The news hit the Santa Barbara theater community hard. After 44 years (!) as the area’s only true dinner theater, the owners of the Circle Bar B Ranch made the decision to take the barn in a different direction at the end of the 2014 season. Veteran producers Susie and David Couch were out. Weddings and other events would be moving in. But true to their heritage in the country’s most grassroots form of theater, the couple refused to see this in a negative light. Sure, they were disappointed, and no, they did not have an alternative venue already arranged for 2015, but Susie and David are optimistic, and above all, not bitter about the decision, which they recognize is not personal and well within the rights of any property owner in this volatile economy.
In recognition of the unique role that the Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre has played in the Santa Barbara theater community’s ecology, it seemed appropriate to let the participants in this extraordinary institution speak out. What follows are some of the highlights from a series of conversations I’ve had over the past few days with some of the people closest to the organization. We hope that, over the next few weeks, more voices will be heard through our comments section below, recalling the many great nights in the barn.
Susie Couch, producer, director, actor
On the news: “Initially, we were taken by surprise when the word came that we would have to move, but that was at least better than not knowing what was happening.”
On the future: “We are not done with theater, and if the right venue becomes available, we will continue. It will not necessarily involve serving dinner. We have a solid base of season ticket subscribers who will follow us if we can find the right fit.”
On the impact: “I really want to get to the positive in this right away. We’ve always done great family-style theater, and, one way or another, we will continue to do so.”
Brian Harwell, actor, director
On the impact: “Obviously it is hard, but Susie and David have a great attitude about it, which is not to look at it as a defeat. I quickly came to an acceptance of it just because that’s the best stance from which to move forward.”
On Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre’s role in the S.B. theater scene: “The ecology of the whole scene is definitely the right framework to look at this because, while there are other theaters in town with different pressures and different audiences, the Circle Bar B experience has existed at a distance from all of that and yet remained really important to it. Irwin Appel [theater professor at UCSB] said to me that CBBDT has ‘been a real playground for you,’ meaning all of us, and he’s right. The freedom I had there to cast someone who had captured my attention, or to just roll up my sleeves and focus on the process of directing or acting, this was incredibly useful to me in my development as an artist. It is so important to work at least part of the year in a place where you have a mixed audience and where you have to win them over again every night. It is as simple as that. And because in a typical seven-week run, you performed the show 21 times, there were good nights and bad nights, and you learned from both.”
On the programming at Circle Bar B: “The repertoire there is often light comedy or farce, but what people don’t always appreciate is that light comedy is the hardest of all things to play. Farce has to be incredibly precise, otherwise it doesn’t land well. It’s a workout to act in one of these shows. On the nights it doesn’t go well, you can feel the wavers — those wobbly places where the audience isn’t with you. But on several nights in each run, we would be flying. Some nights, it’s a real party in that barn. People who didn’t know what they were getting into get really into it, and that’s something you won’t find as often at a ‘normal’ theater.”
On the way that Susie and David Couch warm up the crowd with birthday and anniversary announcements: “The curtain speeches are definitely a big part of it. When you are backstage, it drives you nuts. You’re pacing around — you just want to get on with the show and get past the nerves, and Susie and David are out there singing! After a while, I grew to resent it less, and gradually I understood that this wasn’t just Susie reading a list, but instead it was a family feeling — like the speeches at a big Thanksgiving.”
On the impact: “It’s the end of an era. I arrived during the first year of the Couches, in 2004. Susie gave me an opportunity that I could not have gotten anywhere else. It was amazing to watch them develop over the next decade. Directors and actors were learning their craft there, and the whole time, Susie was making the costumes and taking the tickets, and David was in the booth. That’s a family operation.”
On the contribution to the community: “They gave so many young actors from SBCC and UCSB their first chance to do something outside of school. And the long runs! Having six or seven weeks to explore a character is an incredible luxury if you are used to doing shows for just two or three weeks. You get to be in character in front of a variety of different audiences. Some nights you wonder to yourself, ‘Are they alive?’ But other nights they’re on fire. Overall, it’s a great audience because so many of the people are not theater buffs but just regular people who happen to be staying there.”
On the warm-ups: “I will admit that I did warn my more sophisticated, theater-savvy friends about the curtain speeches. I was embarrassed, but I understood that this was a tradition handed down by Janet Caballero and that Susie and David felt obliged to continue it. What was funny was that one night, when Susie was in the show, I remember she was backstage instead, and David was doing the curtain speech, and she was just as impatient. She was wondering, ‘What the hell is he going on about?’”
On the personal side: “It was a great training ground for me. Joy is the best word I can use to describe it. It was a place to see old friends and to be in the creative process together. Then to share that not only with the theater crowd but also with the people who happened to be staying there — that was something special. You can’t get that in an ordinary theater. Having people in the audience who really don’t know what to expect? That is delightful.”
The show does indeed go on, at least until the end of this season, so there is still plenty of time to get one last delicious tri-tip dinner in with a memorable experience and a great play. From now until September 7, Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre presents Enchanted April, directed by Miller James. September 19-October 26, Gerry Hansen will direct the 1960s French farce Boeing Boeing. For tickets and information, call (805) 967-1962 or visit circlebarbtheatre.com.