Look Who’s Talking

By Steven Libowitz   |   February 8, 2018
Ensemble Theatre Co. – “the City of Conversation” publicity 1/25/18 1st Congregational Church

Anthony Giardina‘s 2010 play The City of Conversation has proven to be even more prophetic than even he might have imagined. Set in Washington, D.C., during three important periods in recent American politics, the play spans nearly 30 years, from Fall of 1979 to January 2009, and traces the evolution of 1960s-raised Hester Ferris from Georgetown political hostess whose posh dinner parties influence legislation under President Carter to activists against Reagan to the Obama inauguration. Along the way, trying to keep a fracturing family together over the years and newer generations gets pit against defending opposing political views, making for a compelling and moving drama.

Sharon Lawrence, the veteran actress (TV’s NYPD Blue), stars as Hester, with new recent Santa Barbara resident Meredith Baxter (Family Ties) portraying her older sister. Lawrence, who is making her Santa Barbara theatrical debut with the work that plays at Ensemble Theater’s New Vic Theater February 8-25, She shared her perspective on the play and its place in our times over the phone last week.

Q. What drew you to the role?

A. I loved the play, but also she’s one of those characters that requires everything of your skill set – concentration, clear diction, stamina. There are so many female roles, and they all have such depth and dimension.

I understand this is a pretty topical play, even if it’s set over a 30-years span.

Yes. The ’16 election made it even clearer: congressional members don’t compromise. They don’t practice that art anymore. It’s not in fashion. But this play takes place when Georgetown was where many relationships and agreements were formed around dining tables hosted by women like my character. Congressmen got to know each other off the Hill, with a drink and a cigar. This is how women wielded power back then, in softer ways. But now there’s no compromise at all. It’s become the platform to just say no. The play is very well-crafted. It’s about opening your mind.

So, in these divisive times, how are audiences not set against each other?

Well, they might be. But the playwright asks us to look at both sides. The characters present their arguments so cogently and with respect, which debates had back then. But at some point, loyalty becomes the issue. Philosophical ideas matter, but loyalty and family are also part of identity. Where does one give way to the other? Passion is powerful, but it cost something.

Has there been an impact for you?

There’s an interesting argument that a Senator makes about shifting culture. It’s a funny gray area that the playwright articulates well. I’m not shifting. But (the play) has allowed me to hear more about the gray area where people live, to hear the other side, and that tradition can be part of identity.

Do you have a preference for film versus TV or the theater?

I don’t mean to be cheeky, but it’s like asking “Do you prefer Chinese or Italian food?” They’re all good! Fortunately, I don’t have to choose one or the other. But I have to be on stage with a company of people in front of a live audience, because it’s sacred. It takes a little more sacrifice because you give up weekends, and your family and life are put on hold. But it’s one of the rare times that we all come together in one place, agreeing that we’re going to focus on this one event without distractions. It’s a symbiotic relationship that to me is very gratifying. I love being on stage, and I love being in the audience. I have subscriptions to just about every theater in L.A. It feeds me artistically, spiritually, and emotionally.

(Ensemble’s production of The City of Conversation begins previews on Thursday, February 8, opens on Saturday, February 10, and runs through Sunday, February 25, at The New Vic, 33 W. Victoria Street.)

Local Docs Close out SBIFF

Santa Barbara filmmakers haven’t always been thrilled with the level of exposure for their films at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), even though there are separate categories for features and shorts as well as short documentaries, and most of the programs get at least one playing in a larger theater. But this year, the nonfiction auteurs certainly aren’t being given, ahem, short shrift at SBIFF 2018, as the six Santa Barbara Documentary Shorts will screen together Saturday night at the Arlington Theatre as the festival’s Closing Night Film.

It’s not clear that decision was made before or after the Thomas Fire/Montecito Mudslide twin tragedies. But it sure seems appropriate to take a sober look at local issues and institutions. One of the films, Out of the Ashes, even delves into Santa Barbara wildfires. And one imagines there will be plenty of nonfiction films in future SBIFFs documenting the unfortunate events, chronicles of the losses, the heroics of firefighters and other first responders and the community’s recovery efforts.

But for now, we have a couple of short docs centered on two of Santa Barbara’s most cherished traditions. Justin Gunn‘s A Solstice in Santa Barbara is a remarkable movie, considering its maker only moved to town last March, never having previously heard of the annual parade. Gunn is a former news reporter and producer in Los Angeles, one of the co-founders of the now-defunct Current TV, so he’s got the cinematic and journalistic chops. More importantly, he’s also a veteran of Burning Man since 1999, so the idea of moveable public art was an instant connection.

“As soon as I heard about Solstice, it sounded like my tribe. I knew I needed to be involved,” Gunn recalled earlier this week. When the workshop opened last spring, he planned on offering his artistic and building expertise. “But then I discovered these incredible characters and saw all the brilliant work. The filmmaker side of me took over, and I went and got my camera.”

Working basically as “a one-man band,” Gunn imbedded himself at the workshop, interviewed a few key players, and captured the building of floats. On parade day, he filmed the rollout in the morning, then got into costume, jumped on his rocket and joined the procession. “I shot the parade from within it – a perspective that’s unique.”

The film opens with some of Solstice’s history but largely serves as a first-person perspective on the Santa Barbara tradition. “It mirrors my own experience from when I first got excited to be at the workshop and to the parade itself. I made it as a love letter to the Solstice community.”

Having it play in the spotlight at the Arlington is an unexpected bonus, Gunn said. “Hopefully it will demystify the workshop for those who don’t know about it, and let people get a glimpse of the beauty, the pageantry, and the magic that goes into Solstice.”

