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How Santa Cruz Shakespeare Pulled Together an Unlikely New Season

Company has found a path forward with intimate plays and a willingness to evolve

Mike Ryan, Lorenzo Roberts and Paige Lindsey White. PHOTO: Tarmo Hannula

One of the recurring themes to emerge from the last year of pandemic hell is our collective obsession with a return to “normal.” This is pretty understandable, especially in the arts, where individual careers and entire organizations were sidelined or lost to an almost complete shutdown of live events.

So yeah, to the theater world, the former normal looks like a great alternative to the recent nothing. But as Lorenzo Roberts, who plays King Richard II in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s new production of RII, points out, it’s not the only alternative. Nor, he says, the right one. 

“I hope it never goes back to the way it was,” says Roberts. “Because we are different people in the world now. And theater is ephemeral. That’s the reason we come to theater, because it is a reflection of what we’re going through. And so I hope with everything that’s been going on—economic crisis, racial unrest, all of the things that have been affecting people on a day to day basis—that theaters change their model.”

The New York-based actor, who first came to Santa Cruz for the group’s 2018 season, sees SCS making exactly those kinds of changes. And it’s not just the Covid-ready scale of this summer’s season, which runs live in the Audrey Stanley Grove July 20-August 29 with Jessica Kubzansky’s RII, a three-person take on Shakespeare’s historical play Richard II, and Mat Smart’s The Agitators, a two-person production about the lifelong friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.

“It’s not as extravagant and elaborate,” says Roberts of this season, “but they are taking care of everyone on staff in a different way. Now they’re making people have enough time off, they’re making sure people are compensated fairly. They’re doing all of these things that acknowledge the full humanity of their company. And I think that is something that a lot of theaters are thinking about in a different way for the first time.”

Patty Gallagher, the SCS regular who plays Susan B. Anthony in The Agitators, has also been thinking about how this summer’s productions connect thematically to our new pandemic (and, hopefully, post-pandemic) reality, ever since Artistic Director Mike Ryan reached out to her about performing this summer.

“When Mike made the call, and it was a conversation about how we were coming back, and the season that we were going to do, I felt so much gratitude in so many different directions,” says Gallagher. “Because it wasn’t just that we were coming back. It was also that we were going to do a season that has to do with the present moment that we are living, and the state of who we are as a nation. So it was both the joy of being able to be back, and to know that we were going to come back changed—from both the pandemic, and the moment where this country is really starting to think about who it is, and who we are to each other.”

If that’s the intellectual excitement of this surprise summer season from Santa Cruz Shakespeare, it’s also had a far more visceral effect on those involved.

“I have to tell you that I was driving to work yesterday, crying my eyes out at the prospect of being able to do this work, and be with my collaborators and just start this again,” says Gallagher. “I didn’t realize how much pain I have been holding. I had to pull over before the first meeting like, ‘Okay, I gotta work on my mascara.’ Because I was a wreck.”

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Lorenzo Roberts stars as King Richard II in Jessica Kubzansky’s Shakespeare adaptation ‘RII.’ PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

CONSTRUCTION TIME AGAIN

For months, no one was sure if SCS could do a season at all in 2021. Certainly not Larry Mabrey, the company’s managing director, who was plenty dubious after his experience last year. He had started at SCS in January of 2020, traveling back and forth between Santa Cruz and his previous home in St. Louis. While he prepped for the summer 2020 Shakespeare season, he got his house there ready to sell, finally driving cross-country with his dog to move here for good. He arrived on March 14, unloaded his things on March 15, went to his new SCS office on March 16—and then started working from home in lockdown on March 17.

The company did some innovative things last year, including the “Undiscovered Shakespeare” Zoom readings that allowed them to explore plays by the Bard that they would realistically never be able to produce in a normal season. But Mabrey was holding out hope for a return to live performances in the company’s Audrey Stanley Grove in DeLaveaga Park.

“The first thing that we looked at, of course, was, ‘What would it take to do a regular season, even if we did a shorter run?’” says Mabrey. “But we also had to look at limited capacity, because we didn’t know if we’d be able to have more than 30% capacity in the grove, which would be about 150 people. And the numbers did not work. So then Mike started looking at some smaller shows, and a reduced company. He even looked at some really interesting one-person shows, and things that were Shakespeare related or Shakespearean adaptations, but settled on these as something that was probably more of a socially relevant season to everything going on. That was a real part of the discussion as we started looking at things.”

That kind of scaling down would already be a difficult pivot for most arts groups, but the uncertainty about the state of the pandemic, and its corresponding regulations on openings and closings, made it far worse.

