Have you seen the best little musical theater company in Santa Barbara? It’s filled with super talented teenagers working together with a group of remarkable professionals. It has been staging the finest American musicals for the last 20 years, almost 50 productions, everything from Singin’ in the Rain to Spamalot. This week you can boomerang back to the ’60s and see their mind-blowing production of Hair and realize how relevant and resonant that musical is for audiences today.
This is musical theater at its best; oh, by the way, it’s in a high school.
The Santa Barbara High School Theatre department is the brainchild and blood, sweat, and tears of a man who has been working in musical theater in Santa Barbara for more than three decades — Otto Layman. He has renovated, designed, and built the theater at the center of Santa Barbara High School (SBHS) from the ground up, and he runs the theater department not like a curriculum of study but like an actual theater company, offering students an authentic experience as actors, designers, singers, stage managers, and more. It’s not a course in what theater is “like.” It is a theater of collaboration with serious professionals such as UCSB professors Christina McCarthy in dance and Jon Nathan in music. There is probably not a high school in the country that offers this kind of training by apprenticeship.
Layman and his kids raise and spend $60,000-$70,000 a year to support their productions. Startlingly, there is virtually no local recognition for the school’s contribution to the theatrical life of Santa Barbara. Hopefully that will change.
Layman understands the transformational power of theater. “Theater is organized chaos,” he told me. “It’s never static. It is unlike any other academic discipline. Theater students demonstrate their mastery in real time and receive feedback in real time.”
Opening on April 29 is the school’s production of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, sung from the voice of the Tribe, longhaired hippies who welcome the Age of Aquarius against a backdrop of bohemian New York City.
According to Layman, Hair is more relevant than ever. “Today, you still have presidential candidates who talk about ‘carpet bombing.’ That’s Curtis LeMay,” Layman said. “Furthermore, the characters are high school dropouts and runaways — in other words, exactly the age of the high school actors playing the parts. Usually the actors are too old for the roles.”
The set design for the new production includes a hollowed-out VW hippie bus and a fallen Marine chopper, as well as the familiar backdrop of Jimi Hendrix posters and other psychedelia. It’s a tour de force for the theater’s art department, which is led by Jonathan Mitchell with help from the students in the Visual Arts and Design Academy.
The theater department at SBHS wasn’t always this way. When Layman arrived it was falling apart. The revitalization of the theater department at the school evolved from his own experience.
“I learned theater in the Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara when it was in the company’s former home at the Alhecama Theatre,” Layman told me. “That’s where I grew up.” And now Layman has created that same authentic theatrical environment within Santa Barbara High School.
Arriving as Layman celebrates his 20th year running the Santa Barbara High Theatre department, this production of Hair resonates for other reasons, as well. “When I interviewed for this job, my hair was really, really long, and I had multiple earrings,” Layman said. “I didn’t look like the people who were hiring me, but they took a chance.”
It makes you realize that when you meet those kids with shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen, long, beautiful hair, they deserve another look. After all, they may end up running an amazing musical theater company in a high school, contributing to the theatrical life of Santa Barbara and changing lives.
Hair plays Friday, April 29 and May 6, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, April 30 and May 7, at 2 and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, May 8, at 2 p.m. at S.B. High School Theatre (700 E. Anapamu St.). Visit sbhstheatre.com.