PCPA Theaterfest has received national recognition as the recipient of a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts award.

The grant, in addition to helping underwrite the production of West Side Story, will assist with outreach efforts among local at-risk youths, and particularly the ongoing gang problem in northern Santa Barbara County.

The National Endowment for the Arts is dedicated to bringing the arts to all Americans and is the largest national funder of the arts.

As West Side Story depicts tragic effects borne out of social divisions, ethnic and generational tensions, and gang violence, PCPA’s production will assist with violence prevention. After specific performances, post-show talkbacks will continue the discussion on the social issues explored in the play.

Artistic Director Mark Booher said the play retains its significance to our community and more particularly the issue of gangs and the recruitment of young men into these groups. They often lack some social connectedness, are unable to express themselves and feel the need to belong.

Booher said the theater can serve as a vehicle to explore and connect the community with these issues.

“The arts build bridges between people, and they are an avenue for personal expression and interpersonal connection,” he said. “The theater should be a gathering place for the community in which we come to know ourselves and our neighbors better. Theater is a place that cultivates empathy, imagination and insight.”

West Side Story will play in Santa Maria’s Marian Theatre July 9-25 and in the Solvang Festival Theater July 30-Aug. 22.

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— Craig Shafer is the communications director for PCPA Theaterfest.