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2016 March 6

Two theater performances

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Computers on campus were down this weekend, first for scheduled maintenance on the file server, then for a power failure.  Because another storm was expected today, they did not bring all the servers back up. So I got essentially no work done this weekend.  Luckily, I had two other things scheduled for the weekend: theater performances!

On Saturday night, my wife and I went to a performance of Rimers of Eldritch, by West Performing Arts.  This was the first production that WEST has done that was a joint production by the staff and by the WEST Ensemble Players, their elite teen group.  (They’ve done  a few staff productions before, and the WEST Ensemble Players usually do two shows a year, but this was the first combined effort.)  Of the eighteen performers, nine were listed on the playbill as staff, though I suspect that the four teaching assistants were unpaid.

Several of the current staff have very recently been members of the Ensemble Players, so the combined effort was not as much of an intergenerational effort as it would have been a few years ago.  The 18 performers were all on stage for the entire show.  The stage at the Broadway Playhouse is fairly small, and the flexibility of the lighting somewhat limited, so it took careful blocking to direct audience attention to the 2 or 3 characters involved in each scene, but it allowed quick cutting between the scenes, which is suited to the rather fragmented order and repetitions in the play.

I was impressed with the performance—the play does not have a simple linear plot and requires good character work to be effective.  The material “contains mature themes, sexual content, violence, and strong language”, which could easily have lead to awkwardness on stage, but the actors (staff and teen) managed to pull it off.  I thought that Sam was particularly good as Skelly Mannor, but no one did a poor job with their part.

I turns out that we’ll be seeing another play by the same playwright (Lanford Wilson) later this spring, as Jewel Theatre will be doing Talley’s Folly, as a co-production with Santa Cruz Shakespeare. I don’t think I’ve seen any of his plays before, so it is a little strange to be seeing two in the same season.

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went up to the Experimental Theater at UCSC to see a production of Marqués: a narco Macbeth, which was written by two of the students in the production. They had a huge cast (27 actors) and a large production staff (up to 60 listed, though some people were listed repeatedly if they filled more than one staff position).  The concept was a fairly straightforward one—a direct rewrite of Macbeth into a struggle for leadership in a Mexican drug cartel.  Unfortunately, despite the enormous amount of effort put into staging the play, it did not really work.

The problem was primarily with the script, which included both modern dialog (in Spanish, English, and Spanglish) and direct quotes from Shakespeare.  The two did not blend well, and it did not help that the actors recited the Shakespearean lines in an affectless monotone that sounded like seventh-grade students reciting lines they did not understand. There were two authors listed for the play, and I wonder which one was responsible for the failure to translate Macbeth into modern idiom.

The play would have been much better with no quotations—the plot is obviously enough Macbeth that there is no need for quotes. (Kurosawa’s adaptation to the samurai movie genre, Throne of Blood, shows what can be done with the play translated into a different culture and idiom.) Alternatively, they could have played Macbeth entirely with the Shakespearean script, but with the costuming and staging of the narco Mexican theme.

The Experimental Theater is a very flexible black-box space, which they had set up as a cross-shaped stage dividing the audience in 4 quarters.  The feet of the actors were at the head level of the audience (like a fashion show), which made viewing the closest actors rather difficult (particularly when they were speaking from behind where you were seated), and they ended up having to restrict most of the action to the long-axis runway, so that people could see what was going on.  This made a lot of the blocking rather difficult, as there was little room for people to move around—the director did a fairly good job of the blocking, given the constraints of the stage they had selected.

The production made good use of three sides of the theater for projected images, and the costuming was good, but the show as a whole never developed much emotion in the audience—the lines were too wooden.  Perhaps the best part of the show was the makeup on Bruja 1, as a Day of the Dead skeleton.

So despite the much larger budget, fancier equipment, larger production crew, and larger cast of the UCSC production, I have to say that the WEST production of Rimers of Eldritch was by far the better of the two performances we saw this weekend.

2016 February 25

Santa Cruz Shakespeare announces 2016 season

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I attended the season announcement party for Santa Cruz Shakespeare tonight, at which they announced their line up for the season.  They really need a blockbuster season this year, to help pay for the $1,000,000 construction of the new “Grove at Delaveaga Park” performance space, for which they have a 2-year lease.  Naturally, they picked very well known and popular plays:

  • Hamlet
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream

For the Fringe play by the interns (which is often as good or better than the plays by the professional actors, except for the inevitable intern who can’t project well enough for outdoor theater—but they’ve had that problem sometimes with professional actors), they chose a less well-known play:

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, adapted as a play by Sarah Ruhl.

According to the play’s web site, it was first performed in 2010, so it is a relatively recent work.

