For 17 years, Susie and David Couch have been a part of the Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre-first in the seats, then on the stage. Five years ago, they took over from the Caballeros, the theater’s producers for 33 years, and now they run the show. Separate from the guest ranch, which is owned by the Brown family, the dinner theater is a result of a happy partnership with patriarch Jim Brown. He serves up the grub, and the Couches fill the stage with a wide variety of well-known S.B. actors in great plays. And yes, they both still tread the boards whenever they can. David will appear in this month’s offering, the regional premier of Leading Ladies by Ken Ludwig.
The third play in a trilogy by Ludwig, Leading Ladies was preceded by Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, both of which the theater has produced. Ladies is set in York, Pennsylvania, and focuses on a pair of down-on-their-luck Shakespearean actors. It abounds with love triangles, mistaken identities, and men in dresses. What else is necessary for great theater?
Director Aaron Levin made his debut at the Circle Bar B Theatre last summer when he directed the musical Pump Boys and Dinettes, which won an Indy Theater Award for Susie Couch’s performance and is the theater’s highest-grossing show to date. “He put that show on in 13 rehearsals : a musical!” Susie Couch marveled, laughing. “So I knew he was good, and I knew he was the one to direct this year’s summer show.” Levin agreed to direct and also offered his involvement in casting and set design.
“So I just sort of handed the show over to him, which has been lovely for me,” Couch said. “Since I do all the costuming, and this show is very costume-y.”
Levin exhibited a dedication to detail when he located a pair of roller skates to use in the production that were actually made in 1958, the year the play’s action takes place.
“Anyone who’s been to the theater knows the stage is teeny-tiny,” Couch said of the space, with its capacity of 92. “Well, this play takes place in a grand mansion, with a grand ballroom and a grand garden. And we said, okay, obviously we can’t do that. So the set is quite creative. [Ludwig’s] dialogue and descriptions of characters are very colorful. So we figured the backdrop isn’t as important as the language and the characters and the costumes.”
“What makes the shows up at the Circle Bar B so successful,” said Levin, “is the collaboration between Dave and Susie and everyone else. They’re really generous about bringing in actors and directors and designers and creative staff and encouraging their artistic input. This is so much more than just ‘doing a gig’-it’s a family affair.”
Levin’s partner, Tal Sanders, is also part of the area’s theater scene. For the last five years, he has been on the faculty of UCSB as set designer and lecturer. But the two are preparing to relocate, as Sanders has accepted an associate professorship at Pacific University in Oregon, outside of Portland.
“When this show was offered to me, I wasn’t sure of my schedule,” Levin said. “But when I read the script I was completely convinced I wanted to direct this show. It is so funny. And everyone in it has a great resume, having been in shows all around town and all around the country.”
In the end, the timing worked out perfectly. The couple will light out for parts north just after the show opens on July 25.
“It’s interesting, doing my last show here,” Levin said. “In a way, you do every piece of theater as if it’s your last, giving 110 percent. But it’s strange to think that-literally-as soon as this thing opens, I’m out of here.”
Levin and Sanders were away from Santa Barbara for seven years, first in L.A. and then in New York City, before returning to work on starting up the Marjorie Luke Theatre after its remodel. In June 2003, they accepted the positions of general manager and technical director, respectively. “What draws me to theater as an art form is the collaborative nature of it,” Sanders said. “I guess I’m drawn to the technical aspect because I have some aptitude for those parts of the equation.” He was there for a year before accepting the position at UCSB, and Levin managed the theater for four years.
They look forward to possibly returning now and then to work on shows. “You always welcome the opportunity to come back to a place you know and where people know you,” Sanders said. “So I hope that we do. There’s a lot going on in this town.”
But they’re also excited to explore the theater scene in Portland, which is similar to Santa Barbara’s but bigger.
“And we hope we’re able to open some Portland doors as well to some of our friends here in the acting world or the design world.” Levin said. “It could go both ways.”
To be sure, our loss is Portland’s gain, but hey-I guess we gotta spread the love around.
Leading Ladies runs July 25-September 7, at 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. on Sundays, with the performance to follow a meal, at the Circle Bar B Theatre. $40; $32 Sundays for seniors. For more information, call 967-1962 or visit circlebarbtheatre.com.