Interview with Santa Cruz Shakespeare artistic director Mike Ryan
Just over a year ago, Santa Cruz Shakespeare artistic director Mike Ryan received some distressing news: his theater company’s lease on Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, the spot in the UCSC redwoods that has been the site of Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s summer presentations since 1981, had not been renewed.
Upon hearing this, Ryan wasted no time in jumping into a car with Mauro Garcia of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation, who drove him to five or six potential new homes for the festival. When one of those locales, the former site of the Cabrillo College Stroke Center in upper De Laveaga Park, proved to be too flat and unshaded for SCS’s needs, Ryan and Garcia began to drive away.
At that moment, an idyllic scene off to the side of the Stroke Center site caught Ryan’s eye. “I looked over to the right, and I saw this beautiful, sloping, sun-dappled meadow under these trees in between two canyons,” the SCS director recalls. “I said, “Stop! Stop! Stop! This is perfect!”
That spot, the Festival Grove (a.k.a. the Eucalyptus Grove), is the new location of SCS’s theater, which will be up and running this summer. At the same time that it offers all the advantages of a preexisting infrastructure—a parking lot, power, sewers, water, etc.—it also provides the beauty and seclusion crucial to the outdoor performances that SCS has been presenting for three and a half decades.
As opposed to the more remote Glen location, the Grove is situated in central Santa Cruz. “That’s good in many ways—not just in terms of shorter driving times for our patrons, but since we’re Santa Cruz Shakespeare, it also feels philosophically right to be located in the heart of Santa Cruz rather than feeling distanced from the community,” Ryan offers.
The director also feels that the Grove is “more user-friendly” than the Glen. “The Glen was just this spot in the trees that Shakespeare Santa Cruz found early on in its lifespan,” he states. “It haphazardly became a theater over time. It was never properly graded out; there were a lot of accessibility issues, tree roots and all kinds of things like that.”
By contrast, the Grove has an extremely uniform grade, as well as paths that meet requirements for accessibility as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act. As opposed to being built on top of wood chips as the Glen theater was, it has stabilized pathways made of decomposed granite. These provide a far sturdier surface for people walking to and from their seats.
Ryan adds that the Glen became a noisier and noisier place over the years. “There was a fire station right there, and a lot of university traffic went roaring right by it,” he explains. “The thing that’s nice about [the new location] is the only traffic that’s coming by the theater are the people coming to the theater.”
Residents of Prospect Heights, the neighborhood just below De Laveaga Park, have voiced some apprehension about the traffic, noise and roadway safety issues that the new theater might bring. In response to those concerns, SCS ran a series of studies while in performance last summer. In one such study, Jeff Pack of Edward Pack and Associates measured the distance from the new stage to the nearest house in Prospect Heights. He then set up sound equipment at the old site at the same distance from the stage to measure sound levels. Lastly, he played sound at the new site and tested sound levels at that distance, ultimately finding that the amount of sound generated from the stage was below ambient noise level at the closest house.
According to Ryan, a separate traffic study was conducted by the consulting engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald to determine how many cars would be coming through the new SCS location and what the worst-case scenario would be. With a chuckle, the director adds that a cultural artifact study was also conducted “just to make sure [the Grove] is not on top of some ancient burial ground or anything like that.”
In mid-July, Ryan and his associates at SCS will be inaugurating their new theater with their 2016 season. In honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death—and in the interest of bringing as many people as possible to the new site—SCS is presenting two of the Bard’s most wildly popular plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet. The latter presentation is likely to raise a few brows: Hamlet’s namesake has been changed to a female character and will be played by award-winning actress Kate Eastwood Norris.
In regard to that decision, Ryan explains that when he took over as SCS’s sole artistic director in 2015, he instituted a gender equity policy: the company now casts an equal amount of men and women, in spite of the fact that only 18 percent of the roles in Shakespeare’s work were written to be played as women. Along with making for equal employment opportunity, the gender equity policy is designed to offer greater points of access for a more diverse community.
Ryan offers, “We all have to do our part, and one of the ways that the theater has been guilty of institutionalized racism and sexism is by refusing to acknowledge that these Shakespeare plays are being performed for a 21st-century audience, and that we need to reflect the world that we live in rather than producing museum Shakespeare that harkens back to a time that is growing increasingly distant from the experience of most of us.”
The director expects the new site to be a hit with festivalgoers. As he points out, the Redwood Grove began as “just a bunch of trees, and it was 30 years of people coming to see theater there that turned it into one of the most widely respected theaters in North America. That tells me that the creation of great theatrical space has as much or more to do with the people that come to see and create art there as it does with the place itself. That’s something that I want everybody to hold in mind as we make this transition.”With a program that also includes three intern-performed presentations of the gender-bending comedy Orlando, SCS’s 2016’s season promises to be a provocative one. Yet for all of Ryan’s enthusiasm about this year’s presentations, the aspect of the season that he is most excited about is the opening of the new theater itself.
“It has involved so many people coming together to make it happen,” he says. “Theater is, at the end of the day, very much about community, so that kind of a triumph is particularly meaningful to us.”
Tickets for Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2016 summer season will be available May 2nd for members and May 16th for the general public. For more information, visit santacruzshakespeare.org.