Fiesta Festivities

A “love letter” to another longstanding local tradition was also the motivation for the latest short film from Montecito-raised Casey McGarry, whose Cascarones represents his third SBIFF entry. But the filmmaker’s take on the confetti-filled eggshells that are ubiquitous during Old Spanish Days has a little more edge, focusing on the Mexican women and families who create the vast majority of the decorated novelties rather than the cascarones‘ destination of being smashed over someone’s head.

“Fiesta seems contrived and a bit silly,” McGarry explained. “To me, it’s way cooler if you look at it through the lens of the women who make the cascarones. They’re truly the heart and soul of Fiesta. The culture is what appealed to me.”

The film was three years in the making, before they started shooting, McGarry said, adding that he was influenced by Buena Vista Social Club, an early favorite of his, in employing a Cinema Verite approach. “We tried to cram as much of the story as we could into just 15 minutes. It’s just a snapshot into the lives of the women who make them.”

Like anyone who has taken time to notice, McGarry was amazed at how much work goes into making the cascarones from start to finish. Also impressive is that, after decades, the items still sell largely for 25 cents each.

“As (co-director and narrator) Chris Price says, ‘Where can you get anything else for a quarter?'”

Soul Sounds

Devotion to another Santa Barbara staple is also at the root of Soul of the City, John Klein‘s take on the controversy surrounding the renewal of the lease for the East Beach Grill – though given the way things turn out – the restaurant closed at the end of last year – it’s not a celebration. Still, it’s an interesting look at the grill’s longtime owner, and how fans tried to keep it around.

Also screening in the program are Ryan Slattery‘s Crossing the Channel, Danielle Cohen‘s The Tipping Point, and Out of the Ashes. For ticket information, call 963-0023 or visit www.sbiff.org.

Classical Corner

The St. Olaf Choir, the 105-year-old ensemble based at the Norwegian college in Minnesota and currently conducted by Dr. Anton Armstrong, returns to town for a performance at First Presbyterian Church at 7:30 pm on Thursday, February 8. As an adjunct of its mission to provide music of the highest quality to lift people’s hearts and spirits, St. Olaf – the pioneering a cappella choir that features 75 mixed voices – is offering free tickets for evacuees and donating half of the net proceeds to Unity Shoppe’s Disaster Resource program. Tickets are $40 general, $10 students. Call (800) 363-5487 or visit www.stolaf.edu.

The Marriage of Figaro

If there’s a conflict between town and gown regarding UCSB, it sure doesn’t extend to the area of opera. The city’s professional company, Opera Santa Barbara (OSB), has employed two faculty members – superstar soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and tenor Ben Brecher – more than once in recent years, and now they’re returning the favor as OSB’s general and artistic director Kostis Protopapas is heading to campus to conduct the collegiate production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Voice professors Bayrakdarian (who has performed the classic opera on many of the world’s greatest stages) and Brecher will serve as stage director and music director, respectively, while the cast features many of the UCSB program’s top graduate students including Tyler Reece as Count Almaviva, Julie Davies as Countess Almaviva, Naomi Merer as Susanna, Byron Mayes as Figaro, and Kelly Newberry as Cherubino.

Performances take place 7:30 pm on Thursday and Saturday, February 8 & 10, at Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall. Tickets cost $10 to $20. Call 893-2064 or visit www.as.ucsb.edu. OSB, by the way, presents Figaro’s prequel, The Barber of Seville, with Protopapas conducting, at the Granada in early March.

Woodwinds, Strings, and Piano

Next up in the Santa Barbara Music Club free Saturday afternoon series are a bevy of musicians playing works for woodwinds, strings, and piano by Samuel Barber, Paul Valjean, Ellen Taffe Zwilich, Ian Clarke, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Albert Franz Doppler. Highlights of the program include Sonos5winds, a local woodwind quintet composed of flutist Andrea DiMaggio, clarinetist Joanne Kim, oboist Trey Farrell, bassoonist Andy Radford, and horn player John Mason, who offer Barber’s Summer Music, Op. 31 (1956) and Valjean’s Dance Suite for Woodwind Quintet (1955). Also of note: Zwilich’s Fantasy for Solo Violin (2014), which was commissioned by the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, and will be played by Nicole McKenzie. Show time is 3 pm at Faulkner Gallery.

Emerging Artists

The Calidore String Quartet won the $100,000 Grand-Prize of the inaugural M-Prize International Chamber Music Competition in 2016, claiming the largest prize ever for chamber music in the world. Last year, the Los Angeles-born quartet received the Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award, concurrent with their three-year residency with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Now, they’re coming to Montecito. Hailed as “remarkable for the precision of their expression, their understated but relentless intensity” by the Los Angeles Times and heralded by Gramophone as “the epitome of confidence and finesse,” the Calidore make their Santa Barbara debut Sunday afternoon at 3 at Hahn Hall. The program includes Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, op. 44, no. 1; Janácek’s String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata”); and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, op. 59, no. 3. Tickets are $35. Call 893-3535 or visit www.ArtsAndLectures.UCSB.edu.


The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has spent the last three decades reinventing the classical orchestra, choosing to work with several principal artists as opposed to just one conductor/music director, while also performing repertoire from a variety of eras on period-specific instruments. The London-based ensemble known for its excellence, diversity, and exploration now has three knights among its five principal members, including Sir Simon Rattle. Their CAMA concert on Tuesday evening at the Granada features Michael Gurevich as concertmaster/director, with violinist Nicola Benedetti serving as co-director and soloist for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.61, which will follow his Symphony No.4 in B-flat Major, Op.60. Who else would play a composer’s consecutively composed words in order? Tickets cost $39 to $119. Call 899-2222 or visit www.granadasb.org


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