Citing post-lockdown challenges, Jewel Theatre says it’s shutting down in 2024

Julie James (left), Jewel Theatre Company's artistic director, in the company's 2013 production of "Pump Boys and Dinettes."
Julie James (left), Jewel Theatre Company’s artistic director, in the company’s 2013 production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”
(Via Steve DiBartolomeo)

With even some loyal subscribers not returning after the COVID pandemic shutdown and costs higher than ever, Santa Cruz’s Jewel Theatre Company announced that the 2023-24 season will be its last.

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In a crushing blow to the local performing-arts community, Santa Cruz’s Jewel Theatre Company announced this week that it will end operations in the summer of 2024, following its upcoming 2023-24 season.

Jewel’s artistic director, Julie James, said the company has faced ongoing challenges since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, most notably a gradual fall-off in subscribers. Jewel reopened after 20 months following the March 2020 shutdown with a promising 80% rate of returning subscribers. But the following year saw only a 70% return rate, and Jewel has been turning to local, state and federal grants to cover the cost shortfalls. In a statement, James said that such a situation is not sustainable.

“The much slower than expected recovery combined with increased costs being experienced by theaters and other industries means our savings cannot cover the projected continued annual deficits over the next five to 10 years,” she said.

Julie James, artistic director of the Jewel Theatre Co.
(Via Jewel Theatre Company)

The pandemic has decimated theater audiences around the country, and Jewel has noticed that many subscribers re-upped in the year following the shutdown as a gesture of support, but chose not to actually attend. Then in the most recent year, those subscribers did not come back. The ruinous wildfires of 2020 also took out a critical percentage of Jewel’s subscriber base. Plus, since so much of attending performing arts events is habitual, some just fell out of the habit. On top of that, post-shutdown inflation pushed costs for things like lumber and paper ever higher.

Jewel has two productions left in its current season, including “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” which opens next week. In April, the theater company will announce its upcoming 2023-24 season, which will be its last.

Jewel was founded in 2005 when James, a veteran stage actor, decided to produce a series of one-act plays on the theme of love. The show was such a success, Jewel became one of several independent theater companies in Santa Cruz. In 2011, the company moved into the office spaces at Center Stage in the Art Center downtown, and in 2015, it became the first tenant in the brand-new Colligan Theater at the Tannery Arts Center.

It’s important to note, James told me, that Jewel is not issuing a call for the community to “save” the company. The Santa Cruz community has been much more supportive of Jewel than audiences in many other theater companies across the country. Still, even if the local community would rally to such a call, it would only put off an inevitable day of reckoning.

James said she’d rather make a graceful bow out than to become a de facto fundraising operation and, in some down year, have to make a hasty decision to close abruptly.

“I see other theaters facing the same thing and I don’t think they’re going about it the same way,” she said. “They’re going to stretch themselves to the end and it won’t be pretty. And so yeah, I really do want to have this be dignified and responsible. Just make it a celebration of what a wonderful and amazing thing that we’ve been able to do, and give thanks to everyone who supported us. So I feel it’s much better doing it that way than any other way.”

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