had engaged with in my younger years was in alternative spaces. I would see installations in basements, and in the Alexandria Hotel and various lofts and galleries, and I loved it,” says Bergstrom.

Michelle Lee, owner of the Narrative Loft, doesn’t see why those experiences can’t make their way up to Santa Barbara.

“I think the sky is the limit,” she says. “I’ve always said that the Narrative Loft is a mecca for creatives. That’s what I’ve wanted to have happen here.”

For Kate, the key is finding owners, like Michelle, whose missions align with both the company and the productions themselves.

“It’s really about looking at, why these spaces?” she says.

The Historical Museum, for example, is a perfect venue to watch Footprints at Laeotoli, a true story steeped in history that follows a female archaeologist in Africa as she explores her unresolved relationship with her late husband.

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Actress Meredith McMinn, who plays Mary Leakey in Footprints at Laetoli, gets used to the dirt during a rehearsal at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. Photo: Kathryn Barnes

“The feel of being in the Historical Museum while you’re hearing this nonfiction-based narrative is really unique, and very palpably intellectual,” says Bergstrom. “I think people are going to have a visceral experience of being outdoors in Santa Barbara at night and feeling the earth, the dirt floor beneath them.”

But, she is worried about being too out there. She’s nervous about rain, and people getting lost trying to find these venues, and, above all, seeing only recognizable faces.

“I’m worried that it’ll just be people I know who come. I really don’t want that,” says Bergstrom.

That’s the big question. Will people in the city be on board with not only alternative theater, but alternative theater spaces?

Is Santa Barbara ready for that fourth wall to come down?

That’s fresh on Kate’s mind as she wraps up rehearsals and prepares for opening nights.

“I really hope that people come who we’ve never met,” she says, “who are just daring enough to sit on the edge and go, ‘I know this isn’t the Granada, but I’m going to go for it and rip that band-aid off and experience theater in a different way.’ I hope. I think they will.”

For stage manager Margaret Lazarovits, it only takes one show to get someone psyched on theater in alternative spaces.

“A couple years ago I saw Our Town performed at Elings Park. They timed it so the progression and the arc of the show paralleled the wading light and the sunset. It added another emotional element to it,” she says.

The company is called On the Verge for a reason. Historic theaters and grand marquees are built to last, but maybe Santa Barbara is on the verge of stepping into performance space a little differently.

On the Verge runs from July 16-25th. You can find ticket details and more at their website, onthevergefest.org.