Jackson Gillies, Lois Mahalia, and Miriam Dance perform. | Credit: Gail Arnold

On June 23 at its annual Curtain Up! fundraiser, Ensemble Theatre Company (ETC) brilliantly celebrated some of Santa Barbara’s legendary musical talent in a show featuring iconic songs from Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Katy Perry, The Beach Boys, Jackson Browne, and more. The talented singers performing were Jackson Gillies, Lois Mahalia, Miriam Dance, and Morganfield Burnett.

Executive Director Scott DeVine, who hatched the idea, saw it as an extension of ETC’s broader theme for next season of Legends and Legacies — to celebrate music written by Santa Barbarians and performed by “amazingly talented artists who call Santa Barbara home.” The show also included highlights from next season’s productions of Gershwin and Million Dollar Quartet. The show was a full multimedia experience, with images of iconic Santa Barbara locales on a giant backdrop thoughtfully paired with each song.

The show quite fittingly kicked off with Kenny Loggins’s and Bob James’s “Celebrate Me Home.” Loggins, a resident, is also a longtime friend of show director Jenny Sullivan and has been a mentor to Jackson Gillies. Other featured songwriters also had strong ties not only to Santa Barbara, but also to the singers and musicians performing.

According to Sullivan, who has directed 14 plays for ETC and previous Curtain Up! events, once the singers and band members were chosen, the music picked itself. For example, with Lois Mahalia and Miriam Dance on stage, Sullivan settled quickly on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and paired it with images of various Santa Barbara beach scenes projected on the backdrop. With these two singers, Sullivan related, she also knew including Katy Perry’s “Roar” would be fun.

Earth Day was memorialized with Loggins’s “Conviction of the Heart” set to black-and-white photos from Santa Barbara’s first Earth Day.

The show began with a backdrop designed by the Ukrainian immigrant artist Alexandra Shurun, which showcased myriad Santa Barbara organizations. This component was added, Sullivan shared, because of all the anniversaries this year, including The Granada Theatre (100 years), The Lobero Theatre (100 years since rebuilding) and Summer Solstice (50 years).  

After the show, the 140 guests enjoyed a cocktail hour in the garden at the Santa Barbara Club, followed by dinner. 

During the short program and in an interview, DeVine shared some of ETC’s recent marks of success. This past season, audience attendance reached a record level, surpassing its pre-pandemic high. Annual growth in subscriptions was at 12 percent, while single ticket purchases were up 29 percent and earned income reached a record level.

DeVine credits these successes in part to the strategic investments ETC has made in staff and artistic compensation. “The decision to invest in the people who make and support the art on our stage has made a significant difference in our productions, which is evidenced by the feedback I am hearing from audience members and the accolades and awards we are receiving from the Santa Barbara and Southern California community.” 

Awards for this last season include this publication’s Indy Award for Bringing High Level Theater to Santa Barbara for the production of The Lehman Trilogy. ETC won the Hollywood Branch of the NAACP Awards both for Best Equity Ensemble and Best Equity Producer for Carmen Jones.

Actor Leo Marks explained to guests that the difference between a three-week rehearsal period, which some theaters have shrunk down to, and the five week period ETC gave him and others in the Lehman Trilogy, was “everything you come to the theater to experience. . . . nuance; richness; texture; emotional complexity; everything that gives the show the spark of life. A slight hesitation between the words that makes you catch your own breath; the rhythm between two characters that somehow teaches you their whole complex history; the fleeting expression that flashes across a face and makes you feel you’re not watching an actor performing, but witnessing a human being in the most intimate of private moments—because you are.”

ETC recently joined the League of Resident Theatres, making it, according to DeVine, “one of 81 of the most prestigious theaters in the country,” alongside the Manhattan Theatre Club, the Lincoln Center Theater, and the Pasadena Playhouse.

DeVine is excited about next season’s Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors, for which ETC recently held auditions in L.A., where more than 2,000 actors applied. Those cast, according to DeVine, “will make this a very sexy and funny take on the traditional Dracula story.” ETC is also already preparing for Million Dollar Quartet, which follows last year’s success of Ring of Fire, with “one of the greatest jam sessions ever.” Actor LJ Benet will be back, this time as Elvis.

The fundraising event, which netted $250,000, featured Music Director/Arranger John Enrico Douglas, Talent Coordinator Randy Tico, and musicians George Friedenthal, Austin Beede, Tariqh Akoni, Maitland Ward, and Justin Claveria. Ticket sales cover only about half of ETC’s expenses, making fundraising essential.

Artistic Associate and Director of Education Brian McDonald, Executive Director Scott DeVine, and Board President Robert Turbin | Gail Arnold
Boardmember Jon Kechejian, Event Committee Co-Chair Helene Segal, and Boardmember and Event Committee Co-Chair George Konstantinow | Gail Arnold
Actor Troy Blendell, Director Jenny Sullivan, and Actor Leo Marks | Gail Arnold
Sandy Schoolfield, Actor LJ Benet, and Aimee Kravette | Gail Arnold
Josh Puckett and Boardmember Gabriella Little | Gail Arnold
Amy Tharakan and ETC Foundation Boardmember George Tharakan | Gail Arnold
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