Santa Barbara’s Out of the Box Theatre Presents the Edgier Side of Musicals

BY CARY GINELL

Today we visit with Samantha Eve, artistic director and founder of the Out of the Box Theatre in Santa Barbara. Although we’re not changing our web name to VC-and-Sometimes-SB On Stage,” this “little theater that could” is worth promoting because of its eclectic repertoire of Off-Broadway and cult shows that do not get staged in Ventura County. So if you’re up to an overnight trip to Santa Barbara, have dinner on State Street and go see one of their shows. As their ad says, it features “the best musicals you’ve never heard of.” We spoke with the theater’s artistic director, Samantha Eve, who was recently seen as Olive in Elite Theatre Company’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

VCOS: When did you start the theater and how did you get the idea?

SAMANTHA: I started the Out of the Box Theatre Company in 2010. I had just moved back to Santa Barbara. I was in New York, going to school at NYU, and I was auditioning and working and just kind of getting exhausted and run-down. So I came to Santa Barbara and said, “I’m done.” My family was nearby, so I decided to open up a cupcake business and just forget theatre because I was tired of it. That lasted maybe three weeks. And then I said, “I’m gonna start a theater company!” But that’s kind of how theater works. It’s in your blood. It’s kind of an addiction.

VCOS: Was theater your major?

SAMANTHA: Yes. I’ve always loved musical theater, so when I went back to Santa Barbara, I was looking for things to audition for and keep me busy, but I couldn’t really find anything. We have some amazing new theater companies in Santa Barbara and the high schools put on extraordinary shows that are national tour quality – there are some straight theater companies in community theater but nobody is really doing musicals up here. So we started, not really knowing that it was going to become a theater company, and we put on Reefer Madness. We pretty much had no set so we used platforms. I was there the night before we opened, stapling fabric onto them with a staple gun. So we flew by the seat of our pants and ended up having a lot of fun. It was pretty successful so we just kept going. 

VCOS: What are some of the other shows you did?

SAMANTHA: We did Hair, we did AssassinsEvil Dead: The Musical. We’ve been doing a lot of contemporary musical theater.

VCOS: Tell me about the building itself.

SAMANTHA: We use Center Stage Theatre, which is this slightly larger than average black box. It’s actually right on top of Paseo Nuevo Mall downtown. So if you didn’t know it was there, you’d never find it. But some of the great community theater groups in Santa Barbara use it because it’s so accessible and it’s so affordable. And you can really do whatever you want in that space. 

VCOS: How many people does it seat?

SAMANTHA: Something like 130 or 140, depending on the configuration. It’s a pretty decent size for a small black box theater. 

VCOS: How did you find your staff and crew?

SAMANTHA: We used to change pretty regularly and we’re still looking for new people. Every time we do a show, we hold auditions, but we’ve worked with the same group now for the last three shows. Our stage manager started out as our assistant stage manager way back in 2011 when we did Spring Awakening. We got our music director as a recommendation, but she’s been absolutely fantastic. She’s classically trained but I think she likes doing our weird musicals because it gives her a chance to work on material that’s a little racier than the stuff that she normally does. 

VCOS: Was it your idea all along to do these off-the-beaten-path shows?

SAMANTHA: Yes, because they’re not produced often enough, especially in Santa Barbara. Every single show that we’ve done has been a Santa Barbara premiere. They’re shows that are usually recently Off-Broadway or from New York that have just been made available for licensing. 

VCOS: What shows have pushed the envelope, controversy-wise?

SAMANTHA: I think that the most controversial show we’ve done so far was probably Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, which is an emo-punk musical about Andrew Jackson in a South Park-style kind of humor. We have people running around with plastic arrows and it was really insane, but it had a really strong message to it. 

VCOS: What’s the most successful show you’ve done so far?

SAMANTHA: The one that sold the most tickets was Evil Dead: The Musical. People keep asking me if we’re going to do it again and I’m not sure if we will so soon.

VCOS: Evil Dead: The Musical?

