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Performing Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Performance

Mourning Shakespeare Santa Cruz

August 28, 2013 § 5 Comments

Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay;
The worst is death, and death will have his day.
Richard II, (III.ii)

Earlier this week, the University of California at Santa Cruz announced (through its Dean of the Arts David Yager) that it was pulling the plug on 32 year old, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, their professional theater company in residence. The current season will be its last. Although the finality and timing of the decision was apparently something of a surprise, SSC’s future has been cloudy for some time. The company has struggled since the economic collapse of 2008 decimated higher education funding in California, threatening everything beyond basic instruction.

I am not close enough to the situation to assess the necessity or justness of the decision, but I am certainly among those in mourning not only for death of the company but for the bigger idea it represented.

To me, that idea will always be defined by the late Daniel Seltzer’s 1975 report for the National Endowment for the Humanities about the relationship of professional theaters to American universities, The Ideal Theater-in-the-University. At the time it was written, Seltzer was the head of Princeton’s theater program, and a notable Shakespearean scholar in its English department. He had also just been nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in Jules Feiffer’s Knock, Knock. In other words, he was both a credentialed scholar and a successful actor in the competitive commercial theater. (Sometime those that can, also teach…)

The late Daniel Seltzer in AN UNMARRIED WOMAN

The late Daniel Seltzer in AN UNMARRIED WOMAN

I was lucky enough to meet Seltzer just as I was finishing my undergraduate work. I was a kid just off the farm in Idaho, and my public education (including exposure to Seltzer) was dramatically changing my life prospects. It was his compelling vision of the interaction of university life and theater that interested me then, and still inspires me all these years later. Seltzer participated not only in the commercial theater, but also in the growing regional theater movement – especially at the McCarter Theater – but he was convinced that the Theater-in-the-University (his term) was a special, and vitally important kind of theater, perhaps the most important of all.

In his report, his central argument was that a university theater does not exist just for entertainment, nor even for the specific education of aspiring theater artists. The theater, he believed, should be the campus gathering-place, where a living community converges to consider the important questions of the time. Advocating for his vision, he wrote, “We can take seriously the association of the arts – perhaps especially the performing arts – with important public questions, with the responsibilities of men in public trust, with matters relative to the nation’s well-being. A university is profoundly involved in both the past and the present, and a university’s theater can reveal how dynamically and excitingly the two are connected.”

Audrey Stanley, Visionary Founding Director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz and UCSC Professor-Emeritus

Audrey Stanley, Visionary Founding Director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz and UCSC Professor-Emeritus

Perhaps it all seems quaint and idealistic now, as most of our society has long since abandoned the idea that the performing arts are a living library, as indispensable to a complete education as the material library at the center of campus. The proposition that live theater is worth subsidizing for its civilizing value has been under steady attack for decades, not just in the university, but in society-at-large. In fact, it hardly seems fair to damn UC-Santa Cruz for giving up after 32 years on an idea that few other public universities ever took seriously. (There are less than a dozen theaters such as Seltzer imagined, and Audrey Stanley created at UCSC, in residence at public universities, and not much more than double that number if you include private ones. Perhaps the only remaining theater company directly comparable to Santa Cruz is the Utah Shakespearean Festival at Southern Utah University in Cedar City.)

Still, I cannot help but hope that in Yager’s promise to convene a blue ribbon committee to “reimagine how our campus could host a company that is financially stable, academically relevant, and closely aligned with the activities of a major research university,” there might be a chance for the continuation of the kind of idealism that powered Seltzer’s vision for cultural/academic interaction, if not for this specific incarnation of it. UC-Santa Cruz was, and is, an exemplary institution because it has fought the good fight on behalf of meritorious students who lacked the resources to buy life’s advantages at outrageously expensive private universities. Let us hope that throwing in the towel on Shakespeare Santa Cruz is not symbolic of a surrender to the forces that continue to divide our nation into the haves, and the have-nots. Our cultural heritage is too valuable to turn into another commodity.

§ 5 Responses to Mourning Shakespeare Santa Cruz

  • Christie Cochrell says:

    Beautifully said—thank you.

  • Paul House says:

    I constructed sets and props at SSC for 14 seasons, beginning in 1988, and was the “Glen Master” for several years before moving indoors to concentrate on building the Mainstage shows. Each summer I met and worked with the most amazing people: directors, designers, stage managers, actors, tech people, office staff and “lowly” interns (many of which are now stars in their own right). The educational experience and opportunity SSC provided to each participant (including not only our own community but to an international audience) cannot be easily defined nor understood by the casual observer… especially not by someone viewing the “bottom line” from an air conditioned UC office.

  • B. Modern says:

    Shakespeare Santa Cruz did not throw in the towel. The decision was made by UCSC and specifically the Dean of the Arts. Neither the Artistic Director , the core staff or the Board of Directors was consulted. The campus has been our home for 32 years, but we are no longer considered relevant to the powers that be.
    We are not dead.
    Our passion, creative spirit and commitment to bringing Shakespeare and other great theater to our community is still strong and we will prevail, one way or another.

    • Kurt says:

      I think my comments make it clear that UCSC pulled the plug, catching SSC off-guard, and not that the company voluntarily folded. I hope the context makes it clear that it is the university that threw in the towel. If that was not your impression, then let this serve as correction.

  • Twelve Ways of Looking at Shakespeare’s Shadow
    (On the Death of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, with Apologies to Wallace Stevens)

    Among twenty towering redwoods,
    the only moving thing
    is the shadow of Shakespeare.

    A playbill stirs in the breeze,
    a fragment of the aftermath.

    An actor and an audience
    were one.
    An actor, an audience and poetry
    were one.

    I don’t know what to regret the most:
    the beauty of inflections
    or the play of innuendos;
    the listeners rapt
    or loud with laughter.

    September fog will fill the glen
    with emptiness,
    the memories of figures
    crossing to and fro,
    Their gestures
    blurring slowly,
    an indecipherable scene.

    Thin-fingered men of Santa Cruz,
    how do you count up all the coinage?
    Did none of you see the Muse of fire
    soaring above the heads
    of those who came?

    We knew noble accents
    and lucid, intricate rhythms;
    and we knew, too,
    a spirit was involved
    in what we knew.

    Now as that mystery fades away.
    It marks the end
    of a storied cycle.

    And at the thought of such sweet music
    fading away in dimming light,
    even the skunks and raccoons
    growl and complain.

    An important man rides through town
    as in a glass limousine.
    Perhaps some fear will find him,
    and he’ll mistake the outline of a tree
    for Hamlet’s ghost.

    The branches are moving.
    The shadow must be leaving.

    It is evening all afternoon.
    The fog is rolling
    and it’s going to roll.
    The shadow sits a final time
    in the redwood-limbs.

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