"It was literally like walking into heaven." That's how actor Wade McCollum describes his first visit to the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, better known as PCPA Theaterfest, as an wide-eyed teenager from Ashland, Ore.
"All I wanted to do was work on my craft and do theater," recalled McCollum, who immediately dropped out of high school and enrolled at PCPA at age 16. "The training was incredible. ... It far exceeded my expectations."
Headquartered on the campus of Allan Hancock College in northern Santa Barbara County, PCPA is both a professional resident theater company and a two-year vocational program. What sets the conservatory apart from other theatrical training programs -- other than its bucolic small -- town setting and relatively low tuition rates -- is its emphasis on professional development and practical coursework, alumni said.
"(PCPA) gave me my professional wings," said McCollum, a 1997 PCPA graduate who's currently appearing as Tick/Mitzi in the national tour of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical." "That's kind of their M.O.... It's about real-world training and really giving you the ability to walk into a professional environment."
PCPA founder Donovan Marley laid the groundwork for a year-round professional company back in the summer of 1964 -- when crowds packed into the Interim Theatre, a converted barracks building, to see the Platform Players perform "A Man for All Seasons." PCPA's 448-seat Marian Theatre, built with $1 million in school bond funds, opened its doors July 10, 1968, with a production of "Camelot."
PCPA soon expanded southward, holding its first performance of "The Tragedy of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark" in 1971 in Hans Christian Anderson Park in Solvang. Community support led to the building of the Solvang Festival Theater, a 700-seat outdoor venue, which opened in summer 1974.
The conservatory inaugurated its newest performance space, the 188-seat Severson Theatre, in November 1992.
For now, however, PCPA is holding court at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande -- its first foray into San Luis Obispo County -- while the Marian Theatre undergoes a $3.2 million renovation project. Its latest production, "Fiddler on the Roof," runs now through May 12 at the Clark Center before moving south to Solvang, June 13 through July 6.
PCPA returns to the Marian Theatre in the fall for its 50th anniversary season -- featuring a full slate of productions, including "Mary Poppins," "Spring Awakening" and "Hamlet."
"It's a really exciting era to be here," said San Luis Obispo resident Roger DeLaurier, who's directing "Fiddler on the Roof." "We're at the highest point we've been in terms of national reputation and the quality of the productions we're doing."
According to PCPA spokesman Craig Shafer, the conservatory has seen plenty of talented folks parade across its stages over the years, including Kathy Bates, Jessica Chastain, Kelly McGillis and Robin Williams. High-profile graduates include "Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical" co-creator Brad Carroll and Boyd Gaines, who won Tony Awards for his roles "Contact," "Gypsy," "The Heidi Chronicles" and "She Loves Me."
"There was a moment last year when pretty much major national tour had a PCPA student in it," said DeLaurier, himself a conservatory graduate. After attending Santa Fe University of Art and Design and Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he worked with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before returning to PCPA in 1988 as its outreach director, then associate artistic director and director of actor training.
According to Erik Stein, PCPA's casting director and recruitment coordinator, the conservatory accepts about 30 new students a year, the majority from California and the West. A third are fresh out of high school, Stein said, while the rest are either recent college graduates or working actors seeking to advance their careers. The average age is 22.
"The first thing I look for (in recruits) is passion and potential," he said. "We need a student who wants to eat and breathe theater ... six days a week, 9 in the morning to 11 o'clock at night."
At PCPA, students rehearse and work alongside professional actors and technicians such as Stein, who attended the conservatory from 1988 to 1990. "When I was a student, I thought my teachers had the best job ever ..." he said. "My dream job was always to come back and be a resident actor at PCPA."
Stein spent a dozen years acquiring "some big fancy (acting) credits," he said, including on- and off-Broadway productions, dinner theater in the Midwest and summer stock in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He and his wife, actress-director Jacqueline Hildebrand, returned to the Central Coast in 2002 to work at PCPA.
At the conservatory, Stein said, he's able to share his hands-on experiences with students, advising them on everything from finding an agent to the perfect audition. "Actors are hunters of truth. It's better if the students learn how someone who has held the bow and faced the lion," explained Stein, who plays Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof."
"Really our philosophy is to directly relate everything -- every class, every project -- to the professional world," Stein said, so students are ready to enter the industry "the minute they walk out the door of the conservatory."
For many, that first step includes a stop in San Luis Obispo County - and a gig with a local theater group such as the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival, Kelrik Productions or San Luis Obispo Little Theatre. PCPA is constantly swapping actors - and costumes - with the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano, Stein said.
"I love how well the theaters in the area work together," said Stein, who lives in Pismo Beach. "We're so fortunate to be in a (region) that has not just wonderful theaters but a very supportive and amazing community of people who want to see theater."
Artistic Director Mark Booher wants PCPA to represent the entire Central Coast. "That really is the aspiration, to reach as much of an audience as possible and not be (only) for Santa Maria or the Santa Ynez Valley," he said. "The heart of it is wanting to be of service in the community, really wanting to touch lives."
In 2011, PCPA presented the American premiere of "My Fairytale," a musical about Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen featuring music and lyrics by Schwartz and book by Philip LaZebnik, in Solvang -- just in time for the Danish-American town's centennial celebration. The event held "deep meaning for the community," Booher said.
PCPA first teamed up with González, a theater professor at California State University Los Angeles, for the 2008 world premiere of his play "The Heart's Desire," about a Mexican-American veteran who returns home to California after World War II.
Booher commissioned González to write "Invierno," a powerful tale of love and redemption set on the Central Coast between 1831 and 1848 and performed in English, Spanish and Samala, the ancient language spoken by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. The play was inspired by William Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale."
"It was such an incredible challenge to cross some of those boundaries," including racial and socioeconomic lines, Booher said of the 2010 production. "When theater can be the avenue to get us into those conversations, I think it's fantastic."
González's play "The San Patricios," about the hundreds of immigrants and expatriates who fought on the side of Mexico in the Mexican-American War, will make its world premiere at PCPA in 2014.
"To be able to write for a company like that ... that's a rare gift for an artist," González said. "I always come away impressed by the quality of the work they do there and the talent of the people working there."
Top Image: Erik Stein stars as Tevye in PCPA Theaterfest's production of "Fiddler on the Roof," now playing at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande. | Photo by Luis Escobar Reflections Photography Studio.
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