Santa Clara University

Sailing in The Lifeboat
Dark of the Moon
The 1970 season brought "Dark of the Moon" to The Lifeboat. An American stage classic, the Howard Richardson and William Berney play is based on an Appalachian legend.

In June 1970, as a visiting soon-to-be freshman, I went to the SCU

Registrar and changed my major from history to theatre arts. Forms completed, I asked for directions to the University theatre. I was pointed down The Alameda and walked for what seemed like miles to find a dilapidated warehouse with a faded “Lifeboat Theatre” painted on the side. I wondered if I had just made a big mistake. Little did I know.

Marya Maddox donned a turban and The Lifeboat was transformed into the French Riviera in the '20s for the spring 1973 production of "The Boyfriend."

For almost a century, the University’s dramatic productions had been staged in a venerable 1870s-era edifice known as “The Ship,” the name an acknowledgement of its construction without nails by shipwrights. When it was condemned as a tinderbox and torn down in 1962, there was a mad rush to create what was intended to be a “temporary” facility. Opening with “Richard III” in the fall of 1962, the “Lifeboat” was still a work in progress—stalls had not yet been built in the rest rooms. Its warehouse origin, however, made for a unique opportunity. In this veritable “empty space,” you could not just redesign the stage for each show, but the entire theatre, shifting seating into whatever configuration (proscenium, thrust, round) best served the play.

The following year, the Lifeboat became the home of the summer California Shakespeare Festival (CSF). Founded by SCU Professor Roger Gross and James Dunn of the College of Marin, the professional CSF never had the large production budgets of Ashland or San Diego’s Old Globe, but it often outshone those institutions with its “blood and guts” interpretations of the Bard. At its prime, its acting ensemble was arguably the strongest in the nation and included performers—David Ogden Stiers and Kurtwood Smith among them—who would go on to become familiar faces in TV and film. Not to be outdone by its professional sibling, SCU’s theatre department flourished. A theatre arts major was established while audacious productions such as “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” and “Marat/Sade” were hailed as the most exciting college shows in the Bay Area.

Buffalo Bill
Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid, and the burden history has left on an American conscience—a 1972 production of Arthur Kopit's "Indians." Photo: Courtesy of Marv White

By the time I arrived, the heady years of the CSF had passed, but the Lifeboat was still a place of boundless creativity. Its spirit was embodied by then-bearded and long-haired designer Ron Skolmen, who had been creating the theatre’s amazing sets since 1963 and was, to us, a wizard practicing the magic arts. While seating was now fixed, flexibility was still the theatre’s trademark—you could hang a set piece anywhere, the only limit being your imagination. There was always the sense of improvisation about the Lifeboat, that you were making it all up as you went along and the building was your partner, sharing in discoveries and mistakes. Together we would fashion something unique and wonderful on the blank slate it so generously provided. Together we would tear it down, making room for the next.

Closing with “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in the spring of ’75, the Lifeboat was eventually demolished to make room for a realigned Alameda. As our graduation neared in 1974, classmates and I would gaze longingly upon the construction of the state-of-the-art Louis B. Mayer Theatre and curse our timing, not realizing that one day we would look back and know that we had been the fortunate ones.

—Christopher Bomba ’74 is a story analyst at 20th Century Fox and a playwright/screenwriter.