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Ensemble Theatre Throws a Southern Garden Party

Summer soiree raises $130,000 to help cover Ensemble's expenses and continue its programs for younger audiences

An active summer for Ensemble Theatre will lead to an even busier fall with upcoming performances and ongoing construction on a new venue that will help create a cultural center in downtown Santa Barbara.

Ensemble Theatre is Santa Barbara’s only company that manages all aspects of selection, design, cast and production with the award-winning productions due to keep coming even stronger at a new, modern space planned for the New Vic on West Victoria Street.

Founded in 1979, the leadership of executive artistic director Jonathan Fox has elevated the artistic level and attracted national participation from performing artists, and recent events point to an even brighter future.

Act One: A Southern Garden Party

The beautiful Montecito Valley Ranch home of Mary and Hal Coffin set the perfect stage for delicious Southern-inspired food and entertainment at a Southern Garden Party benefiting the Ensemble Theatre.

Tina Coffin shared how she and her husband of 25 years, Dwight, were introduced to Ensemble and have since been active supporters of it, staging three wonderful parties now at their home.

“We went to a salon, and we got hooked that night, and that was probably about six years ago,” Coffin said. “We just loved everybody we met. Dwight got on the board right away and he was president the last couple of years, and we just love having parties here. We’re fortunate our brother-in-law and sister-in-law own the field out there where that party is; they’ve been very generous and we’ve had three parties here.”

A VIP reception started an hour earlier than the main event, and guest of honor, actress, comedienne and author Fannie Flagg provided attendees with a special treat of Southern comfort.

Flagg, who among other accomplishments was on the hit television show Candid Camera, retreated with guests to a beautiful, floral and wood drawing room located off the garden patio of the Coffin home, and joyously read passages from her novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which was later turned into the movie Fried Green Tomatoes.

Following the reading, guests exited to a patio overlooking a beautiful rose garden, sipping mouth-quenching beverages and nibbling on delicious appetizers. And, in the spirit of the event, some guests even seized the moment, floating back-and-forth on a wooden swing under a large oak tree.

Flagg elaborated on this ideal setting at the Coffins’ home, and how memories and conversations are shared by folks in the South on front porches during hot summer nights.

“The weather’s so warm there, so there’s a lot of time to sit around at night outside and talk,” Flagg said. “And they go out to be cool and don’t put on the television, but go out and sit on the porch. And people talk a lot more; people love to talk in the South. So I think that’s one of the reasons that the oral tradition carries on.”

As the event moved forward, more guests arrived to the glistening sounds of the Zydeco Zippers, and everyone gathered in a large, open space beset with colorful umbrellas, while Mistress of Ceremonies Cady Huffman welcomed everyone and provided introductions for the day’s agenda.

Huffman, a Tony Award-winning Broadway actor who played Ulla in The Producers, with a recurring role on the HBO hit Curb Your Enthusiasm, and has also been a judge for 10 consecutive seasons on Iron Chef America, is passionate about keeping the arts in public schools.

A lively auction by Jamie Torcellini and Jenny Sullivan created a buzz for one-of-a-kind items such as “Broadway Bound,” including two tickets to any Broadway production and a lunch with Huffman herself to learn the inside scoop and background behind the scenes on Broadway.

Another of the unique items up for bid was “Ensemble in Your Home,” where up to 20 guests could enjoy a private and intimate reading of a play with Ensemble actors with food and wine provided by the Bridlewood Estate Winery.

With the crowd in full swing, Fox presented an inspiring season presentation that was followed by an awards contest for the finest hat, which was no easy feat to judge since many guests not only enjoyed the afternoon but also dressed in Southern-inspired attire.

This wonderful summer event raised $130,000 to underwrite key components of the Ensemble Theatre’s success and presentation, including artistic salaries and production costs, costumes, props and sets. Additionally, the event helped benefit the Ensemble Theatre’s Student Matinee series and Storybook Theatre for younger audiences.

