Fifteen, Going on 11

Landing the lead in your high school play might be a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for most 11th graders, but for Carlin Traxler, who stars as Iris in Santa Barbara High School’s fall production of “Still Life with Iris,” performing on center stage is nothing new.

Carlin, who is the daughter of Montecito filmmaker Steve Traxler (co-producer of “Legally Blonde II” and “Windtalkers”), was a fixture at the now-defunct Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, where she played Gretl von Trapp in the “Sound of Music,” the daughter in “The King and I” and Mimi in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

“I was in second grade and there I was acting several nights a week, staying up to midnight after the shows were over,” Carlin said, moments before bounding on stage to join the cast of 45 in a full dress rehearsal a week before opening night.

Iris is the heart and soul of “Still Life,” a fantasy adventure story of an 11-year-old girl who lives in the magical land of Nocturno, where workers toil at night to make the things we enjoy in the daytime. In their world, memories aren’t part of people’s minds but instead reside in their jackets, called “PastCoats.” Iris is taken from her family and has her coat removed, leaving a lone button as all that remains from her past. With that single clue, Iris strives to recover her past and find her way home.

Despite her full family life, Carlin said she had no difficulty connecting to the role.

“There are some tender moments,” she says. “I think about what if I were taken away from my mom and that does get me a little teary-eyed. I can understand the feeling.”

Much more difficult for Carlin, at least at first, was having to shave five-plus years off her age, something no teenager wants to do.

“When I first read it, I was a little skeptical – it seemed like it was such a young girl’s play, and the language is really young,” she says. “Having to become a little kid is the hardest part for me, because in our society, at least at my age, everybody wants to be older than they are.”

Director Otto Layman, who teaches theater at the high school, says Carlin is a natural fit in the role. “In life you get three minutes to audition, but I see these kids every day,” Layman explains. “So I know she has the emotional range for it, to play very young and to grow in the role. There’s an enormous transformation, a huge learning curve in this emotionally complicated script.”

Indeed, the set and production of “Still Life” are as rich as the writing. The play – which is the only one written for children ever to win a Best American Play Award from the Kennedy Center – is a collaboration between author Steven Dietz (“God’s Country”), stage magician Steffan Soule and illustrator Cooper Edens. Despite the expense, Layman arranged for Soule himself to spend more than a week with the young actors training them in the magic portions of the show, which includes lots of sleight of hand and a very formidable-looking lightening machine.

“We’re ambitious, always pushing the envelope,” Layman says. “I could have settled for a cheesy high school show but I realize that ninety-nine percent of the kids won’t go on and act again, so I want them to remember this always.”

Carlin, however, is aiming to be part of that other one percent.

“I would love to be an actress,” she said. “I feel so complete on stage. I’ll do anything in front of people, sing or dance or whatever. I don’t worry about making a fool of myself, I don’t care how many people are watching or if there are cameras on me. I just do it. It’s in my blood. So I definitely want to pursue it and I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

[“Still Life With Iris” opens November 10 and plays November 11, 15, 16, 17 and 18, all at 7 pm, at Santa Barbara High School at 700 East Anapamu Street. Tickets are $10 adults, $5 students/children. Call 966-9101, ext 220. Note: Montecito residents Jackie Zupsic (Flower Painter) and Melissa Cronshaw (understudy to Iris) are also in the production.]