Santa Cruz Shakespeare Festival Rises From the Ashes & Becomes a Model of Independent Festivals


Whether you consider yourself a fan or not, you've probably quoted a William Shakespeare play without realizing it—especially if you have ever been tongue-tied, if your car keys vanished into thin air, if you have seen better days, or if you have had too much of a good thing. Shakespeare's permanence in the English language is probably the easiest way to see the full effect his words have on how we express ourselves and the way we relate to one another. Add on the fact that his written work transcends culture, genre, and time, and it's really no surprise that Shakespeare festivals are so beloved all over the world. As the Managing Director of Santa Cruz Shakespeare, Aimee Zygmonski recently gave us the rundown of the complications and rewards of making a Shakespeare festival thrive, all while proving how important these festivals are.

Santa Cruz Shakespeare has gone through a lot of changes in the last year and while 2014 is technically its inaugural season, it used to be connected to the University of California, Santa Cruz under the name Shakespeare Santa Cruz. The original festival launched back in 1981 and was performed annually on the campus, utilizing the indoor theater and the gorgeous Stanley-Sinsheimer Festival Glen outside—which is surrounded by redwoods and considered to be one of the most beautiful venues in the nation. This wasn't a small time festival either. Not only did the entire town of Santa Cruz treasure it, it also attracted talent that went on to become huge stars—like Walter White himself, Bryan Cranston. Despite its popularity, the festival hit some financial setbacks that ultimately led to the university pulling its funding. 

"They pulled us in and said, 'We’re shutting down the festival. The press has been notified, and it will be closed at the end of the 2013 Season after the holiday show.' So there was no room for rebuttal or question. It was just done," remembers Aimee.

As You Like It; Photo Credit: Jana Marcus

The school blamed fiscal irresponsibility on the festival's part and in some ways, Aimee can see where they were coming from. "…Over the history of the organization, [there was] a feeling of being able to spend money at will. We stayed within a budget, but [were spending] money [when] maybe it wasn’t necessarily there all the time." Because she had only been in the position for a few months at this time, it was incredibly difficult to try and figure out the organization's funding history within the bureaucratic system of the university. "I left there in December and I still am not sure how we ended the year in some ways, because it was incredibly hard to track finances," she laughs.

With the end of Shakespeare Santa Cruz looming, the theater company decided that they would find a way to continue on. They changed its name to Santa Cruz Shakespeare and began a campaign to raise money for a new independent company that could continue on without the fiscal aid of the university. "Our community came together; they rallied around the idea of 'We can’t imagine Santa Cruz without Shakespeare' [and] we raised $1.1 million in a fundraising campaign that ran from December through the end of February." The new company is now heavily steeped in the interests of the Santa Cruz and Bay Area community. Without the university playing middleman, SCS is able to tailor the festival to what the board (and ticket-buyers) really want and at any given performance board members chat with the audience one-on-one to find out just what it is about the festival that they treasure. 

As You Like It; Photo Credit: RR Jones

Another exciting change that happened during the shift over to the new company was getting Sir Patrick Stewart and Olympia Dukakis on the Advisory Board. "Dukakis was a friend of our former assistant director, Marco Barricelli, and they’ve worked together for years in the Bay Area. There was another patron of ours who was very close with Stewart and explained the situation, and both of them were very helpful to lend…their support behind the company and the [fundraising] effort." Though they are more involved in name right now than anything else, Aimee says they're still working out what the esteemed actors' roles will be going forward. Obviously, she would jump at the chance to get them out to catch a production or to even get them in one of the productions.

Getting to where they are now may have been a bit of a learning process, but in utilizing a forward-funding fiscal plan, they seem to have it figured out—for now at least. The money raised in their campaign paid for the current season, so that way, all of the revenue pulled in this year will go towards paying for the 2015 season. "So that way, by the end of our fall donor campaign, we’ll really have a great idea of where we are budget-wise, and what money we’ll have to work with for next year. That way, there is not this, 'Oh, well I think we’re going to make our ticket sales goal, so maybe we can spend money on [this and this].' Which is really what theater companies do—they plan out a year, so that the money coming in kind of keeps supporting the pay roll and the personnel and…any expenses of running a production. This way, we look at the year end in December and say, 'Hey, great! This is what we have, and this is what we’re going to be able to spend our money on.'" 

Photo Courtesy of Santa Cruz Shakespeare

They chose to start off their new company with a celebration by producing two comedies (whereas usually comedy is balanced with drama)—As You Like It and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Regular patrons will recognize many of the same players from the previous theater company, which certainly helps with a seamless transition. It looks the same, more or less, but feels very different.

Now that the festival doesn't have to deal with the university's scheduling, they were able to move the festival up to start in July instead of August and have already reached over 65 percent of their sales goal for the season. They have their own rehearsal space away from the campus and when the time comes, they basically move into the outdoor theater just as any other company would. They were able to cut costs in certain areas, like set design, thanks to the unique location in the woods. When trees grow in the middle of the stage, you don't need to do much for a play that takes place mostly in a forest like As You Like It does. However, keeping the glen as their primary location is a costly decision. It's widely known that the glen is a huge part of the magic, for the audience and production team, but it costs around $62,000 overall to keep the on-campus location. 

As You Like It; Photo Credit: RR Jones

"…We love that location. It’s obviously incredibly evocative. There’s a strong emotional connection with the Santa Cruz community too. But currently, we have decided to year-lease to the university, so we have that space for 2015. After that, we will be looking for a more permanent home to call our own," says Aimee. "We are in the process of kind of considering what that might look like. Is it something else in the mountains, in the trees, is it something by the ocean? Where in the community would another outdoor space work logistically, you know, for patrons and artists and producing live theater?" That's not to say that SCS won't continue renting the Glen stage, but it does depend on future funding and whether the University wants to enter into a longer lease agreement.

Performing on an outdoor stage is a long tradition among Shakespeare festivals, from the shoreline to the woods, but it also happens to be one of the most challenging parts. For instance, putting a show on in amongst redwoods means you have to figure out the seating, the lighting, the stage, the weather, and how the actors will enter and exit the stage. Aimee was quick to point out that while difficult, those are the exact reasons why producing theater in the elements is so exciting and special. SCS (now and under their previous name) excel in this arena, with actors beginning their scene on their way to the stage while walking down the aisles (for a production of A Midsummer's Night Dream, people even came down from trees). Audience interaction is always a big seller as well, allowing patrons to feel drawn into the action on stage. 

Merry Wives; Photo Credit: Jana Marcus

SCS's transition really highlights the struggles all festivals go through, regardless of how successful they may appear, and marks a really important shift to community-based organizations. People want to feel like they are a part of the experience, and with SCS open to any and all contributions (whether that's money or your expertise in a certain field), they're a great example of how a theater festival can integrate itself within a city to become part of its fabric. From Aimee's passion for theater to the fantastic performances in its inaugural season, we're expecting Santa Cruz Shakespeare to be just fine in the coming years.

If you want to check out a performance of As You Like It or The Merry Wives of Windsor, the season runs until August 10. You can also check out the last performance of their fringe show, The Beard of Avon, on August 5. If Santa Cruz is a little far for you, check out the nearest Shakespeare festival and get involved by buying a ticket! 

Merry Wives; Photo Credit: RR JonesAs You Like It; Photo Credit: RR Jones