Santa Cruz Shakespeare, sans Audrey, gears up for big new season

Santa Cruz Shakespeare artistic director Mike Ryan
Mike Ryan, Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s artistic director.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “Twelfth Night” artfully describe the shipwrecked times we live through and present new work from a Santa Cruz playwright this summer, all while saying goodbye to the company’s longtime icon, Audrey Stanley.

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For the first time in more than 40 years, there will Shakespeare in Santa Cruz without Audrey Stanley.

Santa Cruz Shakespeare is poised to return to a full season at its outdoor stage at DeLaveaga Park, but Stanley, for whom the venue is named, won’t be there, as she has in years past, offering congratulations and encouragement to actors and directors.

Stanley died two weeks ago at the age of 94, and Santa Cruz Shakespeare will be dedicating the 2022 season to the woman who founded the festival, then known as Shakespeare Santa Cruz, in 1981.

“We’ll be looking to do a celebration of her life some time this summer,” said Mike Ryan, SCS’s artistic director, sitting at a table near the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga, where the new season is set to kick off July 10.

Ryan will preside at a season preview event Tuesday at Bookshop Santa Cruz, discussing the company’s first full-scale season since 2019, which will feature new productions of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “Twelfth Night,” along with the world premiere of Santa Cruz playwright Kathryn Chetkovich’s “The Formula.” He’ll undoubtedly pay tribute to Stanley as well.

Less than a decade ago, the company went through a turbulent transition when Stanley’s original festival died and Santa Cruz Shakespeare emerged.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz had been affiliated with UC Santa Cruz, and for more than 30 years brought theater lovers up to the UCSC campus to watch Shakespeare performed in a beautiful and fragrant redwood glen, which was also named for Stanley, a longtime professor of theater at UCSC.

When the university ended the program, to great community dismay, the orphaned actors and directors, under the leadership of Ryan and then-artistic director Marco Barricelli, spun off and created the new company. They cut its ties with the university, reshuffled the company’s name and eventually settled in at a new venue in DeLaveaga Park.

Throughout that challenging time, Ryan said, Stanley acted as a stalwart in her support of the new offshoot company. “It’s hard to overestimate Audrey’s effect on our morale during that time,” he said. “The person who probably should have been the most disheartened and crushed by the entire experience [of the closing of Shakespeare Santa Cruz], having birthed it and being the living embodiment of that festival, was the most gung-ho to keep us moving, to be thinking positively and for throwing her support behind us financially, and also rallying donors from the past and sending out the call to arms to get the the festival rebooted in its current form.”

Programs for Santa Cruz Shakespeare's 2022 season
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Stanley had been part of the theater arts faculty at UCSC. “She could have said, ‘You know, it had a good run,’” said Ryan, “or, ‘I can’t survive without the university.’ ‘You can’t survive without the university,’ or, ‘I’m not interested in a company that isn’t affiliated with the university.’”

Instead, she gave her imprimatur to Ryan and his group.

“The other thing that Audrey did that was really incredible in the early part of this festival’s life,” said Ryan, “was she wrote a letter to the university, asking them to relinquish funds that had been given to them in endowments that were beneficial to the old festival and instead turn them over to the new festival. And I mean, you’re asking the university to relinquish endowed funds, right? It was a tall order. And she made it happen.”

Absent Stanley’s presence and support, Ryan and his staff are hoping the new summer season at Santa Cruz Shakespeare will snap back to the energy of 2019. There was no in-person festival programming in 2020, and the 2021 season was scaled back with small casts and small audiences. This new season features 20 performers, about the average of pre-pandemic seasons, in its three productions — two Shakespeare productions and a world premiere of an original play.

This year’s two Shakespeare plays were originally scheduled to be produced for the 2020 season. “Twelfth Night” is a popular Shakespearean comedy, centered on love and mistaken identities. “The Tempest” is the story of an exiled former duke trapped on an island with his monstrous servant, Caliban.

“Both plays start with the shipwreck,” said Ryan. “What an interesting link. So, in 2020, I just thought, ‘Oh, how cute to do a shipwreck season, right?’ Then of course, we experienced an actual worldwide shipwreck in the form of COVID. And certainly an additional national shipwreck in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement and murder of George Floyd. So, when it came time for 2022, I thought, ‘Let’s do these plays again.’ But this time, I actually thought of them in a whole different way because of everything we’ve been through. Those plays are both about people who have ideas about love or revenge that have become so stale that they’ve become damaging to them.”

The Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

SCS will also present Kathryn Chetkovich’s “The Formula,” a modern-day comedy about the biochemical nature of love that references Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Santa Cruz playwright’s work was part of a staged reading at SCS in 2019. It was so well received that Ryan offered her the chance to stage the world premiere this summer.

“It’s not only hilarious, but it’s just so thrillingly smart, the way it takes this love-and-idleness Puck’s flower idea from ‘Midsummer’s Night Dream,’ and puts it smack-dab in the middle of our day and age to ask some really important questions about what love is. It challenges us to ask: What is love? What is romance? What is our desire to connect with another person?”

Ryan is eager to see both audiences and his productions back to their pre-pandemic levels. But there will be one big difference, the absence of the person who was the embodiment of Shakespeare in Santa Cruz, Audrey Stanley.

“I think Audrey attended every rehearsal,” he said, “and certainly every day of the festival, from 2014 to 2019. Then, of course, we didn’t have the festival in 2020. But then in ’21, she was not as mobile as she once was, and so she didn’t attend rehearsals, but she came to the performances. So there hasn’t been a season where she has not been a core part of what we do here.”

Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2022 season preview will take place at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday. The event is sold out. Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s new season begins July 10.

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