Layman Leaves a Lasting Legacy After 24 years at SBHS Theater Helm

By Steven Libowitz   |   May 14, 2020
Big Fish by SBHS Theater Department, directed by Otto Layman. Photo: © Isaac Hernandez/

If things were different, if the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 hadn’t turned into a global pandemic shutting down almost everything across the world, this would have been a weekend of wonder for Otto Layman. The theater director had planned a big blowout of a show to serve as his crowning achievement in a career that spanned just shy of a quarter-century at Santa Barbara High School. Bells would be ringing, and not just to herald the final production of Layman’s distinguished decades, but also because that show that would have opened on campus on Friday night was the musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, complete with a set, as with nearly all of Layman’s shows, that would rival most anything this side of Broadway, including a working bell tower for Quasimodo to operate.

Urinetown, The Musical, “Don’t Be the Bunny” Fall 2017
Set of Hair. Designed and directed by Otto Layman, Spring 2016.

As it is, of course, there will be no final show. The school is shuttered, the students all practicing remote learning via Zoom while sheltering in place, unable to gather in person because of social distancing. There are no long days and evenings of rehearsals, no jitters about opening night, and no moments anticipating the final curtain on the last night, when Layman and his remarkable staff would have bid farewell to this year’s graduating seniors with certificates and smiles, and lowered the curtain on his career.

But even if the light will never go up for Notre Dame, the sun is still setting on Layman’s SBHS career. Which makes it a poignant moment to pause and reflect on such accomplishments as rescuing a program in shambles and turning it into the most respected public high school theater in the area, one that has produced exclusively musicals in the past decade-plus. It’s a legacy that boasts serving as the first high school in the country to mount student productions of Spamalot, Bullets Over Broadway, and Head over Heels, and one of the few to produce Chicago without any cuts. It includes shaping the pre-professional careers of three musical theater kids from Montecito – Evan Hughes, Jana Mcintyre,and Geoff Hahn – who have gone on to rewarding careers in opera, and so many more too numerous to list.

Otto and wife, Mary Layman. The best reason to retire.

But as much as Layman is leaving behind mentorships and magnificent musicals, he’s also taking with him moments of connection and ongoing relationships with his students, their families, and the communities that have no end date.

Kenny Loggins performs “Footloose” with the cast of Footloose, closing night 2009

Layman looked back at his years at SBHS – which began after he earned a masters in education at UCSB following years as an actor and writer with the Ensemble Theatre of Santa Barbara in its early days – over the phone during a break from cleaning out his office at the Anapamu Street campus.

“I’ve been going through twenty-five years of ghosts,” he said, staring at the now-bare walls that once displayed posters from his 50-plus productions. “I’m still waking up at three in the morning because that’s what I do when I’m directing a show. I solve problems in my sleep. But I don’t have much to be anxious about now.”

Except leaving. Because even as we talked in his nearly empty office, the verbs were all present tense, as if nothing was actually going to be different.

Q. What stands out most from when you first started at SBHS?

A. The theater program had really gotten kind of grim, nobody was going to the shows, the place physically was run down and the teacher in charge had quit that summer. So they gave me free rein to design it as a real theater, with professional designers and choreographers, and to just really push the envelope. We created a program almost from whole cloth. Because there were very few students left, but the ones that were here were a core group of 15 kids who clung to it. It was great to discover the program together.

Otto and Sable Layman at a rehearsal of On The Razzle in 1999

The orchestra had changed direction to jazz bands, so there was no orchestra to do a musical. So I was able to use the people I knew in the community to come in and create it. I had never directed a musical before I came here, so Christina McCarthy and John Douglas and John Nathan helped us to make the switch.

How were you able to do things that many people, myself included, considered some of the best musicals in town, save for maybe the Broadway touring shows?

We treat the students like actors, we don’t treat them like kids. We’ve done material that a lot of people feel might be beyond them because there’s an instinct to shield kids from the world, but we think you should confront it. And while there is ego in theater, of course, our philosophy was that your job is to serve the production, do your part in the show and your job as an actor is to make other people look good, not yourself.

Plus, we had such a freedom to create here that it attracted those professionals who can’t do that in the real world. That’s how we got John Nathan, because they don’t do musicals at UCSB, and he brought the jazz ensemble. I kept meeting other people who liked what we were doing, and that helped us build the stagecraft program here, which I think is the best in town. Christina’s philosophy for choreography for the stage really meshed with mine. She taught me the function of dance in a musical. It just kept growing.

Beyond the high technical level, it also seemed like most of your shows had that true ensemble feeling where it wasn’t just the stars who did a great job. How did you develop that?

I think there can be too much emphasis on technique in high school. There’s a sort of school (of thought) – not unique to Santa Barbara – where theater ends up becoming kind of presentational, with everything being played out to the audience and you forget about the people on stage with you. I much prefer a kind of authentic, raw, organic performance from a kid. I think students respond to that. If you give them room to be fierce and bold, they will take it. I think we scare parents sometimes, but on the other hand it’s been… Well, parents send their kids here because of the community that we build. It’s been heartening to me to see that they still have a Facebook group for the theater family that’s been going for 20 years.

