After 30 years, the Ensemble Theatre Company remains one of the city’s signature live performance experiences. It’s a happy confluence of the Santa Barbara community theater ethic going back to the 1930s and the Method-driven, emotion-centered ensemble style of acting that swept the United States, Hollywood, and the world beginning in the 1950s. The artful mix of contemporary shows with modern classics, the emphasis on craft, and even the wee theater tucked discreetly away on a darling plot of grass in the interior of a downtown block all contribute to the sense of being close to the heart of the American ensemble acting tradition.
When Ensemble began in 1978 as the Ensemble Theatre Project, Joe Hanreddy directed the first shows at Trinity Episcopal Church, but in 1981, they began leasing the 140-seat Alhecama described above, an antique jewel box frayed around the edges that had been in operation as a theater since the 1920s. Its unusual, almost Spanish-sounding name, “Alhecama,” came from an incident in 1939, when the building was in danger of being torn down to make room for a parking lot. Mrs. Alice Schott saved it and gave it to the city for an educational community theater, naming it “Al-he-ca-ma” after her four daughters-Alice, Helen, Catherine, and Mary.
When Ensemble took over the Alhecama in the early 1980s, the 900 block of Santa Barbara Street harbored a variety of young artists looking for room to experiment and like-minded souls with whom to collaborate. Patrick Davis established the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation in the small room at the Alhecama that was to become the director’s office under Robert Grande Weiss. Artist Mary Heebner was on the block in her painting and printmaking studio, as was musician Chic Streetman with his School of the Performing Arts. Yet even in those times of relative optimism and near-poverty, real estate issues threw shadows on the cozy lawn outside the theater and the bright young things that met there. Hanreddy remembers waiting to find out if the entire block would be bulldozed to make way for a giant reconstruction of the original historic Presidio, a project that at one time was projected to take the land and buildings where the Sojourner and the former Jimmy’s Chinese restaurant now stand.
The Presidio land-grab scare came and went, leaving talented young actors like Nancy Nufer and Robert Weiss (before he was “Grande”) with an extraordinary opportunity to participate in one of the most fertile periods for small theaters in American history. All over the country, from Cambridge and New Haven to Ashland and Costa Mesa, a powerful new theatrical movement was being born. As far as the productions were concerned, “Everybody had to pitch in,” remembers Hanreddy. “It was a real do-it-yourself kind of experience.”
But what plays they had to do! Sam Shepard, Ntozake Shange, Tom Stoppard, John Patrick Shanley, and Athol Fugard are just a few of the breakthrough artists who were produced by Ensemble in that first decade, thus putting Santa Barbara solidly in the vanguard of what can be seen in retrospect as the great small theater renaissance of the 1980s. The 1990s and 2000s brought Ensemble further artistic distinction along with ongoing financial instability, but the company persevered. In 2004, Albert Ihde replaced Grande Weiss as executive director, only to be ousted in a counter-coup within the first half of the season. When, in 2005, Grande Weiss’s failing health left the theater no alternative but to seek a new executive director, a national search brought in Jonathan Fox for the 2006 season, and Fox has been in charge ever since. At the time of his hiring, and despite his excellent reputation both as an artist and an administrator, Santa Barbarans familiar with the theater took bets on how long he would last. Today, Fox looks like an inspired choice, not least because he led New Jersey’s Two River Theater through a similar move from one venue to another at the end of the 1990s.
Once again, even as offstage chatter about Unity Shoppe blocking the company’s move to Victoria Hall Theater threatens to drown out the artistry on stage, Ensemble continues to produce excellent work. Fox’s outstanding 2008 production of Neil Labute’s This Is How It Goes is scheduled to be part of the season at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre later this year, and Ensemble at Alhecama has an outstanding lineup in store for 2009-10. While the other current users of Victoria Hall-Retired and Senior Volunteer Program and Child Abuse Listening & Mediation-have signed off on the plan, Unity Shoppe continues to resist Ensemble’s move. If the leaders of the Unity Shoppe can find a way to live with the decision of their fellow association members-and perhaps even if they can’t-it seems likely that 2012 will see another glorious epoch open for the city’s longest-running professional theater company.