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…)
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.”
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.