“This has actually been the hardest part of pandemic life in the workplace,” says Ryan. “Instead of creating a budget, you create five budgets, because you are looking at, ‘Well, what happens if we can only produce one play? What does it look like if we can produce two plays? What is it for three plays?’ What is it for all of these things, because at the end of the day, what we knew we had to be was nimble. We knew that we wouldn’t really have the information we needed about the kind and shape of season we would have until probably March, which is really late in the day for us. So we explored lots of stuff.”

They looked at doing one big Shakespeare play. They looked at doing selections from Tim Crouch’s “I Shakespeare,” a series of monologues from secondary characters in Shakespeare’s plays. But none of the available Shakespeare-adjacent works seemed to click, until L.A.-based actress Paige Lindsey White, who has previously performed in SCS’s Love’s Labours Lost and Romeo and Juliet, told Ryan about a three-person version of Richard II in which she had co-starred in Pasadena in 2013. She gave him her script from the production, and the email address of its author. Ryan loved it, and when he reached out to playwright Jessica Kubzansky, he discovered something unexpected: despite the fact the 2013 debut of RII in Pasadena had been critically acclaimed, it had never been produced since.

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Mike Ryan (left) and Paige Lindsey White co-star as all the non-Richard characters in ‘R2.’ PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

KING ME

Kubzansky—who not only adapted the play, but is also the artistic director of the Boston Court Pasadena Theatre Company that staged it in 2013—did not write her stripped-down version of Richard II because she thought the original play was too wordy, over-plotted or suffering from any other flaws that required editing. In fact, quite the opposite—she was a little obsessed with a Shakespeare work she found gorgeously crafted.

“First of all, I’m a Shakespeare freak. I love this play,” says Kubzansky. “I mean, even just purely in terms of its poetry. It’s one of the few Shakespeare plays that is almost entirely written in verse. But more important, the whole kind of generation of the project was that I was fascinated by the story of a man who, in the middle of his life, suddenly didn’t know who he was anymore. And I found that incredibly profound.”

The first play in Shakespeare’s second “history tetralogy”—which traces the rise of the house of Lancaster to the throne in Britain—Richard II follows the troubled last two years (1398-1400) of King Richard II’s reign, as the former Boy King stumbles through a series of political disasters which ultimately lead to Henry Bollingbroke’s rise to power as Henry IV, and Richard’s subsequent imprisonment. Generally well regarded among Shakespeare’s plays by critics, it nonetheless tends to rank somewhere in the lower half of his oeuvre in terms of actually being produced. In modern times, it is probably John Gielgud who delivered the most-lauded portrayals of King Richard II, returning to the part throughout his career. It was last staged locally in 1986, when Michael Edwards directed a production for Shakespeare Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s forerunner) that starred Paul Whitworth.

In RII, one actor plays Richard—and only Richard—while two other actors (for SCS, Mike Ryan and a returning Paige Lindsey White) play all of the secondary characters, darting on and off stage to interact with the king. To accomplish this, Kubzansky had to cut much of Shakespeare’s play that isn’t specifically about Richard, and some of the characters, while reassigning lines from certain characters to others. What she wanted to do with her adaptation was focus in on the main character himself—to literally get into his head.

“I was really interested in setting it in the prison and having Richard have this moment of reflection where he is trying to figure out how the hell King Richard ended up this guy named Richard in the prison alone,” she says. “When I describe this play to people, I say it’s 95% Shakespeare and 5% Kubzansky.”

In preparing to play Richard, Roberts is also seeking to find the right mix. He started by reading the original play and the adaptation over and over, “to fill myself up with those words.”

“That’s the baseline before I do anything else, and then I go and look at all the historical records,” he says. “What was Richard like in real life? And then I’m trying to figure out how are he and I different. Him born, you know, ages ago in England, as the king, and me, a young Black man in the United States of America, from South Carolina. You know, how do we connect those two things? That’s what’s so exciting about doing Shakespeare now is that we can connect those things. The universality of it is what keeps me coming back to it.”

That’s exactly the kind of enthusiasm for the role that Kubzansky believes RII requires.

“Any role anyone plays in Shakespeare can be rich and interesting, but these are going to have to be three tour-de-force performances, because so much is demanded of each of them,” she says. “So what I hope it’s also doing is giving each of them an opportunity to really flex and use every single muscle they have. Because there are roles that are really fun where you come in, you do a thing, you go away, you sit down. No one is going to be sitting down in this production! I’m really excited about that, which is why I was never interested in adding more people, because part of it is, ‘How are these three people going to make the world?’”

