Editor’s Note: This story is part of Good Times’ annual Santa Cruz Visitors Guide 2019. Read the full publication here.
You can find drama of all kinds in Santa Cruz—on Pacific Avenue on a Saturday night, at the Boardwalk’s Giant Dipper, or at the surf breaks of Steamer Lane. But if you’re looking for theater of a more traditional kind, there’s plenty of that around, too.
Santa Cruz boasts a rich history in live theater, going back at least half a century. It has inspired explorations of avant-garde theater, nurtured a vibrant community of improv comedy, pioneered the 10-minute play festival, and has served as a welcoming haven for the satirical agitprop of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, as well as various traveling productions. It is still home to one of California’s most ambitious and indomitable Shakespeare festivals, as well as a summer musical-theater experience that ranks among the finest on the West Coast.
These days, sitting at the center of the Santa Cruz theater scene is Jewel Theatre, the city’s only year-round professional theater company performing in its playhouse, the Colligan Theater at the Tannery Arts Center, which opened in the fall of 2015.
Because of its big-fish-in-a-small-pond status, Jewel embraces a wide-ranging eclecticism in its stage offerings, from name-brand playwrights to local writers, period pieces to edgy contemporary plays, splashy musicals to minimal dramas, broad comedy to heartbreaking tragedy.
“I find that my audience tends to like the kind of variety that I like,” says Jewel’s artistic director and creative life force Julie James. “And even if they don’t like a play, they’ll still come for the production values and the performances, and look forward to the next thing, which they probably will like.”
Jewel’s 2019-20 season, which opens in September, will include shows from such theater heavyweights as Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw, but will also feature productions from contemporary writers such as Simon Stephens and Sharr White. It takes on the 80-year-old British musical Me and My Girl, and Shaw’s Victorian comedy Arms and the Man. In recent seasons, it has even showcased Santa Cruz’s homegrown playwriting talent, such as Kate Hawley and Jeffrey Scharf.
Besides running the company, James is also one of its main onstage attractions. A veteran stage actor, James will typically take on one or two feature roles a season, allowing her to take a swing at such iconic parts as Blanche du Bois and the title of role of Sylvia (who happens to be a dog).
“I’m plenty busy without being on stage,” she says, “but I do like to keep that muscle flexible. I can convince myself that I don’t need to do it. But then when I get back on stage, I instantly feel, ‘Oh yes, I need this.’”
While Jewel is dark in the summer, the Santa Cruz theater scene is dominated by Shakespeare in the hills above town, and big musicals in nearby Aptos.
The former comes by way of Santa Cruz Shakespeare (SCS), an independent professional company whose relationship with Santa Cruz goes back almost 40 years. SCS’ home is the beautiful outdoor theater at the Grove at Delaveaga. Traditionally, the company presents two Shakespeare plays and one non-Shakespeare offering over the course of the summer.
In 2019, SCS presents Shakespeare’s wild mistaken-identity romp A Comedy of Errors, as well as the rich romance The Winter’s Tale. This year, the company combines its Shakespeare plays with an adaptation of Jane Austen’s immortal novel Pride and Prejudice. Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s season kicks off July 9.
Meanwhile, down at Cabrillo College in Aptos, Cabrillo Stage continues its decades-long tradition of bringing high-quality professional musical theater to Santa Cruz County. The company has staged just about every brand-name musical in the canon since 1982, and this summer, it will present Stephen Sondheim’s timeless Into the Woods, along with the buzzy 1960s-themed musical Beehive. Cabrillo Stage’s season opens June 27.
Santa Cruz is blessed with strong traditions of community theater, as well. In the redwood-shrouded San Lorenzo Valley, Mountain Community Theater (MCT) at Park Hall in Ben Lomond has been at the center of cultural life in the area for almost four decades. This year, MCT is the only place locally where audiences can experience the thrill of Abba-inspired musical Mamma Mia!, which opens Sept. 20. Then, MCT deftly switches gears with Chekhov’s classic The Cherry Orchard, opening Nov. 22.
Back in Santa Cruz, the intimate downtown Center Stage theater space is the home of Actors’ Theatre, which has a strong 30-year record of producing new and established plays. Coming in September, Actors’ Theatre is taking on Sondheim’s ambitious, Tony Award-winning 1970 classic Company.
But this company’s most enduring project remains its annual 8 Tens @ 8 festival, which selects the best submissions from a nationwide call of original plays. The only requirement? They must all be no more than 10 minutes long.
The 8 Tens @ 8 tradition began back in 1995, and since then has continued to make January a hotspot on the local theater calendar. In recent years, the festival’s success has pushed it to expand to two separate programs, featuring 16 fully staged original short plays, many of them written by local and regional writers.
From big, bold musicals to intimate dramas, from Sondheim and Chekhov to the playwright next door, Santa Cruz’s theater scene is big on variety. And, if all that theater isn’t enough for the dedicated fan, there’s always the productions at the drama departments at UCSC and Cabrillo College.
For more information on Jewel Theatre, go to jeweltheatre.net. Details on Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s season can be found at santacruzshakespeare.org, Cabrillo Stage at cabrillostage.com, Actors’ Theatre at sccat.org and Mountain Community Theater at mctshows.org.