For more than 27 years — minus a three-year hiatus — Craig Shafer has been the “voice of PCPA.” But come July 30, Shafer will figuratively pack his bags and leave his office for the last time, marking the end of an era.
Since 1994, he’s written almost everything you’ve read in the programs for PCPA’s productions, in publicity announcing each new season and each new play, and on the professional theater company’s website.
“I built the first website for PCPA way back when,” Shafer mused Thursday as he sat in his office, where he’s been slowly packing up personal memorabilia and returning files and electronics after working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, Shafer said, it was the pandemic that provided the little nudge he needed to retire from his job as media relations and communications manager and seek a greener coastline to contemplate what the next phase of his life will be.
But on Thursday, he was thinking back on his many years of involvement with PCPA, recalling some of the memorable moments and reflecting on how the theater is evolving.
Shafer, 67, said he began his career in radio in 1979, was a general assignment reporter, produced news talk shows and was a talk show host at KUHL in the early 80s, then was news director at KSMA/Sunny Country until 1993.
During that time, the Associated Press awarded him the 1990 Mark Twain Trophy for Best Newscast in all of California and Nevada, an award he is most proud of.
“Then this position opened up,” he said. “I had been associated with PCPA since the early ’80s, dancing and choreographing … .”
But applying for the media relations job turned out to be a much more harrowing experience than performing.
Shafer said when he applied, he was asked to provide a writing sample by preparing a feature-style press release from information and reviews about a production.
He read through the material, making a few notes and highlighting certain quotes, then began typing up his press release, pleased with his lead paragraph and the way it was flowing.
Then he looked down at the old IBM Selectric typewriter he’d been provided and discovered the ball that held all the letters and numbers hadn’t moved at all, and despite all his efforts, he couldn’t get it to work. He'd typed nothing.
He ended up borrowing the computer of the box office manager, who was going to lunch, and barely got it written by the deadline. When he went to turn it in, he found himself faced with eight interviewers.
“Thank goodness they hired me,” Shafer said.
But the stress didn’t stop there, as he received little training in how things were done.
“My predecessor had been gone for some time, so it was like, ‘figure it out,’” he said, adding he was immediately given four weeks to produce the program for the upcoming stage production.
“We’re doing our first digital program this year, and I hope it stays,” he added. “That’s one of the ‘positives’ of COVID.”
During his tenure, Shafer said he had access to every aspect of PCPA, able to see sets created in miniature and translated to full-size, watch rehearsals, talk to actors, directors and production crews, see new works developed and enter the classrooms.
“That’s when art really feeds your soul, when you get to see it created at different levels,” he said.
He’s also seen dozens of plays from behind the scenes as well as from the audience and said his favorite of all the PCPA productions over the years is “Les Miserables.”
“I saw it 12 times — after it opened,” he said with a chuckle.
His list of favorites also includes “Wizard of Oz,” which made use of “the most incredible puppets,” he said, as well as “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Ragtime” and the “perfect acting” in “Othello.”
But he recalled other notable highlights, like first-ever productions, amazing special effects, watching original music created for a PCPA production by the original writer of a musical and, perhaps, a contribution by Mother Nature.
“Former artistic director Jack Shouse had a relationship with Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, and she had given him permission to do a production of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope,’” Shafer said. “After the production ended, the script went back into the Hitchcock archives, never to be produced on stage again.”
In 1996, PCPA staged a production of “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“There’s a rain sequence identified in the script,” Shafer said. “Son of a gun if our tech wizards don’t build a moat in the Marian Theatre, rig up PVC pipe and made it rain in the Marian Theatre.
“It just added so much drama when [the characters] are trying to get across this river and the rain is pouring down.”
When PCPA staged the musical “My Fairy Tale,” with music written by Stephen Schwartz, his son Scott was directing the production and Schwartz was there providing some assistance.
“It really was like a world premiere,” Shafer said. “Scott asks Stephen to write some transitional music. He goes over to the piano and just starts writing music right in front of me. It gives me chills to remember. I’m watching this master writing music for this production here.”
Mother Nature appeared to step in to provide special effects for that production when it was staged in the open-air Solvang Festival Theater.
“There’s a scene where the headless witch says something like, ‘I make the lighting,’ and right at that moment there was a huge lightning storm,” Shafer said. “It was perfect.”
More than the many high-quality stage productions, Shafer said the thing he’ll really miss about leaving PCPA is being around the students in the conservatory program.
“There’s such an energy you can feel,” he said. “They’re so eager, committed. … There’s a real constant in PCPA in its training program that goes back centuries — that the professionals teach the students.
“Here it’s as close to individual training as you’ll get in a conservatory. That’s the cornerstone of this conservatory.”
But with the pandemic winding down and the theater poised to receive approval for reopening, with the hope a new season of live productions can begin in the fall, Shafer said it was a good time for him to retire and his replacement can begin fresh.
Currently, his plans call for moving somewhere on the Oregon coastline, where it rains a lot and things are green.
“If I can be near or surrounded by forests and have access to lakes and rivers, I’ll be fulfilled,” he said, adding he doesn’t see himself in full retirement. “There’s probably a local theater troupe up there somewhere I can get involved with.”