Mike Ryan is continuing the practice of gender-balanced casting, which should work well for the couples in Midsummer Night’s Dream—that play is nearly gender-balanced as is. 

For Hamlet, the title role will be played by a woman.  I don’t know whether she will be “Princess of Denmark” or whether she will be playing a male role. I think that Hamlet could be a female role, though the parts of the plot involving Ophelia would change somewhat in tone.  If Hamlet becomes a female role, what about Horatio? Also, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be male, female, or one of each, equally plausibly. I’m curious to see how they work this out.

I’ve seen an all-female production of Hamlet in Santa Cruz (April 2012, produced by San Francisco State University, and presented by Jewel Theatre), in which the roles retained their original gender, despite an all-female cast—it was a good production, particularly for student work.  I suspect that SSC will try a more challenging adaptation, in which some of the roles change gender, rather than cross-casting the actors.

Of course, the point of having this season-announcement party for “Producer’s Circle” donors was to ask people to give to the capital campaign, in addition to their annual giving for the operating expenses.  They’ve raised about 67% of what they need, but that still leaves about $330,000 to raise in the next month or two.  I think that they’ll be going public with the capital campaign soon, once they’ve got a few more big donors to make the remaining “ask” seem more feasible.

They are getting a no-interest loan, I believe, backed by donor pledges, so that they can start construction as soon as the money is promised.  The idea is that people can pledge money to be given over the next three years, and the loan makes the money available immediately for the upfront construction costs.  My wife and I have already donated to the 2016 budget and were planning to donate to the 2017 budget, and we’ll probably give something to the capital campaign, but we haven’t figured out how much yet.

The planning permits are approved, I believe, so they are ready to start work on the site as soon as the money is available. They had planning documents at the party, and I spent some time leafing through them.  They look pretty good, but it doesn’t seem like there will be any aisle lighting (though I supposed they could add non-permanent rope lights or equivalents).  There wasn’t aisle lighting at the Festival Glen either, and its lack did not seem to cause  any problems.

They’re starting their season a little later this year (July 12), with the hope that the delayed start will give them enough time to finish building everything.

2016 January 18

Theatrical weekend

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This weekend has been a busy one for me—I went to three different theatrical performances:

Saturday night: 8 tens @ 8
Each year, the Actors’ Theatre puts on a show consisting of 8 10-minute one-act plays, which they select from submitted manuscripts.  (I wrote a little of the history in 8 Tens @ 8 in 2016). My wife and I went to see the A show on Saturday night—we’ll go to the B show in a couple of weeks.  The plays were not all of equal quality—not in the writing, not in the directing, and not in the acting.
Our favorite of the A show was You Too, by Tim Woods, directed by Scott Kravitz.  The lines were good, the characters believable, and acting and directing spot-on.
Also excellent was A Shared View, by Mary Caroline Rogers, directed by Audrey Stanley.  The script was a little less strong, but the acting and directing were excellent (both MarNae Taylor and Marcus Cato were well cast).  Good Medicine by Rod McFadden was fun, but very predictable. Flirting with Age, by Jack Spagnola (the only author without a blurb in the program), was a pretty predictable farce, but we enjoyed seeing MarNae in a very different role than she had in A Shared View. It is always a good idea to end with a farce (or at least a comedy), so that people leave feeling good about the show. Flirting with Age was a good choice for this position (though Good Medicine might also have worked, it wasn’t quite as fun).  
Threatened Panda Fights Back was too silly for the somewhat serious theme of extinction—the costuming was fun, but I was not otherwise impressed with the play. The Italian Prisoner by Paul Lewis had directorial problems (the singer was much too loud relative to memory of the boy Joey Rosen), the acting was a bit wooden, and the script too obviously borrowing from Tosca. Following Ms. Sergeant was a good effort with a rather flawed script—the sudden confessional mood seemed out of character for both characters, and the resolution too forced. Janis Gives Comfort was trying to handle “death and sex” as a theme in a nostalgic vein, but it didn’t resonate at all with me—perhaps I just didn’t care enough about Janis Joplin, who the main character was obsessed with.
Sunday morning: Winter’s Tale
The Del Mar Theater had the broadcast of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale performed by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company from the Garrick Theatre.  The Winter’s Tale is not often performed, because it is a somewhat muddled combination of a number of themes (jealousy, young lovers in disguise, rustic merriment, …) better handled in other plays. Branagh assigned himself the choice role of Leontes, but then over-acted the part. OK, it isn’t the subtlest part Shakespeare ever wrote, but it doesn’t call for crumpling up on the stage with stomach cramps all the time.  Setting the initial scene at a Victorian Christmas party exchanging token presents also seemed rather forced. Judi Dench as Paulina was very good, though, and the dancing in the rustic scenes quite impressive (if a little more balletic than country).  It was worth going to see The Winter’s Tale, but there’s no reason be sad if you missed it.
The Del Mar had put the broadcast in one of their small upstairs theaters, which sold out—I think that there was a high-school class getting credit for attendance. It would have been better in the larger theater downstairs.  But the Del Mar was definitely the right theater to show the broadcast in, as it has the closest that Santa Cruz gets to the gilt plaster ornamentation of the Garrick Theatre.
Sunday evening: Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard
West Performing Arts did a theatrical performance of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard, using only 6 actors (5 female, 1 male) and 3 musicians. The actors were fairly young (middle school or early high school, I think). One review on a homeschool mailing list said “Very different from everything else I’ve seen going on locally in this age group,” but it seemed to me to be pulling together many of the theatrical techniques I’ve seen WEST developing over the past few years with their teen actors. 
They did a lot of chorus work, like at the Shakespeare conservatory; they did a lot with solid colored lights and backlighting (using their LED floods); they had movement pieces like the ones S. Kate Anderson had done for Call of the Wild; there was a “seduction” scene done in single-word lines, inspired by a Carol Burnett sketch that my son and another teen actor had performed at AFE (under WEST direction); and the actors kept changing roles, with a hat or a shawl to mark the characters (also from a Shakespeare conservatory). They had a dance scene under blacklight with fluorescent makeup (WEST has learned something since the days they tried Star Wars with glow-in-the-dark paint—fluorescence is much more visible and controllable than luminescence).
They were pretty true to the plot of the book, while making a very theatrical production, and I was impressed by how well they pulled off a rather difficult bit of theater.  The next generation of WEST actors is going to do well. I was only sad that the light rain had kept people away, and the house was only about 80% full—the performance was good enough that they should have been selling out every night.  (Of course, with only 6 actors, the built-in audience of family and friends is smaller than when they have a larger cast.)

