Every school in the University of California has a drama program, and campuses across the state are crawling with talented performers, but only at UCSB can undergraduate students earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting. Not even UCLA’s acclaimed School of Theater, Film and Television offers the kind of conservatory-style training that students receive here. As a result, some of the most talented young actors in the world come to UCSB from high school before going on to top graduate schools and remarkable careers.
For the faculty, the opportunity presented by this distinction involves challenges and rewards. The presence of so much talent and motivation demands that professors build bridges from college theater to the professional world beyond. With the Launch Pad program, theater department chair Risa Brainin has created just such a link, and, in the decade that the program has been up and running, the benefits have been impressive. Each season, Launch Pad creates a “preview production” in collaboration with a professional playwright. These shows feature all the bells and whistles of a fully staged play, but with one crucial difference — the playwright is encouraged to continue redrafting and reimagining his or her work all the way through the run. It’s the only program of its kind in the country, and the unusual freedom and support it features has attracted some of the best writers working today, including Sarah Ruhl, Beau Willimon, and Joyce Carol Oates.
When the season’s preview production wraps — typically in the spring semester — Launch Pad keeps on launching with another aspect of its programming, the New Plays in Process Reading Series. The university invites three playwrights to campus as artists in residence during the summer, and the theater department offers a class in which students meet, collaborate with, and perform the work of these distinguished visitors. The result is a kind of speed-dating version of the full preview production process, with young actors, directors, designers, dramaturgs, and stage managers shadowing their professional mentors in a race against the clock to put on a public performance once a week from mid-July to mid-August. Brainin, who teaches the class and programs the series, uses it to expand the number of people, both UCSB students and professional writers, who can benefit from the Launch Pad experience.
As anyone who has ever produced any kind of theatrical production with less than a month’s rehearsal will tell you, it’s not for the faint of heart. This year, due to a happy coincidence involving one of Santa Barbara’s greatest writers, the roster of plays has gone from three to four, with a pair of top professional actors joining in for the final show. Last week, on Thursday, July 20, the audience at UCSB’s Studio Theater saw Through the Eye of a Needle, Jami Brandli’s dramedy about a family dealing with the loss of their daughter, a U.S. Navy corpsman who died in the Iraq War. On Thursday, July 27, James Still returns to Launch Pad with (A) New World, which tells the story of the first recorded trial for a sex crime in the Plymouth Colony, circa 1637. Does it come as a surprise that the community that punished supposed witches so fiercely was also hostile to two young men who, the suit claimed, were “often spending their seed, one upon another”?
On Thursday, August 3, Anne García-Romero’s Staging the Daffy Dame makes an unprecedented return engagement for further development after being part of the 2016 summer reading series. This backstage comedy satirizes the dilemma of a politically conscious director who seeks to produce a “bare-bones” version of Lope de Vega’s La dama boba with a nontraditional cast at a public university somewhere in contemporary California.
Finally, there’s a special treat awaiting fans of Santa Barbara’s own Ross Macdonald on Thursday, August 10, when Meanwhile There Are Letters, a dramatization by Irish writer Declan Hughes of Macdonald’s late-life correspondence with fellow writer Eudora Welty, concludes the season. Watch The Santa Barbara Independent for a more in-depth look at this fascinating new project.