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The cast and crew of Almost Maine pose on the set in the Black Box Studio Theatre during the final weekend of the spring production.

Setting the Stage

Cal Lutheran’s Theatre Arts and Dance program gives students a personal, well-rounded experience.

Ever since Lia Tracey started in the theatre, when she played Miss Hannigan in a grade-school production of Annie, she has had an uncanny knack for memorizing entire scripts of the plays in which she acts.

She’s regaled her friends and family with lines from Mama Mia!, one of her personal favorites; Shakespeare in Love, after playing the starring role in a Cal Lutheran production; and Angels in America, from which she pulled her audition material for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival’s Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship.

The prestigious scholarship is awarded to 16 regional and two national honorees each year; in 2023, Tracey, a Cal Lutheran second-year theatre arts and English major, was selected as the runner-up for Region 8, which includes students from colleges and universities in Arizona, Central and Southern California, Hawaii, Southern Nevada and Utah.

Tracey, a native of Aptos, California, said she chose Cal Lutheran and its theatre department over other performing arts schools because “there is a lot more hands-on training, and a focus on students’ individual growth. At Cal Lutheran it’s collaborative, and also very personal to you and how you learn and grow.”

There is a lot more hands-on training, and a focus on students’ individual growth. At Cal Lutheran it’s collaborative, and also very personal to you and how you learn and grow.

Lia Tracey

She and other Cal Lutheran students, present and past, praise the school’s Theatre Arts and Dance program for being well-rounded and more personal than what they’d find on a larger campus, whether they’re seeking, or have already found, a career in theatre, TV or film, as performers or in a role behind the scenes.

The success of Cal Lutheran’s theatre program doesn’t apply only to students interested in performance.

Will Cowles Meyer ’15, who earned his BA in theater with an emphasis in technical theater, is now a successful project manager at 4WALL Entertainment, a full-service lighting, video and rigging company that has helped stage the recent Super Bowl in Los Angeles and music festivals at Coachella.

Newbury Park actor Josh Banday ’08, who plays Dennis on the ABC sitcom Not Dead Yet and Ivan on Amazon Prime’s sci-fi comedy-drama series Upload, majored in multimedia but got the acting bug after auditioning for a musical at Cal Lutheran his first year. He kept acting, joined the improv group and directed a student show.

Traditional and practical

Ken Gardner, professor of drama, started teaching at Cal Lutheran in 1985. For the 2023-24 year, Gardner said, around 60 students are majoring or minoring in theatre arts, and more than 100 students overall, including nontheatre majors, will end up participating in plays, musicals and dance concerts.

The Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, a collaboration between Cal Lutheran’s theatre department and the Santa Susana Repertory Theatre that was co-founded by professor emeritus Michael J. Arndt (see related story), offers opportunities each summer for students to serve as interns, apprentices and performers.

Although Cal Lutheran offers traditional theatre classes, Gardner said the university also recognizes that “the vast majority of paying jobs” in the entertainment industry are in TV and movies, especially behind the scenes.

The theatre program works closely with the film department, and over the years has brought in guest speakers, including professional actors like Gary Sinise, Stacy Keach, Alan Ruck, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Pollak and Melissa Gilbert, to talk about how to make it in show business. Guest alumni speakers have included Robert O’Neill ’92. Now senior vice president of content strategy and acquisitions at Paramount; and Joe Tandberg ’14, who is the voice actor for the polar bear named Iorek Byrnison in the TV series His Dark Materials.

Setting the stages

The department presents about four productions each year: in the fall, a student-directed show and a Mainstage production; and in the spring, a festival of one-act plays and a musical. It also presents dance concerts each semester. In addition to popular and classic theatre repertoire, Cal Lutheran presents both student- and faculty-written plays and musicals.

“We’re encouraging creativity and original works,” Gardner said.

Productions take place in the 95-seat Black Box Studio Theatre and 200-seat Preus-Brandt Forum, and at the nearby Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. After the Gilbert Sports and Fitness Center opened in 2006, the old gym was converted into a theatre building that includes the Black Box Studio Theatre, classrooms, dressing rooms, a costume shop and offices.

Gardner said he’d like to see a performing arts center built with a large theatre that “would fulfill needs not just at Cal Lutheran, but in the community. It would probably pay for itself and be a big draw for students.”

Karen Lindell has been a newspaper, magazine and website writer and editor for more than 15 years, including work at the Ventura County Star, L.A. Parent magazine, Los Angeles Times, Ojai Valley News, VC Reporter and She lives in Pasadena.