As teachers and students everywhere scramble to reinvent education under the constraints of social distancing, new developments in remote learning take place daily. Nowhere is this process more crucial than among students of the performing arts, whose core activities — concerts, plays, and recitals — have been disrupted and are likely to remain so.

At UCSB, where the Theater and Dance program offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, and where the curriculum follows a conservatory model, the double-barreled loss of face-to-face instruction and live audiences is having a radical impact. Fortunately, the leaders of the school’s new play development program, Launch Pad, have already begun finding ways not only to circumvent delays in providing instruction, but to turn the evolving crisis to some new advantage. Beginning on Thursday, April 2, at 7 p.m., Launch Pad takes to the Internet via Zoom for the first installment in what promises to be an exciting and innovative series of online performances of new plays and other works in progress. 

Launch Pad online kicks off with a new comedy called Fortunes that was written by Dan Castellaneta and Deb Lacusta before COVID-19 forced Californians to shelter in place. Risa Brainin, UCSB professor of theater and founder/artistic director of Launch Pad, said that students and the writers were ready to go into conventional rehearsals on March 10, the night that Chancellor Yang announced that winter quarter would go to online teaching.

The play, which takes place in 1980, tells the story of a Detroit psychic who tells the future correctly for a group of people gathered in a coffee shop. Omniscience has its limits, however, and the show finds comedy, and according to Brainin, “sweetness” in examining life in the early days of the Reagan era through a lens tinged with fantasy. Dan Castellaneta is a consulting producer/writer on The Simpsons, and Deb Lacusta is a writer, improvisational actress, and video artist based in Los Angeles. 

For three nights this week, rather than meeting in a rehearsal space at UCSB, the cast, which includes theater instructor Michael Bernard along with UCSB theater students Sheila Correa, Harry Davis, Mateusz Kranz, Sara Neal, Harutun Simonian, Lana Spring, and Hailey Turner, will gather by videoconference to develop the play. On Thursday, April 2, at 6:55 p.m., the show’s public Zoom link will open, allowing an online audience to enter the virtual theater. After the reading, the director, writers, and cast will conduct a question and answer session with the online audience. 

Past participants in the Launch Pad program are rallying to offer their support to the current crop of BFA students through a second initiative designed to address the longer term issues raised by social distancing. When Brainin and her colleague Professor Annie Torsiglieri got together to think about how it might be possible to teach directing online, they hit on the idea that in order for this kind of instruction to make sense, students would need to be working on “scripts that were meant to be done this way.” They also had the needs of their acting students in mind, as their spring schedule of performances is now canceled. 

Of the 29 distinguished playwrights who have passed through the Launch Pad program, more than half have already committed to providing a new work written specifically to be performed in this new medium. As of March 30, the list includes Mia Chung, Katie Bender, Brian Otaño, Beth Lincks, Cheri Steinkellner, Jami Brandli, Anne Garcia-Romero, Annie Torsiglieri, James Still, Cheryl L. West, Lynn Rosen, John Walch, Linda Alper, Alison Tatlock, and Idris Goodwin. 

The prompt the writers were asked to respond to, “Alone, Together,” allows them to create for as many cast members as they like, as long as the story does not require that they be in a room together. The pieces are due soon — April 10 — and when the student directors and actors are through rehearsing them, there will be an online festival in June that will be open to the public. In addition, the plan is to make these scripts available in PDF form to other college theater programs facing the same challenges. 

The goal, according to Brainin, is to continue to provide what Launch Pad was created for — student experience working with living playwrights on pieces that are still in development. It’s been a core component of UCSB’s BFA Theater program for 15 years now, and, thanks to the ingenuity of the students and faculty, the generosity of the playwrights, and the lifeline of the Internet, the show goes on. 

411 | To watch the Thursday, April 2, 7 p.m. reading of Fortunes, go to

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