Santa Cruz Shakespeare
A file photo of a Santa Cruz Shakespeare performance.
(Via Santa Cruz Shakespeare)
Wallace Baine

As old guard passes baton on Santa Cruz arts scene, how will new leaders weather generational shift?

Many of the steady hands that have guided the likes of the Cabrillo Festival and Santa Cruz Shakespeare for years are stepping down even as the performing arts are at a crossroads nationally. There’s no guarantee it will be business as usual as a diverse group of millennials and Gen Z makes up larger shares of potential audiences, and whatever comes next will be fascinating to watch.

On this Sunday morning, I’m at the studios of KPIG (107.5 FM) with a couple of dozen other people, all to pay our respects to the legendary “Sleepy John” Sandidge, who is hosting his final go-round on his long-running radio show “Please Stand By.” (If it’s still before noon as you read this, you can tune in).

John has been a fundamental piece of Santa Cruz County’s live-entertainment scene as both a radio personality and a producer of live shows. Last year, he retired from staging live events, and now comes his curtain call for his 35-year association with KPIG. At 84, Sleepy John has earned both his rest and his plaudits for a job well done.

You can’t argue with the actuarial tables, and Father Time comes for us all eventually. But above and beyond Sandidge, this moment seems like a pivotal one in the larger Santa Cruz performance scene. Also bowing out this month is the longtime executive director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Ellen Primack, who gets her public salute next Sunday with the debut of a new symphonic piece composed in her honor.

"Sleepy John" Sandidge
(Courtesy Snazzy Productions)

At Santa Cruz Shakespeare, that company’s founding artistic director, Mike Ryan is in the midst of his final season, alongside his appointed successor Charles Pasternak.

Cabrillo Stage’s longtime impresario Jon Nordgren stepped down last year, and that company just wrapped up its first season under its new leader. And it’s been only a couple of years now since the Kuumbwa Jazz Center’s managing director, Bobbi Todaro, retired. (Kuumbwa co-founder and leading light Tim Jackson is staying put for now, but he is stepping down as the artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival).

Also, Jewel Theatre Company, under the direction of the indefatigable Julie James, has decided to call it a day after one more season.

Change is constant when it comes to personnel in arts organizations — leadership positions in nonprofits generally last about five years — but Santa Cruz County has been blessed with remarkably stable and long-lasting leadership going back decades. Many of the folks now stepping away first came into their jobs when I myself was starting out in covering the arts as a journalist (yep, the wheel of time may also roll over me some time in the future, but we’ll leave that for another day).

Ellen Primack, the executive director of the Cabrillo Music Festival is retiring after more than 30 years on the job.
(Photo by Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz


What we’re seeing locally is familiar and veteran arts leadership moving aside to make room for younger talent and vision. This is a huge generational shift in this community, inevitable perhaps, but significant in its timing. That’s because it’s taking place at an even larger flex point, when the very model of live performance art is coming into question.

These new leaders in the arts — Riley Nicholson at the Cabrillo Festival, Pasternak at SCS, Andrea L. Hart at Cabrillo Stage, Chanel Enriquez at Kuumbwa — are all inheriting legacy brands with long-established standards and expectations, yet they’ll also be navigating a world where no one can predict what live performance will look like in the next decade or two.

Anyone who claims that younger folks just aren’t into live performance isn’t paying attention. I mean, have you read about the astonishing Taylor Swift tour? But I don’t think it’s safe to assume that young people will simply step into the shoes of older generations and behave as audiences in the same way.

Arts audiences are aging, and for many arts organizations, locally and nationally, silver heads prevail at any given performance. Of course, for years arts organizations have been looking for ways to develop younger audiences and to tap into relevance in their programming. But as millennials and Gen Z inherit the world, such organizations are in largely uncharted waters.

The Colligan Theater located at the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz
The Colligan Theater, at the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz, has been home to the Jewel Theatre Company; after Jewel’s final curtain, what might we see there?
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Let us take a moment to acknowledge something meaningful about older arts supporters. Sure, they love the thrill of live performance whether it’s theater or music or dance or anything else. But many of them have also taken up the responsibility to be stewards of the arts, donating or otherwise supporting these organizations beyond buying tickets.

Santa Cruz Shakespeare artistic director Mike Ryan
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

That’s especially the case in Santa Cruz, where audiences are savvy enough to know that ticket sales don’t cover the whole cost of producing these live events.

But it’s an open question on whether younger audiences are going to take up that mantle when the current generation fades away. Maybe they will, or maybe they will do so only for arts that are uniquely relevant to their experience.

There are, of course, other demographic realities at play in this massive generational shift. On a national level, the emerging generation will be the most diverse generation in America’s history, racially, ethnically, sexually, economically. And, let’s face it, many performing arts organizations have historically been oriented toward affluent white audiences. Something’s gotta give.

In cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, arts organizations can go hunting for their audiences and find a voice that reflects this emerging diversity. But in Santa Cruz County, things are more complicated.

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

Santa Cruz is not a big place, and the absurd cost of housing here has put an artificial barrier in place for any large-scale demographic change in population. I’ve seen myself over the years the kind of muscle baby boomers (and older generations) exercise, especially in support of the arts. Name your culprit — Prop 13, complacent boomers, no-growth policies, etc. — but the lack of affordable housing has had an effect on generational churn. That has positive and negative consequences; take the “b” out of “stable” and you have “stale.” Who doesn’t know a young person (or several) who grew up locally but who has fled to some other affordable place to live their adult life?

A year from now, Jewel Theatre will have staged its last show, leaving its home space, the Colligan Theater at the Tannery, open for new producers and new audience experiences. Let’s not forget that Scotts Valley also has a new theater to fill, and we might see some big steps forward toward a replacement for the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, with a new arena for the Santa Cruz Warriors. The performance spaces will be there, waiting for productions and ticket buyers.

The new leaders in the arts will be just beginning to shape their influence on their respective organizations. New audiences will be emerging, but they will almost certainly not look like previous audiences.

Tim Jackson, co-founder of Santa Cruz's Kuumbwa Jazz Center
Tim Jackson, co-founder of Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center, is stepping down as artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

What will the new generation of performing artists create? What will their audiences demand? How will those audiences drive what will or will not see the light of day on local stages?

The future will not be merely a continuation of the present, only with different faces. It will be fundamentally a different country, and no one can predict exactly what kind of new and surprising expressions will emerge from it. Take a snapshot of this moment, because one performing-arts world is moving on, and another is struggling to be born. I can hardly wait to see the show.

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