The Las Positas College theater building has been abuzz with commotion, as students entered the final stages of rehearsals for their department's upcoming spring musical under the close watch of their professors and director.
"Xanadu" is set to debut this Friday for a two-weekend-long run that will showcase and test the cast's performance chops and stamina -- plus their newly acquired roller skating skills -- in the stage musical inspired by the 1980 cult classic movie of the same name.
"The actors also have to do accents, inhabit classical characters in a modern way, learn about the 1980s and you have to roller-skate," director Dyan McBride said in a statement earlier this month.
While the original film was a flop at the box office and with critics, the popularity of the soundtrack and musical score have made "Xanadu" a ubiquitous piece of 1980s pop culture and history. The plot centers around trials and tribulations of Sonny Malone, a struggling sidewalk artist in Venice Beach, and the Greek muse Kira who enters the mortal realm and inspires him to doggedly pursue his vision of creating a roller disco from the ground up.
While the ambitious production poses unique challenges, according to program director Titian Lish -- in particular, teaching actors to not just stay upright on roller skates, but serve up compelling performances and choreography -- they faced an unanticipated legal challenge well into the rehearsal process.
"Fun fact that we learned after selecting 'Xanadu' and casting 'Xanadu' is it's illegal in California to roller skate on college campuses," Lish said.
With the main campus at Las Positas serving as ground zero for all of the student actors' production and practice needs, the issue came to light as students practiced their skating on campus.
"We didn't know until someone from security saw our students skating out here and they were like you can't do that. And the student was like 'what are you talking about,' and they're like 'it's illegal,' and the student's like 'to roller skate?' And it felt so 'Footloose', like this cannot possibly be real," Lish said.
"So we called and they were like yeah, it's illegal," she continued "So I was like whoa … so I picked a roller skating musical. We started building a set."
Despite the unexpected revelation, Lish and her department were able to reach an agreement with college officials to allow an exception to the state law if students were in the campus's two stage spaces with supervision.
For theater faculty and students though, unexpected challenges have abounded in recent years, as has their capacity to see to it that their shows go on in spite of it all.
The college's two-year Actors' Conservatory program launched in 2020 amidst challenges to all sectors and aspects of life, but live theater in particular. The first cohort of the program, who graduated last May, entered during fully online instruction at the conservatory's inception that fall, several months into the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"In a way it was so hard and so heartbreaking to see them make progress as actors and to have it be so far away from them," Lish said. "Or to be like oh my gosh, you're doing such amazing work, but you can't hear me -- how can I make you feel my love and joy right now?"
Nonetheless, the cohort's first production, "Romeo and Juliet", went on virtually, with Lish noting that the department had been producing works continuously since a brief hiatus in summer 2020.
Lish credited Las Positas officials for recognizing the difficulty of training actors via Zoom, and allowing students in the department to meet in person in spring 2021.
However, the looming pandemic still forced students and faculty to flex their creative muscles for outside-the-box productions that would attract audiences amid the uncertain atmosphere that year. They made the most of an improvised green screen production room that had been established in a portion of the campus' theater space, producing a range of performances based on children's stories, including a "choose your own adventure" Zoom adaptation.
As live events began to return as a cultural norm in 2021, Lish along with her colleagues and students settled into continuously long hours on campus as they worked on an uninterrupted production season for the school year.
"Last year, 2021 and 2022, the students often refer to as performing arts summer camp but for a year, because it felt like there was kind of nobody on campus but us and the turkeys ... and it was sort of like this fun, gentle incubation period for all of us to just recover from some of the trauma of the pandemic in a space that was really familiar and with people who were all doing the same thing that we're doing," Lish said.
Although the pandemic was unforeseen while planning the conservatory program, Lish said that it was developed as a "soft launch into having to be an adult and artist" in a competitive and often treacherous field. Faculty aim to keep cohort students together, enrolling them in the same classes as much as possible and encouraging them to spend much of their time in the two-year program with one another.
In addition, Lish said the program aims to fill gaps often left by leading private and professional training programs for actors and stage professionals, noting that many training programs for actors leave them in worse shape than they would have been otherwise -- saddled with student debt in a challenging and unpredictable industry, without the skills necessary to navigate it.
While Lish said the conservatory program at Las Positas seeks to give aspiring actors the same experience as top-notch schools for their first two years of training, it differs in important ways -- specifically that it is affordable, open to all, and aims to offer training and support in financial skills, mental health, and other key aspects of the industry such as experience and comfort with networking.
"I tried to think about what were some of the gaps I didn't have, and some of it was fiscal," Lish said.
Overlooking the necessities of day-to-day life for actors and theater technicians is just one portion of a larger issue, according to Lish, who pointed to an appreciation for the arts not necessarily entailing an understanding of the behind-the-scenes struggles of artists.
"People love seeing live theater, but they don't always understand where it comes from," Lish said.
Lish also noted that community colleges are often hard for people to understand or appreciate, with resources that can be overlooked by their surrounding residents and the general public.
"I think that there's a misconception sometimes of community college, I think that comes from historical experience, maybe periods that maybe community colleges weren't funded in the rich way they are now," Lish said. "I think sort of popular media culture likes to trash on community colleges a little bit, and I think all of that is incredibly unfortunate."
With that in mind, Lish and the rest of the department were motivated to maintain their busy schedules for productions aimed at drawing surrounding Tri-Valley residents to experience the campus and fruits of the department's programming.
"We feel like people are really enjoying theater again, and we recognize that we are tasked with a delicate balance of things that challenge our students from a design standpoint and a performing standpoint, and things that are maybe good for our audiences," Lish said.
She said that while the department's most recent production last fall, "Book of Will" had fit a certain emotional niche for audiences, "Xanadu" was aimed at offering a distinct yet equally valuable one -- in addition to serving as a rare, permitted exception to the state law against roller skating at colleges.
"Sometimes what's good for the audience is permission to feel things deeply in a space -- and they might need that -- and 'Book of Will' really granted that for them," Lish said.
"And sometimes they just need a little bit of escapism and you just need the ability to be like 'sometimes I like to go see ridiculousness for the sake of seeing ridiculousness.' And so we try to balance that when we make choices," Lush added. "So 'Book of Will' was really kind of a heady piece, and it was dramatic, beautiful and also comedic, but that was sort of 'feel deeply in a room with a bunch of strangers.'"
"So then we kind of try to balance that and say ok what is something that is just super fun -- permission to just enjoy theater as pure entertainment -- and so 'Xanadu' was what came up with that," she continued.
As director of the show, McBride said that she was also seeking to make it a platform for the cast to have a positive experience, despite the technical difficulties and other challenges the production poses.
"I wanted our cast to experience joy while performing, and 'Xanadu' is all good feelings and fun, with some real challenges for the actor," McBride said. "The score is bananas, and we have some excellent singers at Las Positas College, so I knew they'd rise to the challenge."
"Xanadu" premiers on Friday (March 17) at the Las Positas College Black Box Theater, with doors opening at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. showtime.
The show will continue at 8 p.m. on Saturday (March 18) and 2 p.m. Sunday (March 19), then resume the following weekend at 8 p.m. on March 24, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on March 25, and 2 p.m. on March 26. Tickets and more information are available at www.laspositascollege.edu.