As the founder of one of San Luis Obispo County’s newest theater companies, Jake Liam McGuire takes a bold approach to programming.
“I don’t want to choose a show just because it’s going to sell tickets,” said McGuire, who opened The Spot in February 2011. “If I’m not personally invested in the meaning and the message of the show, I don’t want to do it. I want to do stuff that is powerful and that moves people as well as moves me.”
“We’re here to make people think … to affect people in a positive way,” he added.
The Spot’s latest show, Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape,” should accomplish that goal. A powerful play about the plight of blue-collar workers in an industrialized society, it runs Friday through June 23.
“The quality of the productions we’re putting up is as good as it gets,” McGuire said.
Located in the Village of Arroyo Grande, The Spot shares a building with The Studio of Performing Arts, Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab’s corporate headquarters and a now-closed dance studio. A lobby area decorated with a colorful mural and works by local artists leads to the 1,500-square-foot theater, which seats 50.
According to McGuire, most of The Spot’s day-to-day operations are handled by just three people.
“In a perfect scenario, we would have at least three more people,” said McGuire, who has been performing on the Central Coast since 1993. “Basically, everybody doubles up.”
McGuire is the theater’s producing director, supported by Tim Seawell, a former Arroyo Grande High School classmate who serves as stage manager, prop master and technical director, and artistic director Jared Dawson, who he met while working off-Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City.
“It’s one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had, because I felt from the first day that I belonged there and that I was welcome there and that I would always be welcome there,” McGuire recalled. “That’s what I want this (theater) to be.”
“The vision and the passion was really what sold me,” Dawson said, who credits McGuire with convincing him to move to the Central Coast. “He’s doing something completely different, and that’s the selling point.”
Shortly after opening The Spot, McGuire made it available as a rental space, hosting productions by the CORE Dance Company, Espressivo! Chamber Theatre and other local groups.
At the time, he explained, “Rentals paid the bills and producing shows by myself didn’t.”
That changed this season, thanks to productions such as “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” by Bert V. Royal. The play, which ran Feb. 1 through 17, revisits Charlie Brown and his “Peanuts” comic-strip friends as troubled teenagers.
“The message, for me, of that show was finding out who we are and being OK with it. Everybody is acceptable,” McGuire said.
“Tuesdays with Morrie,” by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom, which ran March 29 to April 14 at The Spot, also explored themes of love and loss, McGuire said. The play focuses on the real-life friendship between Albom, a sports journalist, and Morrie Schwartz, his former college professor.
In “The Hairy Ape,” McGuire plays Yank Smith, a powerfully built, brutish man who works as a stoker aboard a freighter.
His confidence is shaken when wealthy society girl Mildred Douglas (Ellen Morgan Eves) visits the stokehole and recoils at the site of the filthy, sweating Yank, calling him a “hairy ape.”
Yank eventually leaves the ship and wanders through Manhattan in search of revenge.
“Every scene he’s losing it more and more. He’s frantic and fighting and struggling the whole time, like he’s drowning in quicksand,” explained McGuire, who first tackled the role at age 15 in 1999 at Arroyo Grande High.
“I got removed from the play (then) because I didn’t learn my lines,” he recalled. “It’s kind of a redemption piece for me.”
The rest of the cast includes Aimée Evans as Mildred’s aunt, Sean Peters as second engineer and Nick Homick, Nik Johnson, Jorge Manly Gil and Maux Samuel as Yank’s fellow stokers. They wear costumes designed by Renee Van Niel, resident costume designer at the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano.
In addition, “The Hairy Ape” features The Spot’s most elaborate set design yet.
“To really get the effect and the feel of being in the bowels of a ship, you really need those levels. You need those swinging doors,” Dawson said. “If it was just a couple pieces of wood and some fog it wouldn’t really cut it.”
In the fall, McGuire plans to bring back The Spot’s Original Works Festival, which debuted in September 2012. Local playwrights are invited to submit works to be performed on stage.
“What we’re trying to do is create a season that has balance to it,” McGuire said, noting that the theater will continue to host Studio of the Performing Arts and Pismo Beach Youth Theater.
Ultimately, McGuire said, “It’s not about how many seats you have. It’s not about the money and the big sets. It’s about the acting.”
“I want actors to want to come to work here because they know they’re going to be treated well, they’re going to have a great time and they’re going to be part of a great show,” he said.
IF YOU GO
"The Hairy Ape"
8 p.m. Fridays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays, through June 23
The Spot, 116 W. Branch St., Arroyo Grande
$20, $15 for students and seniors
474-5711 or http://thespotag.com
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.