My weekend was busy (in addition to the theater, I did a bit of blogging and spent most of a day putting together a course fee request for two-quarter version of the Applied Electronics course), but my wife was even busier, as she went to a Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday morning, at a different theater chain than the Shakespeare broadcast on Sunday morning.

2016 January 7

8 Tens @ 8 in 2016

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I just bought my tickets for the 8 Tens @ 8 shows for this year. I did not manage to get opening-night seats (sold out), but had no trouble getting other nights I wanted, even though the performances will be at Center Stage, which has a tiny house (89 seats).  They’re scheduled to perform from tomorrow 2016 Jan 8 through Sunday 2016 Feb 7, with six shows a week (a total of 26 shows).  The shows usually sell out, so the total audience will be about 2300.

This is an annual event for Actors’ Theatre, consisting of 8 ten-minute one-acts.  Each year they solicit scripts and produce the eight that they like best. A few years ago they started doing another 8 semi-staged readings of another 8 runners-up (“The Best of the Rest”), and last year they started doing two full sets of 8 plays each, as they are doing this year. So there will be 13 performances of the A set and 13 performances of the B set.

They started with 53 plays submitted in summer of 1999 and have grown to almost 300 submissions this year (so each entrant has over a 5% chance of their play being selected to be produced—not bad odds for a $10 entry fee). [Numbers from a Good Times article, info about submission fees from!play-submissions/cxkq]

They’ve managed to get 17 different directors for the 16 plays this year (two directors for one of the plays) [!auditions/c21ka], so the styles of each play will be rather different, though the sets can’t be very different, as they only have one minute to change sets between plays.  If it is like previous years, several of the directors will also be acting in other plays and many of the actors will be in several plays (probably just as well, as Center Stage has only a tiny backstage).

I understand that Jewel Theatre is still managing Center Stage, as well as the new Colligan Theater at the Tannery.  It’s good that they have two stages to manage now, as the 8 tens @ 8 performances are on some of the same nights as Jewel Theatre’s performances of Fallen Angels.

Picking 8 tens @ 8 performances we could go to was a bit tricky, because we had to avoid conflicts with Jewel Theatre’s Fallen Angels, with West Performing Art’s performance of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard, and with the Santa Cruz Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s 1st. In order to fit everything in, we’re having to double up one weekend, with performances to go to on both Saturday and Sunday night.  (Weekday nights with work the next day are a bit tough for us.)

