Famed for its open spaces and agricultural output, the Santa Ynez Valley still manages to keep one civic foot firmly planted in the arts. While many of its young people become ranchers, vintners, and business owners, others follow the scent of greasepaint straight into the theater.
Thanks to the Solvang Festival Theater and its Santa Maria-based associate, Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA), aspiring actors, directors, and behind-the-scenes technicians can hone their skills right here in Santa Barbara County.
Under the aegis of Allan Hancock College, PCPA offers acting and technical theater training programs that teach students the nuts and bolts of stagecraft, while giving them the practical experience that can lead to professional employment in theaters around the world.
Corey Stram, 22, grew up in the tiny town of Ballard and attended Olive Grove Charter School in Los Olivos, where he sampled the joys of acting and dancing with Los Olivos Dance Gallery and the Valley Players. He then did lighting for stage productions at Santa Ynez High School. While attending Santa Barbara City College, Stram developed an interest in costuming—creating the masks, headdress, and body suits that bring the actors’ characters to life—and turned to PCPA for an immersion course in the trade.
“I realized I was more into costume craft, as opposed to stitching,” Stram says, “and that there aren’t a lot of good technicians dedicated to theater. It helps to be a dancer or actor to understand the need for dedicated technicians.
“I found that work is always consistent for a technician,” he adds, “and that they have lots of opportunities to travel or take a resident design position in theater.”
In the summer of 2006, Stram entered PCPA’s technical theater conservatory as an intern and has since powered through the intensive, two-year certificate program.
Logging 60-hour weeks and learning to create everything from props and costumes to the decorative ephemera that lend veracity to a scene, he finds himself soaking up the finer points of welding and soldering, as well as the dynamics of cooperating with dozens of other technicians to mount a successful production.
“It’s very positive, with lots of hands-on experience,” Stram declares. “I enjoy working closely with the stage manager, designers, and actors in the collaborative process.
“PCPA is great if you’re unsure about what you want to emphasize,” he continues, “because we have every department that a professional theater has. You’re required to spend approximately a month in each department, so you really get to see the big picture.”
Six days a week, Stram and his fellow students in the technical program attend a three-hour production lab, followed by three to five hours of performance lab, working alongside their teachers.
PCPA’s communications director, Craig Shafer, notes that many conservatory graduates find the curriculum to be “so fast and intense, they don’t know what they’ve learned until they leave. They’re given practical tools so they can get a job, both in acting and technical fields.
“Here in the middle of an agricultural center,” Shafer says, “is this wonderful cultural gem, continuously in operation since 1964, where people can get lots of real-world theater experience.”
Stram, whose costuming work has led to an interest in properties, (hand props, furniture and set dressing), intends to beef up his already impressive resume with a four-year degree, probably from San Diego State University.
“It has an integrated theater, film and television program that’s associated with the Globe Theater,” he says, “and they have a good costume crafts department. After that, I’m interested in going to Seattle. There’s a booming theater scene in the northwest.
“In five years,” he confidently reveals, “I’d like to be working off-Broadway in New York in costume crafts.”
Stram’s drive to succeed in his chosen career stems from more than just a love of greasepaint and stagecraft, however. He feels that, given quality productions, the theater can be a powerful agent for positive shifts within the body politic.
“The production Rent captured a generation,” Stram says, “and if we can find a new piece of work to inspire the next generation to go to the theater, we will have succeeded in keeping the art form alive.
“We’re spending eight hours a day in front of computers and TV,” he says, “and people are desperate to see human interaction, because we’re not getting enough of it. My hope is that theatrical performance has the potential for social change, and that will only come with today’s young people attending live performances.”