The Center Stage is a small black box theater run by Artspace inc. It’s been around for about 12 years now, but for most of my life I never knew it existed. The theater itself is a small black box situated upstairs in the Paseo Nuevo mall in downtown Santa Barbara, CA. It was built as a “gift” so the mall that it sits in could be built, so as a working theater it tends to be a little spartan; it shares most of the facilities with the mall maintenance crew. It really is too small to do a really big complicated production in, but it fits in just right for the many low budget theater groups that seem to occupy it.

The Center Stage was conceived in 1989, as part of a deal with Reininga, who planned and developed the mall. The city of Santa Barbara insisted that Reininga build an arts complex, mainly an art gallery and a small theater, Reininga agreed and in September of 1989 ground was broken. The theater was scheduled to open on August 1, 1990. Within 2 weeks Eric Larson who was chosen to run the new theater had already figured on at least 250 days of bookings.

At a glance the wooden doors of the Center Stage look like the doors of the maintenance staff, but when the doors are open, it becomes a cool dark haven on a bright Tuesday afternoon. Technically shows there are modest, the theater has no fly loft and only about 60 dimmers. It does have an ETC Expression and a Soundcraft studio mixing board to run sound. The lighting inventory is pretty limited; consisting of a few 6x9’s and some parcans. The sound system is very high quality; consisting of a studio quality mixing board, studio quality audio inputs and sennheiser microphones.

The stage is simple, with a generous acting area and some small wings. Backstage consists of dressing rooms placed in the mall maintenance corridor. There’s a small booth placed in the middle of the two entrances. The sound and lights are both run from there, with the stage manager sitting in the house running follow spot if the show calls for it. The seats are usually placed on the mall side of the space putting them against the wall on risers, which means the booth is off to the stage right side of the place, just behind the first set of legs.

The Center Stage also has a small narrow office/storage space that looks out onto the mall’s center courtyard. Every time I’ve been in there, I see something new. Often I see costumes for the current engagement or disassembled lights that Brad, the tech director is trying to fix; hoping to squeeze just a few more hours out of a stubborn light. The shows that I have seen at the C.S. have always been technically good; probably do to his incredible skills.

While most of the things that go into the C.S. are of little importance to the rest of the world, it does manage to host the Lit Moon Theater Festival each year. The Lit Moon invites small acting troupes from around the globe to perform each September. Artspace also manages to book some notable people each year. These people have ranged from choreographer Richard Move to Gene Simmons.

Behind the big wooden doors and cloaked in the awaiting darkness, there lies a place where little ballet dancers can perform, a place where a tribute to Martha Graham can be preformed by a choreographer in drag and his playboy centerfold assistant. Behind those doors lies a black void that’s just waiting to be filled.

There’s magic in there.

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