2016 January 5

Santa Cruz Shakespeare asks for letters

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In Our Quest for Our New Home: A Call to Action!, Mike Ryan has requested that supporters of Santa Cruz Shakespeare write letters to the Santa Cruz City Council:

This summer from the stage in the Glen, I told all of you to make sure to follow us so that I could let you know when the time was right to reach out to the City Council in support of our move to DeLaveaga. I am extremely excited to announce that now is that time. A few of you have already written to the Council or spoken at our community meetings, and for that I am grateful. It would be wonderful, however, if everyone who read this blog took a moment to do the same. The letters need not be long; a few simple sentences requesting the City Council approve the use of DeLaveaga by Santa Cruz Shakespeare is all that is needed. There is a single email address that will reach everyone on the City Council:

If you are interested and have the time to write a more detailed letter, all of us at Santa Cruz Shakespeare would be extremely grateful. Below, I have listed a number of questions that might help with crafting such a letter:

  • Why do you believe the city should provide space for arts organizations, and to Santa Cruz Shakespeare, specifically?
  • Why do you believe DeLaveaga is a great location for Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s performances?
  • DeLaveaga is designated a ‘community park.’ Would the Festival’s presence bring new faces to an old community space?
  • What has Santa Cruz Shakespeare meant to you or your family over the years?
  • Why does Santa Cruz Shakespeare improve the quality of life in Santa Cruz?
  • Do you believe that Santa Cruz Shakespeare provides other benefits to the city besides the obvious cultural/artistic ones?

These are, of course, merely jump-start questions. I’m sure each and every one of you has unique and articulate reasons for asking the City Council to support our move. Whether you use these questions, or write your own thoughts, or whether you write a long letter or a short one, please write! It is very easy to assume that someone else will write a letter, and it is sometimes more difficult to write in support of projects we love than against those we oppose. A groundswell of support for the festival and the move to DeLaveaga will remind the Council just how valuable Santa Cruz Shakespeare is to our entire Santa Cruz community.

I will write such a letter, and this blog post will be a rough draft for the letter.

I’ve been attending summer Shakespeare performances in Santa Cruz for about 30 years, and I regard the festival’s productions as one of the high points of the summer.  Santa Cruz Shakespeare (and its predecessor, Shakespeare Santa Cruz) have been an important part of my family’s life, and an important cultural event for much of the community.  Shakespeare Santa Cruz provides one of the most family-friendly theater events in the area—the average age of the audience at their performances is significantly lower than at most of the other theater troupes in the area (excepting the numerous groups that provide theater classes for children—theater is a very popular activity in Santa Cruz).

The liveliness and diversity of cultural attractions in Santa Cruz are largely what account for Santa Cruz being such a desirable place to live (compared to other cities in the area that share the climate), but that desirability drives real estate prices up, which makes it difficult for the artists, actors, and musicians who provide the culture to continue to do so—performance spaces are in short supply, housing even more so. In the past the City Council has recognized the value of supporting various cultural events and organizations, including some pretty big projects like the Tannery.  Providing unused space in DeLaveaga Park at a reasonable rent to Santa Cruz Shakespeare would continue this tradition of supporting the arts, without a major expense to the taxpayers.

For several years, the festival has partnered with West Performing Arts to provide a summer Shakespeare conservatory for training teenage actors, using the professional actors, dramaturges, and other festival staff to pass on the knowledge and love of theater to the next generation. My son has participated in this conservatory for six years running—it has helped enormously to cement his love of Shakespearean drama (not to mention the improvements in his acting skill).  This conservatory is the highest level of actor training that West provides (their other classes cover grades 1–4 through grades 8–12). Although West would survive the loss of the Shakespeare conservatory, it would diminish them.

The Festival Glen at UCSC was an ideal location for the festival, but since UCSC has short-sightedly cut themselves off from one of the best cultural events in Santa Cruz by refusing to allow the Festival to rent the Glen any more, it has become important for Santa Cruz to find an alternative site or risk losing one of the best theatrical events on the West Coast.

Although the proposed site in DeLaveaga Park (approximately 36.994386, -121.995820) is not as conveniently located as the old site at UCSC, particularly for those who use public transportation or bicycle, it is probably the best site available within the City limits—or even within several miles of the city.  I’ve not been out to the park to look at the site in person, but I’ve looked at the site with Google Maps and Google Earth—it seems to be space that is currently idle in the park (since the Stroke Center was moved to Cabrillo College) and that would work for Santa Cruz Shakespeare.  If they can solve the problem of inadequate transportation (perhaps by having low-cost shuttles from downtown Santa Cruz), it should work well as a performance site. It is certainly a better use of the space than expanding the already under-utilized and water-hungry golf course.

Of the various uses one could imagine for this piece of  the park, I can think of no better one than an outdoor theater, and of the organizations that could build and maintain the theater, I can think of no better one than Santa Cruz Shakespeare.


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