By Jim Buckley
Clayton Barry is now a Santa Barbara High School graduate, as is Elli Harb, both of whom spent four years at Santa Barbara High School and were an integral part of Otto Layman's Performing Arts Department, particularly as juniors and seniors. The two joined me out-side Pierre Lafond in Montecito's upper village to help analyze what it is that Mr. Layman does that makes him such an overwhelmingly successful director. Otto took over the Performing Arts Department at the high school in 1995, the same year Montecito Journal was launched and, coincidentally, the same year most of this year's seniors (including twins Clayton and Jessica Barry) were born (gulp). I, in fact, attended Otto's very first play, a non-musical "mystery," whose name and plot are now lost, but I do recall it was not the best thing I'd ever seen on a stage. By a long shot. Until Otto showed up, the performing arts at the high school were all but moribund. It took a few years to build a stable of young actors who could sing and dance, but slowly, with dedication, perseverance, the requisite gallons of blood, sweat, and tears, and an ultimate goal of drawing out the best from each student brave enough to enroll in his class, Otto succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations. By the time the Santa Barbara High School's remarkable production of Beauty & The Beast hit the stage in 2008 and played to a sold-out theater after word-of-mouth raves, Mr. Layman had already transformed SBHS into the school that anyone seriously considering a future in performing arts had to attend. The program was and is second to none and draws applicants and students from all over the Central Coast. Along the way, there were excellent productions of Singin' In The Rain, Anything Goes, On The Town, Hair, Peter Pan, Footloose (featuring a rousing finale of "Footloose" sung and played with the entire cast, headed up by the song's creator, Kenny Loggins), The Drowsy Chaperone, Little Shop Of Horrors, Pinocchio, Alice In Wonderland, Into The Woods, Spamalot and others; there were some forty productions in all, not including the perennial Music Of The Night, directed, produced, arranged, and choreographed entirely by Otto's students. After the last performances of the year — Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie — Layman said his tearful good-byes to the four seniors on stage — Clayton Barry Jordan Lemmond, Elli Harb and Emma Robins — and, yes, there were a few tears trickling down the director's (and the actors') cheeks as he tried to explain to the audience what those four tumultuous, extraordi-nary, and satisfying years meant to him and to his young charges. Elli was hard pressed to articulate how Otto "does it," what secret ingre-dient he brings to his work, but opined that his approach is "unique. He defi-nitely is about what you bring," she says. "It's not like, 'Here's the text, learn it, say some words on stage.' He definitely makes it more like what you bring." Clayton notes that "[Otto] has to audition freshmen for the first time, but he knows the upper classmen, so he knows who he's working with. And, it's in the rehearsal where it all gets done. I think what's really great about the way Otto works is how hands-off he is. He lets people grow and make mistakes. There are very few prescriptions for the way Otto teaches acting and the way he drives performance." Does he yell? Lose his temper? Throw things? I wondered. "He has to bark sometimes," Clayton responds with a smile, "but that just comes with the territory, and everything all comes together in the end. As he says: 'I have to bark some-times, but I don't bite.' He gets loud when he has to, but we usually can see where it's coming from. It's almost never unexpected. There are times when he has to yank on the reins, but compared to other directors in Santa Barbara in youth theatre, not nearly as much and only when absolutely required." Elli adds, "It's in class where you learn how far you can go. By the time we get to rehearsal, we're already ahead [of where other directors would be] by leaps and bounds." Both Elli and Clayton refer to "the team" that Otto has put together that really makes it all work so well. For example, choreographer Christina McCarthy. "She just has... I don't know how she does it," Clayton reflects, "but she has an abnormal way of whipping kids into shape. I think she just knows how to choreograph for wiggly bodies, you know, teenage weirdos." "Christina," Eli notes, "also knows when to balance the structure by let-ting us do what we want. Her choreo-graphed numbers are super sharp." "Our costumer, Use Lange, is the guardian angel of our theater," says Clayton. "When it comes down to the wire and everyone is freaking out, Lise is out there costuming dozens of kids. Everyone has like five costumes... What really kills me, for example, is that Kendall Christensen had an appearance for like twenty seconds as Joanne of Arc (in Spamalot) and she had the most gorgeous costume, some kind of ancient tunic. It was the most elaborate detailed gorgeous costume. That's the way Lise works. She takes care of people." "She sets the tone for all the backstage," Elli says. "She's tough when she has to be." "If there's nonsense in the theater," Clayton adds, "she'll get rid of it." "David Guy, the set designer, does a lot of work," Clayton notes. "He whips our sixth-period stagecraft into shape. Mike Badden is always around too. All the adults know each other and they know how they work." Both Elli and Clayton agree that Musical Director John Douglas is also an essential ingredient; without him the team would not be fully func-tional. "Otto," Elli concludes, "knows how to orchestrate the differences among all the strong artists who have their opinions and he finds a way to make all that not blow up." Elli is heading for UC Berkeley; what she intends to pursue is "a degree in anthropology-neuroscience, a hybrid type of thing." She admits she doesn't "know where that goes. Maybe it will take me right back to theatre," she laughs. Clayton is enrolled at Carnegie-Mellon, his first choice. "I'll just be doing theatre and dabbling in academics," he says, half-seriously. Jordan Lemmond is off to Pace in New York City and Emma Robins to Eastern. The 25 now graduated SBHS seniors from the Theatre Program at SBHS are (in alphabetical order) are: Emalani Artiss, Clayton Barry, Jessica Barry, Carly Cummings, Tyler Feld, Damien Gilbert, Elli Harb, Gabe Kaster, Emilio Madrid-Kuser, Tema Landecker, Jordan Lemmond, Miranda Mendoza, Lydia Nelson, Tyler Newman, Lucia Nuechter, Nadai Nuno, Eric Oberholtzer, Diego Ochoa, Cristian Ramos, Emma Robins, Griffin Saxon, Hope Saxon, Andrea Schmidt, Kristin Walton, and Mackenzie Zisser. The next chance the public will get to catch a SBHS Performing Arts Theatre production will be the Summer Stock Season's Cabaret, directed by Otto Layman in conjunction with Cheri Steinkellner's Upstage Left. Call 888-979-3667 for tickets and information. The theater is at the high school, 700 East Anapamu Street. Performances are set for 7 pm Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, August 8, 9, and 10. Put one of those days in your calendar. Now!