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A place to willingly waste time in

Avila's loss is Paso's gain

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HOME SWEET HOME :  The amphitheatre at River Oaks Hot Springs is the Central Coast Shakespeare’s festival venue. - PHOTO COURTESY OF ESTRELLA ASSOCIATES, INC.
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF ESTRELLA ASSOCIATES, INC.
  • HOME SWEET HOME : The amphitheatre at River Oaks Hot Springs is the Central Coast Shakespeare’s festival venue.

The facts are as follows: last May Bellevue Charter School abruptly terminated its five-year relationship with the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival two months prior to opening night. Artistic Director Zoe Saba still doesn’t understand the reason, beyond the sudden decision by the school board that the festival posed an insurance liability, the fact that the festival possessed the same policy it had had for several years notwithstanding. The 2008 season productions of The Tempest and Treasure Island, which had already been cast, were cancelled; Miranda, Prospero, and Jim Hawkins doomed to remain on their respective islands until collected by a wayward season or ship.

But less than a year later the festival is no longer homeless. In fact, it would not be difficult to argue that the bard is much better situated in an outdoor amphitheater against a backdrop of rolling hills and grape vines than within the confines of a schoolyard. The venue, Paso Robles’ River Oaks Hot Springs off Highway 46E, besides boasting an epic quality, features a pond that laps at the very base of the stage and shrouds a conveniently placed island, providing a layering of different landscapes that can unfold as part of a tale or set as demand requires.  The setting remains casual enough for an outdoor picnic, but certainly more upscale than the playground.

And the venue meets the festival’s practical requirements, which were admittedly few. The space affords parking aplenty, room for the actors to change between scenes and, perhaps most importantly, lavatories in the nearby pavilion.

“There’s real toilets,” Saba practically crowed. “There’s indoor plumbing!”

The city of Paso Robles is certainly pleased with the match, heralding the arrival of the festival as something of a public relations coup. Saba inspected dozens of locations across the county, receiving outright offers of space from more than two dozen of them, which allowed for some pickiness on her part. As summer drew to a close, Pamela Lyon, a corporate communications employee of Estrella Associates, Inc., suggested that Saba consider River Oaks Hot Springs. She visited the amphitheater many times over the course of the next four months, viewing the space in all different casts of light, with Shakespearean actors, directors, and techies in tow. Finally, in December, all the details seemed to fall into place. And, as a nod to hard-learned lessons, the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival has a contract with the venue, guaranteeing that for the summer of 2009, at least, River Oaks Hot Springs is home. Although Saba is certainly looking to future seasons, citing a sense of established place as a necessary step towards becoming a destination regional theater company.

- X MARKS THE SPOT:  The Central Coast Shakespeare Festival will begin its 2009 season at River Oaks Hot Springs’ outdoor amphitheatre in Paso Robles on July 10. Performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Treasure Island run through Aug. 15. For more information, or to purchase tickets visit centralcoastshakespeare.org. -
  • X MARKS THE SPOT: The Central Coast Shakespeare Festival will begin its 2009 season at River Oaks Hot Springs’ outdoor amphitheatre in Paso Robles on July 10. Performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Treasure Island run through Aug. 15. For more information, or to purchase tickets visit centralcoastshakespeare.org.
Unlike the proverbial grasshopper, who occupied his summer with singing, Saba and her crew of volunteers put their lost season to good use. They cleaned through their storage unit, organized and washed costumes, categorized fabrics. After a summer spent bustling around the county, theater folks in tow, Saba really has earned her happy ending. Except that the new season is more a beginning than anything else.

“I’m one of those door-closes, window-opens sort of people,” she said. “And this is one of those cases that proves the point. I can’t wait to see what sort of things we create. There’s a lot of unknowns this season. Not knowing is sometimes the richest creative ground you can have.”

Saba plans to resurrect her previous season’s plans for Treasure Island, which she intends to direct herself. This particular version provides a twist to the classical tale, affording a greater number of roles for women as well as a healthy dose of audience participation. But in lieu of The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream will run in conjunction with the swashbuckling tale.

The amphitheater, and its surrounding landscape, is teeming with the specters of Shakespearean characters and deeds. Caliban literally has an inhabitable island, a space apart from the audience. Cleopatra has a river Cydnus on which to sail her perfumed barge. According to Saba, the possibilities the space possesses include both room to grow and an opportunity to create work with greater theatrical and metaphorical depth. With audiences seated on a steeply sloping expanse of grass, Saba can rightly boast that there isn’t a bad seat in the proverbial house. Of course, the shallow crescent-shaped stage poses challenges as well.
   “It does present problems for crossovers and backstage storage,” said Cal Poly Theatre Professor Al Schnupp, who often designs sets for the festival. “Masking the backstage or wing areas may be challenging for a designer, as well.” Any set design for a company working in repertory always contains a unique set of difficulties. According to Schnupp, entrances and exits must be generic and creating a path that allows for fluid movement can be an arduous task.

But audience members needn’t concern their pretty heads with such trivialities as masking and sight lines. Consider instead a sultry North County summer evening, the surrounding hills awash in the sun’s final golden gasp of color and light, a glass of wine from a collective of Highway 46E vintners (who will rotate as vendors during the season), and Puck’s sweetly pleading words, beseeching a pardon for an evening well spent.

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach’s barge is dyed the precise shade of the Salinas Valley mountains when twilight deepens into night. Tell her she’s full of fluff and nonsense at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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