The distance between Kabul and Santa Barbara is roughly 7,631 miles as the bullet flies, but for 100 minutes a rapt audience at the Ensemble Theatre Company (ETC) at the New Vic was given a chance to experience the tension, the emotion, the fear, the heartbreak of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. In truth, last Sunday afternoon, there were two Kabul dramas unfolding on stage—one created by playwright Sylvia Khoury; the other shared by actual Afghan refugees.

This is not a theatre review. Selling Kabul ended its successful run in Santa Barbara on February 19 with a sold-out matinee in a 300-seat house. You’d have to search elsewhere to find a production, most likely with a different cast and director. It’s too bad you missed it because Selling Kabul literally is a drama ripped from the headlines, staged by Santa Barbara’s only professional theater company.

I am more interested in the intersection of travel and the arts, what is now being called “arts tourism.”

A group of us bypassed local worthy productions and concerts to caravan down to Santa Barbara. Why? For me, I like combining travel with experiencing the arts, whether it’s seeing Billy Joel in San Diego or catching the Klimt exhibit at the Getty. I am a willing road warrior for the arts.

I am not alone—this is big business. According to the nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts, 68 percent of U.S. tourism is driven by the arts and cultural heritage. More than 35 million adults say that a specific art, cultural, or heritage event influenced their choice of destination. Oh, and here’s the icing on the arts tourism cake—cultural tourists spend two times more money than the average tourist, and research even suggests a link between arts tourism and…increased peace.

Which brings me back to Santa Barbara and my first visit to the New Vic, just around the corner from the Arlington and the Granada on State Street. ETC became an Equity theatre in 1989 and beginning in 2009, they undertook a $12.6 million renovation of what used to be the Victoria Hall Theatre.

Judging from the design and the stained glass windows, the building had to be a church at some point. The lobby is small, but the restrooms can handle a crowd. The staff is very friendly. There is a small courtyard with a bar for patrons to enjoy before the show. Inside, the seats are comfortable, though the numbering can be confusing. Parking garages are nearby and you can be on State Street in under a minute.

The afternoon crowd was older, a sea of gray. But we were quickly drawn in to Khoury’s story, set during the partial withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in 2013. The parallels to the total collapse of Kabul to the Taliban in 2021 resonated from the opening scene.

Taroon (Rishan Dhamija) is an interpreter for the U.S. military in Kabul, forced to hide in his sister Afiya’s (Nitya Vidyasagar) apartment because the Taliban is searching for him and there’s a price on his head. The situation is so grave that Taroon can’t even visit the hospital to see his wife and their newborn son. Afiya and her husband Jawid (Beejan Land) have to convince Taroon to leave his family behind now if he is to survive. Complicating matters is the curious neighbor Leyla (Christine Mirzayan) who may, or may not, be sympathetic to Taroon’s plight. The story unfolds over the course of a single day and the audience remains in complete suspense over what might happen to Taroon until the very end.

After the well-deserved standing ovation, the second Kabul drama began with an “After Talk.” Dr. Vance Rodgers, co-founder of the relatively new San Luis Obispo nonprofit SLO4Home, took the stage to introduce his group and its important work helping to resettle refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine on the Central Coast.

Dr. Rodgers then introduced two Afghan refugees, John and Sara (names Americanized for security reasons) now living in San Luis Obispo. In a matter of minutes, the audience was transported from the mind of the playwright to the day-to-day reality of actual survivors. This play is about 90 percent true, John and Sara agreed. They marveled that even the set eerily mirrored their actual apartment in Kabul (credit to scenic designer Ann Sheffield).

John, who like the fictional Taroon served as an interpreter for the U.S. military, said the play was often “tough” to watch because of the memories it evoked. The fear never goes away, John said, admitting that he often looks over his shoulder at night, even when walking in San Luis Obispo.

A compelling afternoon in Santa Barbara. Two dramas for the price of one. An impressive theatre to experience on Victoria Street. Well worth the drive.

Here’s hoping that the research about the arts increasing the chance for peace is right.

:: David Congalton