PURE AGITATION

Meanwhile, Gallagher has a real problem with Mat Smart’s dramatization of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony’s battles against the powers that be—and sometimes each other—in The Agitators: it’s too relevant.

“One of the reasons that it’s painful to do this play is you’re looking back at a historical moment, and the conversations that they’re having around justice, and equality and the nation, and it would be so nice to think, ‘Oh, look at all those things that those heroic people solved for us, how mighty they were and how wonderful they were, and what a different time. It’s so great that we’re living in a time where all those problems are solved,’” she says. “And yet, here we are, in moments when they’re talking about people’s rights being taken away at the polls, and limitations on voting rights. And those questions are still with us, which is almost inconceivable. Questions about equality, questions about how we treat one another. It’s shocking that the questions in that play, the things that those two mighty people wrestled with, are still at play.”

And that’s just the policy level. The personal conflicts are even more emotional, she says.

“There are those moments in which you have two people who agree and love each other look each other in the eye and say, ‘This compromise leaves you out.’ ‘Well, this compromise leaves you out.’ We were talking [in rehearsal] about a particular scene in which Frederick Douglass says that he’s going to support the 15th Amendment, which leaves women out. You know, that’s the universal suffrage. Part of it disenfranchises women, the 15th amendment. And she says, ‘But we are universal suffrage for all.’ And at a certain point, he says, ‘Sometimes you need to take it piece by piece.’ And then she says—just after she said our thing is universal suffrage for all—‘If I have to take it piece by piece, I would first give it to women,” says Gallagher. “And in a much later scene in the play, Frederick Douglass is saying, ‘I thought we could make that compromise, because I thought you were right behind us. I thought it was going to happen to you next.’ And yet, that scene is 24 years later.”

These are the same synchronicities and contradictions that inspired Smart to write The Agitators in the first place. Like many people, he was surprised to learn that the two famed 19th-century social reformers had been friends throughout their lives.

“I think the biggest thing was at the Susan B. Anthony Museum, they mentioned that they had a big falling out over the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote, but not women, in 1870,” says Smart. “And so I thought, ‘Well, what was that falling out about? If you look up ‘Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony,’ the first thing that comes up is his New York Times obituary, and it talks about how he was with Susan B. Anthony at a Women’s Council meeting all day long in D.C. on the day that he died. He didn’t die at the meeting, he died later in the evening of a heart attack in his house in Cedar Hill. But that told me that they had a reconciliation of some kind. So I was interested—how did they fall out of favor with each other? How did they come back? And then as I did more research, I was shocked to see that nobody had written anything of real rigor about their friendship. So I just started digging, and I learned that they had this amazing 45-year-long friendship full of peaks and valleys and fights and reconciliations.”

Premiering in 2017, The Agitators has struck a cultural chord—there were six different stagings of it in production when Covid hit last year. SCS’ production is the first since the shutdown.

A two-person play is unheard of as a centerpiece of an SCS season, and that means a lot more pressure on Gallagher and her co-star, Allen Gilmore as Douglass.

“I feel such a weight,” says Gallagher. “It’s just a different kind of balance when you’re doing a character; it is more difficult to stand in the shoes of a historical figure. I mean, one wants to be respectful, and do one’s research. But there’s also the imaginative and creative leap that one has to do when one walks into this play that is both incredibly well-researched, but is its own embroidery of history, and it’s an imaginary context of history. There’s so much at stake in wanting to do this right.”

There is so much at stake in this season of Shakespeare, as well. It’s the continuation of a long local tradition, but also the start of something new.

Roberts is optimistic about the prospect of real, sustained change in the theater industry, and the effect that it can have.

“When you treat people in the theater as fully human beings, and you now acknowledge that people are parents, and people are brothers and sisters, and people are having bad days—and that all is not a hindrance to the work, that is actually a way into the work—then I think we can’t help but grow,” he says. “I think we can’t help but create great art because of that, because we are fully invested, and we are a family in this endeavor of life. And so I think it will be radically different. And theaters that try to go back to the way things were before are, I think, missing an opportunity.”

‘The Agitators’ begins with previews July 20-22; opening night is Saturday, July 24. ‘RII’’s previews are July 21 and 23; opening night is Sunday, July 25. The two plays run concurrently through Aug. 29. All performances will be in the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz. Both productions will also be recorded, and some virtual tickets will be available. Go to santacruzshakespeare.org for a complete calendar, and for tickets.

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