At PCPA, Interplay is the Thing

By Steven Libowitz   |   September 3, 2020

Every arts organization has responded to the coronavirus crisis in their own way and in their own time, from raiding the archives to shutting down completely to, in the case of Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre (see above), trying innovative new ways to still go live and in person despite the pandemic.

“What’s amazing about new plays is that they speak to the immediate moment that we’re in,” said Emily Trask, PCPA Theaterfest’s resident artist and literary associate

PCPA Theaterfest, which in normal times would be winding up its outdoor season of plays in repertory at Solvang’s Festival Theater and gearing up for a new academic year of productions in Santa Maria, has tried a multifaceted approach.

“At first, we had a significant period of adjustment to get our new bearings in the virtual world, especially considering the fact that one of the main tenets of theater is for people to be able to gather in the same place and hear a story,” explained Emily Trask, one of PCPA’s current resident artists and its literary associate. “But it became really clear that right now the need for engagement, the need for community, and the need for story were even more valuable than ever. One of the things that they teach you in theater school is improvisation and working with what you’ve been given. So our training as actors and theater artists really came into play here.”

What emerged was PCPA Plays On!, a variety of virtual programs for all ages, including Talkback Thursdays, in which resident artist Erik Stein interviews theatre artists from across the country from Broadway to national tours, onstage and off, all of whom have graced the hallways of PCPA; Community Enrichment sessions with longtime PCPA actress and Director of Engagement Kitty Balay, a series of virtual programming on Zoom that offer a glimpse into the inner workings at PCPA and introduce community members of all ages to company members; “Sunday in Isolation with George” with 20-year PCPA veteran resident artist George Walker who is sharing some of his hidden talents including juggling and whip-cracking; and The Rediscovery Reading Club, a book club featuring spirited discussions of classic dramatic texts moderated by Trask and featuring select scenes and moments from each month’s play acted and explored by PCPA artists to illuminate the text.

As autumn approaches, PCPA is adapting its annual InterPlay Reading Series, normally staged readings of recent works that are now moving to Zoom. Trask revived the series just last season after a near-decade’s hiatus, and has doubled the output for the online world, taking on six plays in just six weeks, all serving as preview performances of works that have premiered just once elsewhere within the last three years in advance of what might turn into full scale PCPA productions down the road.

“What’s amazing about new plays is that they speak to the immediate moment that we’re in,” said Trask, who also serves as PCPA’s dramaturg. “They give us a sense of connection and community in a way that is really moving and powerful and also healing and exciting… We can sometimes think of theater as cultural medicine or something stodgy but new plays are very fresh. And whether you’re working on a classical work like I mostly do with Shakespeare, or a new play, the question comes down to why this word now? Why this statement now? And for me that’s so just thrilling to engage in.”

That obviously applies with the series debut, Mat Smart’s The Agitator, which follows the turbulent and enduring friendship of two of America’s greatest agitators, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Smart’s historical play of rebellion and revolution echoes in today’s time, what with Black Lives Matter and #MeToo still resonating, and also asks the timely question: “Do you believe this can ever be a country for all?”

“I had a colleague who was working on the workshop premiere about a year and half ago, and when I read it I thought it would be good for our company,” recalled Trask, who will also be directing the readings. “But I just reread it this morning and I had a completely different experience. These lines that were taken from a historical context all of a sudden, after what’s been happening, strike you in a whole new, very immediate way. And I think that that’s what good, fresh theater can do.” 

Things I Know To Be True, which follows, comes from Andrew Bovell, one of Australia’s premier playwrights, and the PCPA reading represents just the second American performances of the poignant story that follows a year in the life of one American family as they navigate changes, grapple with truths, and redefine love. Trask described the third play, Octavio Solis’s Mother Road, as “the sequel to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and begins almost right in our backyard here. It’s a perfect Central Coast story that appeals to our fantastic diverse demographics in this area.”

While the final three plays in the series are yet to be confirmed, Trask said they would be of similar quality and appeal.

“We have relationships with playwrights who are working, and we keep an ear to the ground of what would be great for our company and our community,” she said. “The series is like a really good first date in that the audience has a chance to get to meet and know a new voice, a new playwright, a new way of storytelling and get interested in hearing more from them or opportunities to engage in that way.”

The staged reading format helps, she said. “There’s a lot of value in doing play readings because there’s nothing between the audience and the play. Yes, a full production is obviously the ultimate goal and ultimate art form. But when you hear a play without anything else in terms of costumes or staging or props, when it’s focused on the words, you can hear it just as the writer intended. There’s no membrane between the play and the audience. It feels like you’re kind of working without a net in a cool, very fresh and alive way.”

Each week’s two performances conclude with talkbacks with the actors, directors, and even the playwrights themselves, joining over Zoom from wherever they are sheltering.

“The silver lining in this is we’re not tied to a certain mile radius with this work,” Trask said. “(During the pandemic), we’ve actually been able to reach a broader audience, spend time with people across the country who otherwise may not have gotten to join us. So even though, obviously, we’d all like to be in a room together, this is the next best thing. It’s been great for the community, but wonderful for us at PCPA to continue to feed ourselves doing what we love and sharing stories. It’s our medicine in this challenging time.”

While the plays don’t get underway until September 18, Trask will be joined by PCPA Artistic Director Mark Booher at 6 pm on Wednesday, September 9, for a party to preview the season on Zoom. Visit for details on all of the company’s programs.


You might also be interested in...