Mountain Community Theater’s (MCT) Peter Gelblum knows a good story when he hears one. Whether it’s one of loss or perseverance, success or struggle, Gelblum is a student of the human condition, and he uses that insight to help shape his actors into storytellers on stage.
After watching the communities of the San Lorenzo Valley suffer under the white-hot heat of the CZU Lightning Complex fire, Gelblum knew there was a tale to tell. He spent months gathering insight from seven locals who had varied experiences during the event, and has begun composing a vehicle for their stories to be shared.
The work is, as of yet, unnamed and undefined, yet oh-so familiar for thousands of Valley residents impacted by the destructive 2020 fire.
“This is an ambitious project, and different than anything I’ve done before,” said Gelblum, a director and president of the MCT board.
He calls it a “Verbatim Theatre Project,” and sees it as an opportunity to share different points of view from those who endured—and in some cases, lost—so much.
“We have such a small valley here, and nearly everyone knows of someone who lost their home to the fire. There was so much emotion and trauma around it that I felt it needed to be memorialized somehow, and I needed to make something dramatic out of it—not that it wasn’t dramatic enough already,” Gelblum said.
He says the impetus for this production came from watching Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman production of “Twilight: Los Angeles,” a chronicle of the aftermath of the Rodney King beating verdict and its impact on society.
Using the stories of bystanders, police officers and others, Smith weaves the harrowing tales following the Los Angeles riots by voicing 30 different characters, and Gelblum is looking to make a similarly meaningful impact.
“I knew I wanted to do a piece about the fires, and obviously there was no script for this, so I created the script by interviewing members of the community who were affected by the CZU fire,” Gelblum said. “Their stories will be told by actors, and that’s the concept of the verbatim theatre approach.”
Gelblum also gives a nod to “The Laramie Project,” which told the story of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was murdered in 1998 for being gay.
“That’s a more well-known verbatim theatre project, and it’s a great vehicle for telling a story from a number of vantage points,” Gelblum said.
Additionally, Gelblum cites a media presentation called THE LINE about the pandemic in New York as another inspiration for this type of performance.
“There was a cast from the Public Theater of New York telling the stories of 4-5 people who had been in the depths of Covid in New York, from an ambulance driver to an emergency room nurse, and it was an incredibly moving piece,” Gelblum said.
He’s hoping to bring that same level of emotion and inspiration to his newest work.
Gelblum says that several members of MCT lost their homes in the fire, leaving their readings raw and authentic.
“I’ve interviewed five people who lost their homes, and two people who were involved in fighting the fires,” Gelblum said. “Unfortunately, it was really easy to find people who lost everything in the fire.”
Formed in 1982, MCT is Santa Cruz County’s longest continuously running community theater company. It puts on live theatrical performances featuring and tailored to people living in the San Lorenzo Valley and Santa Cruz County.
Headquartered in Ben Lomond, MCT is a member-run nonprofit that relies on support from its performances, season subscribers and royalties from its own company-created script, “Miracle on 34th Street, the Play,” which it won the rights to in 2010.
Gelblum said he is envisioning the performances for his latest work being recorded and then uploaded for all to see.
“The narratives of these residents will be told by our cast, and it needs to be simple and straightforward,” he said. “It’s possible we’ll do it as a stage play, but even if it’s a film, it’s just going to be people talking. There won’t be sets and costumes—it will just be the actors, telling the stories of these survivors. They deserve to be told.”
[The project name and release date are yet to be determined. Keep watch for future articles on this event. — Editor]