Irwin Appel (center) huddles with his cast.
From Good to Great with the UCSB BFA Program in Theater
Uniquely in the UC System, UCSB Offers Bachelor of Fine Arts Degrees in Theater and Dance
Thursday, November 9, 2017
It’s Monday night, and often that means one thing to people who work in theater — time for tech rehearsal. At 6:30 p.m., Irwin Appel, professor of theater and director of the Actor Training Program at UCSB, heads to the school’s black-box Performing Arts Theater to direct Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. For Appel, a long day is about to get longer — tech rehearsals routinely run four hours or more — yet he takes time to stop and greet every student and staff member he sees along the way. When Appel spots something that particularly intrigues or delights him, he opens his eyes wide in a characteristic expression of intense interest. As it turns out, several of his students were only too happy to imitate this expression for me and to inform me that, most of the times that it strikes, the next word out of Appel’s mouth is a hearty, deeply felt exclamation: “Good!”
Open-eyed praise turns out to be just one of the many useful tools for shaping young artists into great actors in this remarkable teacher’s repertoire. On this final Monday of October, he’s about to use it, along with a few dozen other moves, in a steady stream of serious work that won’t stop until the last line is delivered, the last light cue is correctly timed, and the last sound cue is properly synced.
Jason Bowe as Eddie Carbone in ’A View from the Bridge’
UCSB has the distinction of hosting the only Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program in theater and dance offered by the University of California. Students in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UC Irvine can earn a BFA in musical theater, but elsewhere in the UC, it’s all Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees, each charged with a slightly different approach. Theater majors at Cal Berkeley combine their acting experience with critical theory and performance studies, while budding thespians at UCLA benefit from the resources of a School of Theater, Film and Television that offers a prestigious Master of Fine Arts. Young actors at the universities in Davis, Riverside, Santa Cruz, and San Diego all receive excellent training and encounter wonderful opportunities to perfect their craft, but if you want to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting, you have to come to Santa Barbara.
By Paul Wellman
Byron Torres (left, facing out) and Andrew Truong (holding the phone) converse with longshoremen in ’A View from the Bridge.’
What difference does that one word, “Fine,” in the title of the degree make? Generally speaking, universities and colleges in the United States and Canada agree that it comes down to the ratio of liberal arts to practice classes. On average, BA students enroll in a schedule that’s two-thirds liberal arts classes and one-third courses in artistic practice. For BFA students, that ratio is reversed, but that’s only the beginning. BFA programs follow the conservatory approach pioneered by such institutions as Juilliard in New York and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Actor training in these conservatory programs tends to differ from what’s offered in a BA-granting department not just in terms of time spent but also in content. Earning a BFA in performance requires a rare level of commitment to a process that unfolds at once rapidly — the days and weeks are packed with hard work — and slowly, as young actors are encouraged to mature and to hone their skills in a sequence of precisely formatted experiences that stretch over three full years.
Jason Bowe and Diane Fidalgo as Eddie and Beatrice Carbone in ’A View from the Bridge’
For the last three weeks, I have been talking to faculty, students, and alumni of the UCSB BFA Actor Training Program in an attempt to discover what makes it special. Over the past decade and a half, I have been fortunate enough to see several dozen of their shows, and this has given me an invaluable background as I seek to understand the hows and whys of their specific approach. What follows is an attempt to sketch a few of the people, techniques, and ideas that animate this work, and to describe the extraordinary impact that the presence of a BFA program at UCSB has had not only on the university’s students and faculty but also on the theater scene in Santa Barbara and beyond. Although I have tried to include as much of what’s happening in the program as I can, the view I present is necessarily incomplete, as the program is a living process encompassing dozens, if not hundreds, of people.
The Slow Turn Is the Idea
Lurking backstage during tech rehearsal, I strike up a conversation with Byron Torres, a junior from Long Beach who is dressed as a Brooklyn dockworker for his role in A View from the Bridge. After speaking with him for a few minutes, I am stunned to realize that he’s the actor I saw play the father in last season’s production of Lydia by Octavio Solis. Torres, who is barely out of his teens, was so convincing that when I saw the show I was certain he was in his forties even though I was seated only steps away from him for most of the night. Lydia tells the story of a Mexican-American family turned inside out by traumatic events in 1970s El Paso. For Torres, this was his first big role in the BFA program, and it resonated deeply. “Working on my role in Lydia was amazing for me,” he says. “I’m from a Latino family, and I recognized a lot of the things that we had in common with the family in the play. There are always things that you just don’t talk about. It’s like you feel you have to hide as much as you can about whatever hurts you.” Pressed to explain how he achieved such a believable physical characterization of a man twice his age, Torres praised the support of movement professor Daniel Stein, saying, “To play that character I had to learn to walk again; I had to show that he had the whole world on his shoulders. Professor Stein really helped me. I needed to learn to have these heavy legs. [The father] was tired of not knowing what happened to his child and of not knowing the truth about the accident. With his anger he was sending a message to his other kids, saying to them, ‘Don’t be like me,’ in the only language he could.”
Torres has a small role in A View from the Bridge — “just a friend named Mike,” as he explains it — but it allows him to be part of something that clearly excites him deeply. He and Jason Bowe, the actor playing Eddie Carbone, the volatile lead of the show, are roommates, and friends, from Long Beach City College. They transferred together after successfully auditioning for the UCSB BFA program in spring 2016. This brings out one important feature of the program that might not otherwise be apparent: Its students are a remarkably diverse group drawn not just from the UCSB undergraduate population but from state university and community college theater programs from all over California. Bowe is a Navy veteran, and his performance as Eddie radiates a sense of credibility that might not be available to someone with less life experience. Like Bowe, Diane Fidalgo, who plays Eddie’s wife, Beatrice, has a family and a child, something that informs her wonderfully nuanced portrayal of a woman whose husband can’t let go of their surrogate daughter.
By Paul Wellman
Seated inside the theater during the rehearsal, I watch as Appel takes Bowe and Steven Armstrong, who plays the lawyer Alfieri, through one of the drama’s most crucial scenes. Armstrong is tall and lanky, and although I’ve seen him playing comedy in the past, he’s all business tonight as he warns Eddie not to take an irrevocable step. The stage is mostly bare, and in one corner stands an old-fashioned pay phone, the kind that sits in a metal case at the top of a pole rather than inside a booth. It’s an important prop, and to use it, Eddie must turn away from Alfieri and fetch it from where it waits for him, moving it a few feet to the playing space before dropping his dime.
“We need to see him have the idea,” Appel says to Bowe. “It’s a slow turn; it’s like the turn is the idea.” And suddenly, amid what seem like innumerable adjustments to the lights, the sound, and even the costume he’s wearing, Bowe digs deep and comes up with the slow turn that Appel has asked for. Sitting in the darkness just a few feet from the actors, I watch as Eddie’s face fills with the demented determination that will destroy him. I’ve already seen what I came for, and what the playwright was after — the tragedy of a man who cannot help himself — and it’s not even opening night.