By Rachel Swan
On the last day of Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s 32-year existence as the professional repertory company in residence at UC Santa Cruz, artistic director Marco Barricelli was a study in self-composure—or acting the part, at least. He planned to attend the afternoon matinee of “Taming of the Shrew,” and he would appear in the chorus that night for a closing performance of “Henry V.” Once the house lights came up, and the applause fizzled out, and the last audience members shuffled out of Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s stately redwood amphitheatre, the company would end its long-running summer festival. It would begin rehearsals for one final holiday performance of Joe Landry’s radio play “It’s a Wonderful Life,” featuring students from the university’s theatre arts department. And then Shakespeare Santa Cruz would close its curtains for good.
David Yager, dean of the UC Santa Cruz Arts Division,
with Marco Barricelli in 2009. Photo: Carolyn Lagattuta
Barricelli tries to be even-handed about it. He’ll continue working at UC Santa Cruz at least through the winter holiday, and he has no desire to denigrate his employer. But his colleagues are up in arms.
American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff has emerged as Barricelli’s staunchest advocate, excoriating the university for what she saw as an unceremonious hatchet job, with only a cursory explanation. “For this to be cancelled for such a relatively insignificant amount of money is philistinism at its worst, and the Bay Area is infinitely poorer as a result,” Perloff writes in an email.
Indeed, nobody in the Bay Area’s tightly-knit theatre world had anticipated the sudden death knell issued August 26, in the form of a brittle press release. Barricelli says he received a call from UC Santa Cruz dean of arts David Yager that morning, during which he’d expected to discuss a different press announcement—the one announcing his retirement from the theatre. In January, Yager had decided to abrogate Barricelli’s contract, change the artistic director job description, and shunt the Shakespeare festival over to the university’s theatre arts department. Barricelli was free to reapply for the job he’d already been doing for six years, Yager said, although not surprisingly, the director declined. Still, he thought they’d part peacefully, and that Shakespeare Santa Cruz would continue puttering on.
Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s “The Taming of the Shrew” (2013), also in the Glen.
Scenic design by Michael Ganio. Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Santa Cruz
To Barricelli’s surprise, Yager had different designs on the company. “He said, ‘I will close Shakespeare Santa Cruz. I’m providing a press release at 1 p.m.,” the director recalls. “I was taken aback.”
The release laid out Yager’s gripes with the theatre in fairly stark terms. Long a money-losing operation, it has sucked up about $2.13 million in campus contributions over the past 10 years, 1.5 million of which streamed in after December of 2008, when the company raised $419,000 in emergency funds to keep from shuttering, right after the bottom fell out of the economy. Yager and other university officials had long wanted to the company to be solvent, and they were bedeviled by its seeming inability to break even. For all its valiant fundraising efforts and short-term patch-ups, Shakespeare Santa Cruz still couldn’t be weaned off the teat of the university. At a time of state cutbacks—some of which ate into the university’s academic programs—that arrangement no longer seemed feasible.
All well and good, Barricelli says, though he also wishes that someone—anyone—would acknowledge the elements of Shakespeare Santa Cruz that can’t be measured on a balance sheet. During his tenure the director maintained a delicate balance of Shakespearian and contemporary material, as was the theatre’s tradition. He brought in A-list directors—Paul Mullins, Art Manke, Richard E.T. White, Pam MacKinnon and Eric Ting among them—mounted several world premieres, and commissioned adaptations of obscure works. In 2008 he staged a new English translation of a comedy of manners by 18th century Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. Recently he deputized a UC Santa Cruz faculty writer to adapt a novel by French author Emile Zola for a production next season. With the closure, though, that script may simply go to dust.
Sir John Falstaff (Richard Ziman) and Doll Tearsheet (Lisa Kitchens)
in Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s 2012 production of “Henry IV, Part Two.”
Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Santa Cruz
It’s just one casualty of a system that seems all but designed to ensure the small theatre company’s demise. While ticket sales have been relatively healthy—this year the company surpassed its goals—they’re never sufficient to keep up with operating expenses. The company has attained a stalwart local audience but no big-purse underwriters, and the cash-strapped university can no longer afford to keep it out of the red. No traditional source of funding has been a panacea, Barricelli says dejectedly, noting that in the future, theatre companies will have to be ever more creative about bankrolling their operations.
Yet he also thinks the university’s goals for Shakespeare Santa Cruz were unrealistic from Day One, and that as a result, this year’s shuttering was a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s operating budget vacillates between $1.4 and 1.6 million a year, $30,000 of which goes to the university as rent, and another $40,000 of which is interest for the unpaid debt. Its biggest expense is labor, owing mostly to the company’s stringent contracts with Equity actors (last season it hired 14 of them, along with nine nonunion actors and 10 interns), compounded by its remote location.
Whereas most regional theatres have a large apartment building to house a whole cast during each production run, Shakespeare Santa Cruz has to farm people out to off-campus apartments and in-law units and then truck them in everyday using a fleet of hired vehicles (also a stipulation in the union contract). To make matters worse, all of its hired cars have to be university-approved vendors, so it’s not a matter of simply finding the cheapest fleet to rent.
Shakespeare Santa Cruz former artistic director Danny Scheie
on the set for a special run of “Comedy of Errors” in 2011.
Photo: Elena Zhukova, courtesy of UC Santa Cruz Newscenter.
Yager says, in official press statements, that “ticket sales, sponsorships and private support aren’t enough to keep the company going,” which is emphatically true. Yet defenders of the theatre say that’s also the reason Shakespeare Santa Cruz was doomed from the beginning. Its operating budget swelled because it was trying—futilely—to do right by its employees while fulfilling its obligations to the university. Even a spate of full houses or a few successful fundraising campaigns wouldn’t defray the extra expenses.
And then there was the location—majestic but off the beaten path, high on a hill and far removed from potential benefactors. “We’re not in Silicon Valley,” Barricelli says, matter-of-factly. “There’s not a huge number of deep-pocketed organizations that are interested in supporting this kind of work.”
He ultimately can’t deny that Shakespeare Santa Cruz was running on a deficit, or that a giant pot of debt only begat more debt. Yet he cautions against such purely financial lines of thought, even during tough economic times. “It’s really convenient in these times to make decisions based on a bottom line,” he says. “Despite the challenges of working here, the work we did was extraordinary. I wish someone would talk about the fucking work.”
The fucking work—and its rewards—were mostly intangible. But Perloff says she understood them. “Anyone who ever went to the glen at SSC to see excellent professional Shakespeare in an exquisite setting came away with a broad and deep sense of great literature,” she writes. That’s particularly important at a public university, whose job is to preserve cultural values, and to inculcate them to a new generation of theatre lovers.”
Rachel Swan is a former staff writer at the East Bay Express. She recently defected to cover intellectual property law, but she's slowly being pulled back.
Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s 2010 production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” in SSC's outdoor venue, the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen. Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo.
Why the Curtain Fell on Shakespeare Santa Cruz by / Guest AuthorPublished 2013-09-06
By Rachel Swan
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