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From seven to 70: SLO Little Theatre celebrates its 70th season, looks to the future 

Opening night jitters swarmed the actors at a small rented hall on Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo. To top it off, they didn’t know if anyone would even show up. It was 1947 and a group of seven thespians gave it their all as they spoke life into the comedy Blithe Spirit, featuring an eccentric clairvoyant and a temperamental ghost. 

click to enlarge HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LITTLE THEATRE!:  The theatre opened its 70th anniversary season with the comedic musical The Drowsy Chaperone on Aug. 19. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMIE FOSTER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMIE FOSTER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LITTLE THEATRE!: The theatre opened its 70th anniversary season with the comedic musical The Drowsy Chaperone on Aug. 19.

And like magic, there were not only people in the seats when the curtains closed, but a roaring applause. Nearly 70 years and 26 performance spaces later, the early efforts of a few have created what locals today know as the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre. 

Kevin Harris, the current executive and artistic director has roots with the theatre, going back to the ’90s, when he acted in shows like Evita and A Chorus Line. The Arroyo Grande teen set his sights on pursuing a career in theater. 

“Then I went off and said, ‘I’m never ever coming back to this town,’” Harris said. “And I went to New York and New Orleans, came back and started a theater company in SLO and went off to grad school before I moved back here again.”

By that time, the Little Theatre sat proudly at its current home, the former library on Morro Street (its longest running venue at 22 years now). Upon his return in 2008, Harris lunched with a former board member and teacher. She asked if he might be qualified or interested in the executive director position.

“I said, ‘This is literally one of three things on Earth I can do.’”

click to enlarge HUMBLE BEGINNINGS:  The SLO Little Theatre’s first production was Blithe Spirit, put on in 1947 by a group of seven local actors. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SAN LUIS OBISPO LITTLE THEATRE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SAN LUIS OBISPO LITTLE THEATRE
  • HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: The SLO Little Theatre’s first production was Blithe Spirit, put on in 1947 by a group of seven local actors.

Over the next eight years he and the Little Theatre grew together. Harris started out as the managing director, and in 2011 was also granted the role of artistic director by the board. When he started, it was a time of transition, with Harris being the fifth director in four years. Then he was one of five full- and part-time employees; today the theater boasts a staff of nine and works with hundreds of volunteers each year to put a show on in SLO most weeks of the year. 

The 70th Anniversary season officially opened on Aug. 19 with a rousing rendition of the comedic musical The Drowsy Chaperone, a cheeky show within a show that pokes fun at the world of theater. The library-turned-theater is a small, quirky space. It’s been a good home, but the winds of change are blowing again. For the past few years, The Little Theatre’s set its eyes on getting just a little bit bigger, with a proposed $7 million new theater building at the intersection of Monterey and Nipomo streets. 

“We want to do more plays,” Harris said. “We’re doing 23 plays this year and that’s literally all we can fit on the calendar, and we’re selling them out.”

THE BUSINESS WE CALL SHOW :  'The Drowsy Chaperone' is showing at the SLO Little Theatre through Sept. 11. Tickets range from $15 to $35. For more information and to see the full season lineup of shows, visit slolittletheatre.org.
  • THE BUSINESS WE CALL SHOW : 'The Drowsy Chaperone' is showing at the SLO Little Theatre through Sept. 11. Tickets range from $15 to $35. For more information and to see the full season lineup of shows, visit slolittletheatre.org.

When the new theater gets built hinges on SLO approving an adjacent parking structure, but the outlook is good. The new building would boast around 230 seats, a smaller black box theater, and several rehearsal spaces (the current theater has a capacity of a little more than 100 people with one rehearsal space). In addition to expanding the number of plays in the new building, Harris also hopes to offer theater education for kids and work with playwrights to produce original shows. 

“We want to become something that San Luis Obispo can really be proud of, that the community can rally around and brag about, the way that I’ve seen other towns rally around their professional theaters,” Harris said. “There is a real point of pride for any community to have a live theater right downtown that is a tourist draw, that’s progressing the art form. The more places you have that are trying to create new shit, the better the town is going to be.”

Ryah Cooley has no acting skills to speak of at rcooley@newtimesslo.com.

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