Let’s rewind through the videotape, sort of “This is Your Life” style. What are some of the things that stand out: particular shows, people, audience response, controversy?

I remember the first time – and it still happens to me every show – when we let people in for that first preview and I felt we weren’t quite done or ready to open. I never went out front before a show because I always had the feeling that nobody would be out there in the hallway to see it. No matter how many shows we do, I always still have that feeling.

Cast of In the Heights, Fall 2018

It was thrilling to have my child (Sable Layman, who played the part of Roxy in Chicago as a sophomore) in the program here. I think about her running up and down the ramps outside. I used to bring her to class all the way back when she was six months old. We’d set up the baby stuff on stage and she’d be there all the time while we were working. Now she’s about to graduate from UC Berkeley and become a theater teacher in San Francisco, which warms my heart.

I’m in my empty office right now. But I still feel that energy from having students in here every day. I loved the noise level. So I loved the remarkable talent and being able to explore and build things with students here.

Another highlight is when we were invited to perform Hair at a festival in Scotland.

A turning point came when I met Jeff Barry and he enrolled his twins Jessica and Clayton here. That really changed our direction coming right after Scotland. After that, we only did two more straight plays: Alice in Wonderland and Pinocchio, which were my adaptations. We finally had the boys to do musicals full time, that era that also had Jordan Lemmond, and Emilio Madrid, who made it cool for boys to want to be in theater and do musicals. They were part of a steady dream of big actors and singers, many of whom are now out there working.

But for me, it’s not the kids working in the business. I’d say 99 percent of the kids who were in theater here aren’t involved in that world anymore. But they learned how to be bold, and quick on their feet, and they care about other people. I hope we made a great family for them, and that I leave this place better than I found it.

There were some other very cool things. We did a lot of stuff here after I learned that you don’t ask – you just do it. We made it rain on stage for Singing in the Rain when we had a 500-gallon water tank in the basement that we pumped up into the fly (rigging above the stage). For Bullets Over Broadway we built the Gowanus Canal and had actors plunge into it. That was part of not only producing great shows, but teaching that the only limits are the ones you impose on yourself.

I’m pausing here because I’m tearing up a bit. Sorry to be so emotional. I just love the idea of not only training actors but shaping better people.

Yeah, it’s been emotional for me too. There’s really no good time to leave. How can I say, you’re the last freshman class I’ll ever have? But I am leaving behind 20 great talents for whomever is next, not even counting the new ones coming in. I created something really great to work with. Plus the Parent’s Foundation is just amazing – we have to raise all the money, and that’s about $50,000-$75,000 a year. We pay for our musicians, and double musical rights. But the parents have always been enthusiastic about all of it, here every night, doing ticket sales, concessions, and fundraising. They’re a remarkable group. It makes a huge difference when the parents buy into it.

What do you consider to be your legacy in high school theater in Santa Barbara?

I think that we succeeded in finding an academic respect for the theater that can be elusive because it’s usually considered an elective or a fluffy course. But the community and the school and the district realized these kids actually work harder than any other non-theater students, including athletes. They’re taking AP classes and they’re also here in the theater a minimum of 15 hours a week during a show. A semester is a total of 90 hours of class time, by the time we close, a kid in the musical has done 220 hours, more than double. And that’s why I think, when I look back, that we’ve left a body of work that when people see what we’ve done, they say I can’t believe this is high school theater.

What resonates most for you right now in this moment as you consider what you accomplished? Perhaps, even, what you are most proud of?

 (Pauses for several moments.) I’m going to get personal because you’ve been vulnerable too. I grew up in a divorced family, and I didn’t really have a father. I saw my biological dad three times in the last 40 years of his life. So for me to be a parent to hundreds of kids over the years has been an overwhelming emotional experience. Outside of the shows we do and the cool stuff that we make, being able to spend every day with this family of kids who trust you, fight with you, cry with you, yell at you… It feels like I created a place where people can express their love and commitment. That’s really what I take away, the personal relationships that have that parental flavor.

What is in your future? Complete retirement? Some other projects?

Well mostly (when the pandemic recedes) I’ll start by chasing my wife around the world because we’re big travelers. We had planned a big bicycling trip in Croatia for this summer, and we’ll do that once my (injured) knee is better. Also, I was originally a writer, and I still write. So I’ll have more time to be more creative. But I don’t think I’ll direct. When I walk away, I’m done. I can’t imagine directing a show at somebody else’s space with their rules. I may still design for here, but I don’t want to interfere or cast a shadow on whomever comes after me. So my presence will be scarce. In fact, I look forward to going and seeing shows just by watching them, not thinking about how I would direct it, or counting the number of musical instruments.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what the next chapter of my life is. But I’ve never been bored a day in my life. If you have a rich interior life like I do, that’s kind of impossible.


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