As Arroyo Grande resident Jeff Reynolds walked into the Solvang Festival Theater on a warm summer evening, his eyes widened with delight.
“Whoa, check this out. This is awesome,” he enthused, scanning the rows of seats ringing the outdoor stage. “This is totally awesome.”
Reynolds and his wife, Tina, were attending their first performance at the theater, which specializes in top-notch entertainment under the stars. It’s located halfway between Santa Maria and Santa Barbara in the heart of wine country.
The theater, owned and operated by nonprofit Solvang Theaterfest, celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014, and is one of only a few permanent outdoor performance venues on the Central Coast. During the summer, it serves as a second home for PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria.
“There are moments every night when you might just take a second to look up at the sky and see how amazing and beautiful it is,” PCPA casting director and actor Erik Stein said. “I literally have to tell myself, ‘Stop looking at the sunset. Keep doing the show.’ ”
That proximity to nature provides special challenges for cast and crew members, PCPA artistic director Mark Booher said.
It’s not uncommon for crew members to clean up pigeon droppings or chase a possum out of their workspaces. Ash from nearby wildfires sometimes drops on stage. And although owls no longer nest backstage, bats and birds are often spotted nearby.
PCPA’s Solvang season typically lasts from Memorial Day weekend to one week after Labor Day.
The company offers four productions each summer — drawing the majority of its audience members from Santa Barbara as well as Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo County. Opening this week is “Disney’s Newsies The Musical,” based on the 1992 movie of the same name.
In addition to plays, the Solvang Festival Theater hosts concerts and other community events.
“This is such a lovely theater,” Barbara Nyman said. Together with their friends, Lorraine and Wally Waldau, Nyman and her husband, Jerry, make the half-hour drive from Lompoc three times a summer to see PCPA shows in Solvang.
“We look forward to it” each year, Lorraine Waldau said.
A storied past
According to Booher, PCPA has had a presence in Solvang since 1971. That’s when the Solvang Business Men’s Association invited the company to stage Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in Hans Christian Andersen Park as part of Solvang’s Danish Days festival.
The show proved so popular that the Santa Ynez Valley Arts Association raised $89,000 to build a permanent performance venue in Solvang. Constructed in just 58 days, the Solvang Festival Theater opened its doors on Aug. 7, 1974.
The venue added a “lobby” — actually an outdoor plaza complete with a concession stand, seating areas and a grassy lawn perfect for picnicking — in 1981.
The Solvang Festival Theater underwent $1.5 million worth of house and backstage improvements between 2004 and 2012. More renovations are in the planning stages.
“We’re looking at what we can do to modernize the theater a little bit for technical needs and patron comforts,” Solvang Theaterfest executive director Pam Pilcher said. It’s not clear at this point how much those improvements will cost or when they’ll be completed, she said.
According to Booher, the Solvang Festival Theater has essentially the same architectural footprint as PCPA’s Marian Theatre, which opened in 1968 in Santa Maria.
Both boast a theater-in-the-round configuration with audience members seated on three sides of a thrust stage, ensuring good views from every angle. But while the Marian seats about 440 people, the Solvang theater can accommodate about 700.
“Being in the Marian is beautiful, but being under the stars at the Solvang (Festival Theater) is incredible,” said Jane Pivovarnik, assistant costume shop manager at PCPA. “It’s pretty magical.”
The great outdoors
According to Stein, the theater’s outdoor setting can lead to moments both stirring and spooky.
When he provided the voice of an alien plant in a 1990 production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” Stein said, bats “liked to swoop in and check me out.” During a 2002 performance of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the animals got even bolder.
“One night as (the actor playing Sweeney) was holding a razor, screaming into the night, ‘At last my arm is complete,’ a bat came in and circled the razor,” Stein recalled.
The actor also remembers watching his wife, Jacqueline Hildebrand, playing a witch in the American premiere of “My Fairytale” in 2011. “As she yelled, ‘I make the rain,’ a bolt of thunder went crackling across the sky,” Stein said. “You couldn’t have asked for better timing.”
Rainstorms are rare at sunny Solvang, but the theater does see the occasional sprinkle.
Right before a 2015 performance of “Man of La Mancha,” “The clouds just opened up and it poured like I’d never seen it pour before,” Stein said. “It was in the middle of the drought. Nobody was expecting any rain.” (He recommends that theatergoers bring blankets, hats and jackets, in case of chilly evenings.)
“There’s always this level of surprise that comes with (each show) that makes it even more delightful,” Booher said.
“That’s what makes live theater so special,” he added. “It’s the thing you can’t get from the glass screen of your phone or your computer or your television — that incredible sense of now.”
‘Disney’s Newsies The Musical’
8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; through Aug. 20
Solvang Festival Theater, 420 Second St., Solvang
$40.50 to $51.50, discounts for seniors, students and children