Homegrown Kate Hawley spins a new tale of middle-age angst

Santa Cruz playwright Kate Hawley
Santa Cruz playwright Kate Hawley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Jewel Theatre is set to give Santa Cruz playwright Kate Hawley a world premiere of “Remains to Be Seen.” It’s the third time the company has debuted her work.

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Writing a play is difficult (or, maybe we should stipulate, writing a good play is difficult). Getting that play produced and staged with live, breathing actors in front of an actual audience? That’s a whole other degree of difficulty.

Wallace

For a town its size, Santa Cruz has a higher-than-usual number of playwrights who’ve seen their work brought to the stage, thanks largely to Actors Theatre’s 8 Tens @8 play festival, which produces more than a dozen fully staged 10-minute plays every year. But out in the real world, aspiring playwrights rarely, and often never, get to see their plays produced.

Which is what makes Kate Hawley’s story so extraordinary. Next week, the Santa Cruz playwright will be on hand to see her new play, “Remains to Be Seen,” have its world premiere at Jewel Theatre Co.’s Colligan Theater. In fact, it’s the third time that Jewel has produced Hawley’s work. And before that, Hawley’s plays charmed local audiences for years at the now-defunct Shakespeare Santa Cruz.

The cast of “Remains to Be Seen” (in previews beginning March 30, and officially opening April 1) features names every bit as prominent as Hawley’s in the Santa Cruz theater scene. It includes Julie James, artistic director at Jewel, as well as Paul Whitworth, who once ran SSC, and Mike Ryan, the actor who is the artistic director of SSC’s offspring theater company, Santa Cruz Shakespeare.

Ryan, in fact, is a kind of Hawley muse, having acted in Hawley plays going back to SCC’s “panto” version of “Cinderella” in 1999.

Theatergoers know Hawley’s plays for their crisp dialogue and her canny view of social relationships, both of which are at play in “Remains to Be Seen.” The play focuses on a group of theater friends who’ve known each other since college, and who make a point to reunite every five years. Now deep into middle age, the group comes together for its latest reunion, with some of them wondering why they bother.

“Kate has a wonderful way of mixing a real wit and levity that’s mixed with real drama,” said James. “Her comedy is not farce. It’s really just about being able to look at humor in life even while serious stuff is going on. She’s just so good at capturing the craziness of being human.”

“You’re not going to get it out of me.” Kate Hawley is sitting in her living room in a home situated on a sylvan lot not too far from the UC Santa Cruz campus. She’s talking about the details of her new play. There are dramatic twists and plot points early on in the play that she’s loath to reveal, and that she hopes reviewers won’t spoil. As for the play’s rehearsals, she’s been there most days as a resource for the actors. That’s one of the advantages for theaters in producing a local playwright.

Hawley began her career in the theater as an actor, first as a converted English major at UC Berkeley, then at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, and eventually at UCSC. She acted in many productions at UCSC and Shakespeare Santa Cruz. But after being cast in one play that she found subpar, she took a playwriting class from legendary Santa Cruz playwright Philip Slater. After working with Slater, already in her mid-40s, she found her voice as a writer.

Jewel Theatre Company artistic director Julie James says she has one goal: To produce one new play a year.

“I was so naive that I Xeroxed my plays and packaged them, with return envelopes and stamps and all that, and sent them out to really famous theaters,” she said, and then pausing for effect added, “overnight delivery.”

Running headlong into the indifference of the theater industry, she adjusted accordingly and began querying lower-tier theaters and found one in Lansing, Michigan, willing to do a staged reading of one of her plays. (A staged reading is as it sounds, a reading of the play in a theater without costumes and sets. It serves as a kind of intermediate step toward getting produced for the playwright, and as a test case for a theater company considering a new play). The Michigan theater was so enamored of her plays, it agreed to produce a fully staged version a couple of years later.

“That kind of launched me,” she said, “so I had something to put on the résumé.”

Santa Cruz playwright Kate Hawley
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In the late 1990s, she helped Shakespeare Santa Cruz revive the British tradition of the “panto,” a freewheeling, often-colorful and comic adaptation of a well-known fable or fairy tale. Hawley found her stride in the panto form, and SSC productions of her “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Gretel & Hansel” became annual traditions. Her pantos brought ribald wit, topical humor, and even a few only-in-Santa-Cruz references to well-known stories.

From there, she turned to screenwriting, and despite some big artistic successes — one of her scripts won Best New Screenplay at the Austin Film Festival — “I got absolutely nowhere.” She met with an agent in Hollywood who shared with her a harsh truth: “He said, ‘You know, this is very good, but it’s not going to happen for you.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Well, you don’t live in L.A., and you’re too old.’”

That was enough to bring her back to the stage, where she has developed a long-standing relationship with Jewel. Her first produced play was in 2015, “Complications From a Fall,” a comedy/drama about a son having to play caretaker for his difficult mother. That was followed by “Coming of Age” in 2018, both of them world premieres at Jewel.

This year, Hawley might have some company among local playwrights seeing their full-length plays produced on stage. This summer, Santa Cruz Shakespeare will stage “The Formula,” written by Kathryn Chetkovich of Santa Cruz, a comedy based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Hawley saw the staged reading of “The Formula.” “So, I wrote to her,” Hawley said of Chetkovich, “and I said, ‘You don’t know me, but I went to see your play skeptically. But it was one of those plays where audiences were genuinely laughing. Not because they knew that was the laugh line, which happens all the time, but because it was genuinely funny.’ And you know, it took her about five days to respond, and I thought that maybe I stepped on her toes or something. But she eventually wrote back and she said, ‘I was overwhelmed, of course. I’ve seen all your plays.’ So, now we write to each other all the time and take walks together. She’s been a real friend.”

“Remains to Be Seen” will be presented in preview performances March 30 and 31, and officially open April 1 at the Colligan Theater at the Tannery Arts Center. The play runs through April 24.

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