When NYU students Kyra Lehman and Ken Urbina decided to launch a new youth theater company in Santa Barbara, they didn’t find a lot of enthusiastic support. “Nobody thought we could do it,” Lehman said, remembering the rehearsal process for their first production, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in spring 2007. “We got ridiculed about putting it on, but it was an amazing success.”
I’m sitting in a booth at Coffee Cat with Lehman, Urbina, and their colleague Karina Richardson. Together, these three form the leadership of Proximity Theatre Company, a nonprofit organization dedicated to producing cutting-edge, original physical theater productions in Santa Barbara. When they talk about their work, it’s as if an electrical charge passes between them, animating their faces and lighting up their eyes.
“When the lead actor dropped out of Cuckoo’s Nest, we had to push through, and it helped define our style,” Lehman explained, stating the company’s approach simply: “We push beyond what we think we can do.”
Lehman is the daughter of Eric Lehman, veteran leader of the youth theater institution Santa Barbara Summer Stock. She moved to New York to study acting, where she met Urbina, a talented composer, and Richardson, an actress and playwright. In her summers, Lehman returned to Santa Barbara, bringing colleagues from the Tisch School of the Arts to work with Summer Stock’s high school-aged performers. Out of this work, Proximity Theatre Company was born.
The company challenges young actors with reflective writing assignments, camping trips, Native American sweat lodges, and 6 a.m. swimming excursions, in addition to rehearsals and performances. “It’s about heightening your awareness, paying attention to what is around you, and finding beauty in everything,” Urbina offered. “They live and breathe the show,” Lehman added. “The texture becomes part of their lives.”
The show, in this case, is The Marvellous Story of Shandy Wilkes, Richardson’s original play. “It’s about a young girl born with mirrors behind her eyes,” Richardson explained. “People look at her and see whatever they’re most afraid of.”
Though Richardson is the writer, Lehman the director, and Urbina the composer, it’s the performers who direct much of the rehearsal process for Shandy Wilkes. They stick to a rigorous schedule of rehearsals-3:30-8:30, Monday to Friday-and structured improvisation often leads the show in new directions. On a Tuesday afternoon last week, I entered a studio at Santa Barbara Dance Arts where the 19 teenage actors of Shandy Wilkes were already hard at work. The physical energy in the room was palpable-one young man wheeled his arms in circles as if loosening his shoulders in preparation for some gymnastic feat. A couple of young women practiced a movement that looked like running in place. Cued by Urbina’s music, they ran to their places and began to create a scene: a classroom run by a strict teacher until one rebellious little boy breaks into movement, rhythm, and song, eventually bringing the entire class along with him. After a round of applause, they stood to receive feedback. “Remember, you’re supposed to be little kids,” Lehman told them. “Do you remember how you played when you were a little kid? I think it’s about being looser. Your full heart and soul goes into things.” One of the young men in the scene lifted his chin and looked her in the eye. “Okay,” he said. “I can do it.”
Inside the studio, Lehman maintains the tone of a serious director who expects professional work, even if it’s playful. Outside the studio, she raves about the young people in this year’s show. “It’s amazing how incredibly brilliant and talented they are,” she said. “There aren’t as many layers of crap to get through with them as there are with adults. They’re so kind and welcoming and determined.” It’s true they’ve gathered a group of exceptional young people for this show, but the company’s philosophy also guides participants toward the kind of generous participation that Lehman describes. The name “proximity” comes from a physical theater exercise in which actors work in pairs or groups, making shapes with their bodies, then filling in the “negative” or open space around one another’s shapes. “Then we pause and say ‘everybody come into proximity,’ and the whole group forms a single shape with their bodies touching,” Lehman explained. “It’s moving as one entity. You have to be completely present. It’s the idea of community, of closeness. If you come together that way, you can create beautiful stories.”
Lehman, Urbina, and Richardson are thrilled about their upcoming show, but they have bigger dreams as well. They see semester-long programs, international travel, and a dedicated rehearsal and performance space in the company’s future. They’re already holding fundraisers, and aim to raise enough money to provide scholarships to kids who need them. When asked why they chose to do this work in Santa Barbara, Lehman and Urbina were quick to respond. “It feels like this community really needs this,” Urbina said. “This is my community,” Lehman added. “I want to affect it. There are other young people here who want to develop something new-we really believe this could be a movement.”
Proximity Theatre Company will perform The Marvellous Story of Shandy Wilkes at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo) on August 5-9 at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org. To learn more about Proximity Theatre Company, check out proximitytheatrecompany.org.