Tiered sponsorship levels were provided to invited donors and guests of the Southern Garden Party, with Southern-inspired character names, such as the Big Daddy Circle for $10,000, Blanche DuBois Circle for $50,00, Scarlett O’Hara Circle for $2,500 and the Rhett Butler Circle for $1,000.

Many generous donors and sponsors helped in the success, and food vendors brought their best Southern hospitality, including Village Modern Foods with a “sultry summer Southern salad” of corn, fried okra and bacon, Cajun Kitchen with jambalaya and cornbread, Killer B’s BBQ and Bar and pork sliders, New West Catering with fried chicken and succotash, Palace Grill with crawfish tail puff pastries, and Santa Barbara Chocolate Fountains and Simply Pies capped it off with delectable treats.

Additionally, guests were given the opportunity to join five special sneak previews of tours and wine receptions at the New Vic grounds before a public groundbreaking and celebratory event was scheduled to occur later in the month.

Act Two: Breaking Ground at the New Vic

After a decade of planning and years of raising funds, with more than 50 percent of the goal in place, the Ensemble Theatre is in the exciting process of converting the 80-year-old Victoria Community Hall on West Victoria Street into a comfortable, intimate 300-seat theater with optimum sightlines, state-of-the-art sound and flexible staging options.

The New Vic is slated for a grand opening in the fall of 2013, and an official, public groundbreaking event followed weeks after the Southern Garden Party. More than 100 patrons, donors, VIP guests, volunteers and enthusiastic supporters, including speakers Fox, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, Ensemble board president Christine Holland and development director Mehgan Tanner, were ecstatic to participate in this historic moment.

In addition to the theatrical benefits, the New Vic will allow Ensemble to continue its youth-oriented programs and grow a broader range of main-stage productions — all with convenient parking and proximity to restaurants and shopping.

“The New Vic will be a wonderful setting for Ensemble Theatre,” Michael and Anne Towbes said. “It will make an invaluable contribution to the vibrancy of Santa Barbara’s performing arts.”

Chaired by Léni Fé Bland and Derek Westen, the campaign has more than 50 campaign volunteers working to meet renovation costs and raise endowment and stabilization funds to keep admission prices affordable and expand educational outreach.

The New Vic will become the permanent home for Ensemble Theatre Company and provide a dedicated space to the community for performing arts, dance, ballet, lectures, music and film.

“It is wonderful to see a project that will so richly benefit the entire arts community,” said Hutton Parker Foundation president Thomas Parker.

Community members who would like to add to the richness of this cultural milestone can join in prominent donor tribute and naming opportunities for the New Vic. For more information on the project, call the Ensemble Theatre development office at 805.965.5400 x105.

Act Three: The Future Is Now

All performances scheduled for the 2012-2013 season will be held at the Alhecama Theatre at 914 Santa Barbara St., and with the first performance only a few months away, there’s still time to secure great seats for these award-winning and dynamic events.

Subscriptions to a promising season of first-rate productions will include Crime and Punishment, Bell, Book & Candle, The Liar, The Year of Magical Thinking and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Subscribers to Ensemble enjoy 20 percent savings, guaranteed seating, bring-a-friend discounts, free ticket exchange and free ticket replacement.

Crime and Punishment is a dream-like adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel adapted by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, Oct. 4-21. Bell, Book & Candle is a bewitching romantic comedy by John Van Druten, Nov. 29-Dec. 16. The Liar is adapted by David Ives from a 17th-century comedy by Pierre Corneille as a modern twist on classic farce, Feb. 7-24, 2013. The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir on love and loss adapted by Joan Didion, April 4-21, 2013. And, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally is a hit Broadway comic-drama of two lonely people yearning for a deep, romantic connection.

The Ensemble Theatre graciously thanks all supporters of the Southern Garden Party, New Vic and future community member support for this important cultural center.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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