After enduring a divorce from UCSC and then the pains of the pandemic, Santa Cruz Shakespeare releases its 2023 schedule and big plans for major physical improvements to its Grove theater.
In the midst of its successful 2022 comeback summer season, Santa Cruz Shakespeare is shifting gears to the future by evoking its past.
On a beautiful evening at The Grove at DeLaveaga, SCS artistic director Mike Ryan on Monday announced that next summer’s season will feature perhaps Santa Cruz’s greatest Shakespearean actor taking on perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest role.
Paul Whitworth — the longtime artistic director of SCS’s predecessor theater company, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and for many years the most prominent face of theater in Santa Cruz — will take on the title role in Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” It will be Whitworth’s first role at the Grove.
To play in rotation in the summer of 2023 with “Lear” will be Shakespeare’s provocative comedy “The Taming of the Shrew,” and Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will,” which Ryan referred to as a “love letter to Shakespeare.”
Next year’s season will also be notable as the last year that Ryan will serve as artistic director of the company. Ryan, in his 10th season, served as the driving force in keeping the Shakespeare festival alive when UC Santa Cruz cut it loose a decade ago. For the coming year, he will share duties with incoming artistic director Charles Pasternak.
On stage, Ryan and Pasternak have charmed audiences this summer in the comic roles of Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” Next year, on top of sharing the artistic director’s chair, the two will star opposite each other in “The Book of Will.”
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But the biggest news was the return of Whitworth, 72, the British-born actor who tackled many of the greatest roles in the canon during his tenure at Shakespeare Santa Cruz in the 1990s and 2000s, including Hamlet, Iago and Macbeth (in SSC’s 1995 production of “Lear,” Whitworth played the Fool).
In announcing the new season on stage at The Audrey Stanley Grove, Ryan also announced that Santa Cruz Shakespeare had achieved its ticket sales goal for this summer, selling more than 15,000 tickets with less than one week of performances left before Sunday’s closing night. And he unveiled the winner of the company’s Billy Award for outstanding service to the SCS community, introducing the winner as company manager Sue Dormanen.
In 2013, after the Arts Division at UC Santa Cruz ended Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s 32-year run, Ryan assumed a leadership role in creating a new company from SSC’s ashes. The company, fueled by a spirited public fundraising campaign, moved to a new home adjacent to the DeLaveaga Golf Course. Ryan then guided the new company through the building of a theater space from scratch, and then kept the company afloat as a pandemic shutdown threatened to break its momentum of building audiences at the new space.
After the announcement, SCS board president Rick Wright said that 2022’s successes put the company back on the footing it enjoyed in 2019 before the pandemic. (SCS produced an online season in 2020, and a scaled-down season with limited casts and audiences in 2021.) Wright said that the 2022 season is the company’s most successful season, as expressed in the percentage of seats sold.
The good news at the Grove stands in contrast to widespread reports that audiences across the country are hesitant to return to live theater.
“A lot of theater companies have experienced both a falloff in contributed revenue [donations], as well as earned income [ticket sales],” said Wright. “And I think that we’re very fortunate here to be outdoors, I think people are more inclined to come back and sit here, masked or unmasked.”
For 2022, the company introduced a new sound system that allowed all the actors to be equipped with microphones, and better heard throughout the eucalyptus-shrouded space. Wright and the board have also been spearheading and overseeing the construction of a permanent new building at the site that will house the company’s office, dressing rooms, costume shops and set storage. He said the company is also pursuing a new permanent shade structure to keep audiences comfortable during sunny matinees, and a new bathroom facility for audiences. Wright said he hopes the new building will be operational by 2024. The shade structure and new bathrooms, however, are “a few years out.” He said inflation and the rise in the cost of construction materials, as well as the pandemic interruption, have increased the original estimated costs of the SCS office building by about 40%.
On top of the new capital construction projects, SCS will have new artistic energy when Pasternak takes over. He assumes the helm Jan. 1 as the co-artistic director with Ryan, with Ryan retiring after the 2023 season. “The number of things he wants to do are almost endless,” Wright said of Pasternak.
But next year’s season will reflect the company’s glorious past, both in the return of Whitworth and in what will be the final season of Ryan running the company.
To the assembled donors and guests Monday at the Grove, an emotional Ryan said, “You have made the last nine years of my life the best years of my life.”
Santa Cruz Shakspeare’s 2022 season, with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “The Tempest” and Kathryn Chetkovich’s “The Formula” runs through Sunday.