SAMANTHA: (laughs) Yes – we had a splatter zone with blood cannons rigged into the set, so if you’re sitting in one of the splatter zone seats, throughout the show, explosions of blood would happen. We actually tested it, putting pieces of paper on each seat to make sure they all got an even amount of blood splattering. 

VCOS: Would people complain if they didn’t get enough splattering?

SAMANTHA: Oh, yes! People would come in wedding dresses, ready to get soaked. So that was really fun. There was one night where the blood cannon didn’t stop. It went off at the end of Act I and then as intermission started, it just kept going and kept going and kept going and the stage got completely soaked. There had been a person lying on the ground as a dead body, and when they got up at the end of the act, there was actually the silhouette of the body laying on the floor.

VCOS: Instant crime scene.

SAMANTHA: Right. It was really a fun show, and because it was done over Halloween, people came dressed up; it was very interactive, very goofy, very silly, and people really loved that. I don’t know if we’ll ever take it on again.

VCOS: So you’re doing mostly contemporary shows now?

SAMANTHA: Yes, mostly. As I said, we did Hair, and even though it’s a little bit older, it’s still so very relevant. 

VCOS: How about classic shows that didn’t get performed as much as they should have?

SAMANTHA: We haven’t taken those on, even though I do think there is a place for them in Santa Barbara, because those don’t get a lot of action either on the stage. In the spring. we did The Wild Party as a semi-staged concert. The actors were in costume but they used stand mikes and the theater was set up as a Prohibition-styled cabaret bar. We had a bar set up so people could get cocktails served in little tea cups, just to change the experience people have when they go to the theater.

VCOS: What about you? Do you perform yourself in the shows?

SAMANTHA: Sometimes. I usually have to pick and choose because I’ve grown to love directing and it’s very challenging to do both. For Heathers, our new show, I’m actually in it and we have somebody else directing. Her name is Jenny Mercein and she is fabulous. We’re absolutely so lucky to have found her. 

VCOS: Tell me about Heathers.

SAMANTHA: If you’re not familiar with the movie, the way I’ve been describing it is that it is like Mean Girls, but a lot meaner. A LOT meaner. It’s a very dark, dry, absurd style of humor that is based on a cult classic film from 1989. It was kind of the anti-Breakfast Club, all of those poppy, John Hughes movies. It’s a very dark comedy about a girl who is very smart and ends up becoming one of the “popular girls” but at the same time hates them. But she likes being popular and likes not being picked on anymore, so she abandons her childhood friends to hang out with these “cool girls” even though she doesn’t really like them. She meets this new kid, who is dangerous and on-edge, and because he sees her hate them so much, he hates them too, and it becomes this thing where they are manipulating each other into killing them off to make the world a better place. The sad thing is that this sort of thing happens. The world around them becomes a better place as these people die. They find meaning in these deaths and the whole community comes together to fight this teenage suicide epidemic. 

VCOS: I guess you have to have a certain state of mind to appreciate these shows.

SAMANTHA: (laughs) We definitely do have an audience for these shows. It’s not for everyone!

VCOS: Have you done any shows by John LaChiusa?

SAMANTHA: No, but I love Hello Again so it’s on the list. 

VCOS: As far as the cast goes, how far away do they come from?

SAMANTHA: We have a lot of people from this area, but we also have people coming from Goleta, which is pretty close, but we have two people coming in from L.A. And I always feel so bad when they come out, we work with them for thirty minutes and then apologize because that’s all we need them for. But they say, “We know what we signed up for. It’s OK!” One of them is already asking me about shows that we’re doing next year. So to them, it’s worth it because Heathers isn’t done in L.A. anymore. It was originally done there but hasn’t been back since. We try to find local actors when we can, but once in a while there are roles that we can’t fill in the community. It’s nice to get people from Ventura or Oxnard and then every once in a while we’ll pull someone in from Los Angeles or Santa Maria.

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Heathers opens November 5 at the Center Stage Theatre in Santa Barbara. See the VC On Stage Calendar for dates and showtimes. 

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