Last week was not a good week for me in the department of things I look forward to enjoying during my California summers. The same day that Tuolumne burned down, Shakespeare Santa Cruz announced that it was dimming its lights forever.
I’ve been attending plays at SSC with my family every summer since 1993.* The plays I’ve seen make up a significant portion of my cultural education and I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve been able to consistently attend quality productions of important theatre.
*I’ve only missed four summers out of the 21 in that time.
While the festival doesn’t have the deep bench which Ashland has,* it holds its own with other top-notch companies I’ve seen. What it has that others don’t is the setting. The Festival Glen is a great place to see plays. Especially if you’re a Northern California native who loves redwood trees, picnics, and cold summer nights. And especially with things like Shakespeare where so many plays are actually set in forests and woods.
*Where the star of Midsummer can be First Fairy.
It’s not that I prefer realistic sets. It’s that being in the forest with the actors is a more immersive experience and the size of the theatre is much more flexible. Entrances and exits become fuzzy. Voices and sound effects can come from far far away, echoing through the woods.
At the same time, some of my favorite productions were the super-tightly-directed indoor productions on the mainstage. The Shaw productions in particular* were notable highlights. As was Bach at Leipzig.** Where the Glen allowed productions to be all over the place—in a good way. Something about the mainstage encouraged precision and the plays which worked best in there were the ones which were took as much advantage of crisp timing and smart acting as possible.
**I’m sort of surprised that I never saw any Stoppard at SSC.
Looking back on all the shows I’ve seen though, I think the productions I like best are what I’ve been calling the teen-angst WB Shakespeare. SSC’s most-recent productions of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet emphasized that the characters were just kids dealing with growing up and all the new feelings that come with that. Modern dress. Modern kid behavior. As much as it seems like a cop-out to pick two of the most-famous plays as my favorite productions, I really really enjoyed that approach.
In 2008 when SSC went through a financial crisis, I realized how much I’d miss them if they disappeared. I’m proud that I donated to the cause then even though they only got a handful of years out of the lifeline. I really hope that UCSC finds a way to keep summer Shakespeare alive. I’d like to keep going and, while I’ll be taking my kids to other plays, the Santa Cruz experience is a unique and memorable tradition I would love to pass on.