A Bald(ridge) New World of Theater at SBHS

By Steven Libowitz   |   November 5, 2020
Justin Baldridge, the new director of Santa Barbara High School Theatre, brings his own vision to the estimable program

For some, stepping in as Santa Barbara High School Theatre’s new director might have included imagining the daunting task of filling the oversize shoes of predecessor Otto Layman, who retired last spring after 25 years at the helm. But Justin Baldridge doesn’t see his role as trying to duplicate what the beloved Layman accomplished in his quarter-century at the helm, but rather to bring his own vision to the estimable program that has spawned a number of professional careers over the years. 

It’s a vision that he’s honed over a varied career that has careened between both coasts, in and out of educational positions, and from acting to directing. While Baldridge’s most recent work has been on professional productions Off-Broadway in New York, he actually found his first jobs in the arts as a high school theater teacher right here in Southern California, a decade in the public schools including seven at Redondo Union High. Ironically, he never even auditioned for any roles up through his own high school years, because his first love was music, a field he only abandoned at college when he found that “it wasn’t what I thought it would be.”

Switching to majoring in theater on the advice of a friend, Baldridge said he struggled initially. “I was terrible at it for the first year and a half because I knew nothing,” he said with a laugh. “But then everything sort of clicked into place, and I grew and grew and grew.” 

Aiding other youngsters to discover their passion, purpose, and focus far younger than he did is part of Baldridge’s mission for his new gig at SBHS, which he accepted after the COVID shutdown caused all his New York work to dry up. “But I always loved teaching and I love getting to do it again,” he said. And he’s more than delighted to bring that experience in the fast-paced professional world back home to California to give the students here the best of both worlds. 

“A lot of these students here want to pursue theater professionally, and they have to be able to make choices on their own and just go for it,” he explained. “I’m starting to drop the seeds of that, which I want to do anyway, because I like to challenge students to make their own choices and let them discover things rather than have me tell them exactly what I want. I put a lot of weight on my actors’ shoulders which I think helps them grow, so that by the end of the program, I want them to have a really clear individual voice and a point of view about everything. I like students that are opinionated. And I like to help foster their opinion in a good way.”

Baldridge found that desire to bridge the gap between educational and professional theater naturally through his own work experience, especially after he left teaching to work as a director in New York. 

“When you’re working with students, you really play acting coach/mentor/director and the line gets really skewed because you have to do all three in the learning environment,” he explained. “It was a big adjustment in New York because it was only then that I finally understood when my directing teacher in college and grad school was saying, that I should guide the actors, let them make all the choices and gently push them along where you want them to go. Once I let my actors make more of those active choices, I found that my directing got stronger because I put more power into their hands. I’m excited to do that now with students to see how they respond.” 

Of course, the pandemic-induced parameters are continuing to curtail what he had hoped would happen right off the bat. 

“There’s only so much you can do over Zoom,” he said. “But I’ve started to implement what I can, and a lot of the students within the program were really surprised when I tell them, here’s the assignment, bring me what you come up with. I want them to make choices and then we’ll modify and adjust. I ask them, what do you think about this? Because to survive in the city actors have to know exactly what they’re doing and believe in everything a hundred percent or the industry is going to eat you alive.” 

Indeed, the advanced theater students are getting their chances to implement their vision right away in the new academic year, as COVID concerns will keep the kids out of classrooms at least until January, nixing any chances for a big musical production that might have required a heavier hand to kick off Baldridge’s tenure. Instead, he opted for virtual presentations of three radio plays by Tony Palermo, short works that in many ways are uniquely suited for remote productions during the pandemic through distance-learning classes as they were written specifically for the educational system and feature lots of small roles to spread the work around. 

“This is our first show,” Baldridge said. “We’re doing it in the advanced theater class. I wanted something where all the kids could have an equal opportunity to shine within the project.” 

The pieces – The Pirate’s Curse, Buried Treasure Hunters,and Detective – also not only offer a murder mystery and scary tales befitting Halloween and beyond, they also fit Baldridge’s partiality to “edgy dramatic work with strong emotional responses – that’s my favorite work to do.” 

The works’ brevity also let Baldridge offer budding student directors a chance to take the helm as the new teacher has been largely hands-off for all three short plays. 

“All I’ve done is mentor them,” he said. “I’ve watched their rehearsals. I’ve given the directors feedback. But it’s their show and they get to make the choices. I give them tools but in the rehearsal, I never just talk. I always ask for permission. I want the students to have a leadership role at all times. I want to make it about the students and empower them to make choices and to find their own creative voice. And I can already tell that they’ve all grown a lot in their acting and their directing skills because they’re the ones being forced to make the choices and communicate with each other about it.”

Audiences will get a chance to see for themselves when the pre-recorded and edited SBHS videos of the Palermo radio plays premiere virtually on October 30, and remain available online through November 30. Tickets are $20 (at www.purplepass.com/sbhstheatre). Visit www.sbhstheatre.com for details.


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