Longtime artistic director Mike Ryan, a steady hand in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s transition from UC Santa Cruz to DeLaveaga Park, is sharing that role with Charles Pasternak, himself a familiar face to local theatergoers, this summer. After that, it’s Pasternak’s ship to steer. “I see my role in expansion as a sort of daring but careful one,” he says of what’s to come.
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In Shakespeare circles, “Two Gents” has long been a shorthand reference to the early Shakespearean comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” But this summer, it also serves as a handy way to think about the artistic leadership of Santa Cruz Shakespeare.
For this year only, the celebrated local theater company will have two co-equal artistic directors. In what itself sounds like a promising setup for a quick-witted comedy, the two gents in this case are longtime SCS artistic director Mike Ryan and Los Angeles actor and director Charles Pasternak. The move is a transitional one — after a decade in charge, Ryan is stepping down and Pasternak, named as Ryan’s successor in 2022, is set to lead the company, presumably for the next decade.
Ryan — who stepped forward in 2013 as the leader of the effort to save Shakespeare Santa Cruz (as it was then called) after the company was abruptly expelled from UC Santa Cruz — is perhaps Santa Cruz’s most well-known theater figure. But what of Pasternak? Who is he? And where does he want to lead Santa Cruz Shakespeare?
Certainly Pasternak, 39, is no stranger to local audiences. He first appeared on stage in Santa Cruz way back in 2008 as Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet,” in the heyday of the redwood-shrouded Festival Glen on the UCSC campus. He also played a memorable Prince Hal in “Henry IV, Part 2” in 2012, and was all over last year’s season, playing in both “Twelfth Night” and “The Tempest.”
This summer, in a symbolic on-stage collaboration, Pasternak will co-star with Ryan in Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will,” a contemporary period piece about two Elizabethan-era actors who worked to preserve Shakespeare’s First Folio. It’s been an SCS tradition to present two Shakespeare plays and one non-Shakespeare play (that works “in conversation” with the Shakespeare plays, in artistic-director lingo) every summer. And it was from Pasternak’s suggestion that the non-Shakespeare slot be given to “The Book of Will.”
“It’s a lovely play,” said Pasternak. “It’s a love letter to Shakespeare, and it’s so funny. [Playwright Gunderson] has such a lovely ear for that kind of thing. After we looked at it for [a proposed staged reading], we said, ‘Why don’t we just do this?’, because not only are there good parts for us to play but,” he said, referencing his and Ryan’s offstage roles, “there’s also a lovely sort of meta-theatrical aspect to it.”
While other local theater companies have struggled to find equilibrium in the wake of the COVID pandemic, Santa Cruz Shakespeare is coming off one of its biggest seasons in 2022, exceeding its audience and revenue projections. It’s also ready to break ground on a big capital infrastructure project, building a permanent office/dressing room/rehearsal space adjacent to its eucalyptus-scented outdoor theater near DeLaveaga Park.
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“It’s important that we manage a healthy transition,” said Pasternak, “and Mike has been wonderful, spending a lot of time talking me through situations and issues. And then, as I came on as staff at the beginning of this year, we started splitting the workload. And, throughout casting, we were very much partners.”
Why is SCS thriving in an atmosphere in which so many other theater companies are struggling? (Actors’ Theatre has reinvented itself on a smaller scale after the 2022 resignation of its top talent; Cabrillo Stage suffered through a disappointing season that led to the resignation of its artistic director; and Jewel Theater Company recently announced that its 2023-24 season would be its last.) Santa Cruz Shakespeare can certainly make the argument based on the quality of its productions. But, Pasternak said, it might be something as simple as SCS’s lack of walls.
“The indoors/outdoors thing is probably the biggest [factor],” he said. “I have a number of artistic-director friends who run indoor theaters who have expressed envy of the fact that I’m working in an outdoors theater. Their ticket sales are not back up [to pre-COVID levels], both because people’s habits have changed and because of health fears. It’s just easier outside. People feel more comfortable. And I think the beauty of the Grove helps us. There’s a picnic area, you have a meal. You drink some wine. The sun is setting. You’re enjoying the summer.”
Pasternak said he plans no big departures from the way that Santa Cruz Shakespeare has been doing business for more than 40 years — fidelity to Shakespeare’s texts, creative interpretation in staging and costuming, a gender-neutral approach to casting. Alongside the company’s managing director on the business side, Larry Mabrey, Pasternak said he is looking at ways that SCS can expand, at least in the calendar.
“The hope is to expand programming,” he said. “We have this beautiful Grove, and because we’re blessed with Santa Cruz weather, it’s playable in more than just the summer. We hope to expand into the fall a bit. The hope is to bring back a holiday show. I mean, the hope, is eventually year-round programming.”
Don’t expect any quick, seismic changes, however. “I believe in incremental growth. I don’t believe it all has to be done at once,” Pasternak said. “I see my role in expansion as a sort of daring but careful one. I want to take small steps and make sure the infrastructure and the audience come together to support that. Then take the next step.”
Construction for the new building next to the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga is expected to begin at the end of the summer season (the pandemic delayed the construction). The new building will consist of dressing rooms and a green room for performers, storage and shop space, and offices for SCS staff.
Through his many contacts in the theater world, Pasternak, who recently moved full-time to Santa Cruz, is likely to bring in a new era of acting and directing talent to the summer in Santa Cruz. But with experience on stage at SCS, he’s also mindful of the company’s long history — this summer, the festival will include “King Lear” with Paul Whitworth, the company’s former artistic director and perhaps its greatest actor, in the title role.
Pasternak said he’ll continue the tradition of offering two Shakespeare plays and one non-Shakepeare play.
“I think the Pasternak era, if all goes well, will launch from the Mike Ryan launchpad,” he said. “He and this wonderful company and this wonderful community have handed me this thing. I’ve been set up for success. I’m sure there are artistic or aesthetic preferences that Mike and I don’t share. But, in a lot of ways, we’re aligned.
“There’s nothing like, ‘Well, we’re going to do things differently now.’ I just want to do more of the things we’re already doing, and make it more available to a larger swath of our community. It’ll be hard. But that’s the grand ambition. I’ve been given the tools. I just have to execute it now.”
Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2023 season begins with preview performances July 8, with Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and “King Lear,” and Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will.”