On ‘Guardsman’

A&E-3-enter-the-guardsmanHow Jewel Theatre’s new production ‘Enter the Guardsman’ pulls back the curtain

There are a lot of things to think about when you’re running the only professional, year-round theater company in Santa Cruz. Especially at night, when you can’t sleep. Questions about your responsibility to your audience, whether you’re offering the best mix of material you possibly can. About how to survive at a time when ticket prices cover about half the cost of putting on a professional production, which makes donors essential. And of course, basic questions like “Why am I doing it?”

“When I go to bed at night, I think that way,” admits Jewel Theatre founder and artistic director Julie James. “All those things go through my head.”

But when she gets up in the morning, James goes back to work at the independent theater company she has not only sustained, but grown steadily over the last nine years. Next year, Jewel will move into the Colligan Theater at the Tannery Arts Center, which broke ground on Sept. 30. When completed, the new theater will more than double the seating capacity the company now has at Center Stage, from 88 to 187. More than that, James says, the bigger space will also greatly expand the range of plays they can take on.

Meanwhile, the 2014-2015 Jewel season opened in September with George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, and continues with Enter the Guardsman, a musical which runs Nov. 6-30, and is pretty much the polar opposite of the previous production in tone and content. The rest of the season is diverse as well—from Simon Stephens’ Harper Regan (Feb. 26-March 22 next year) to the world premiere of Santa Cruz playwright Kate Hawley’s Complications From a Fall, directed by Paul Whitworth (April 23-May 17) to Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind, directed by James herself (June 4-28).

For James, building the Jewel Theatre company hasn’t just meant directing, acting and producing. For a long time, she was doing pretty much everything, with help from her friends and family. “I literally helped build the sets,” she remembers. “I did the laundry after each show.”

Those days are over, as the success of the company has allowed her to surround herself with people she trusts to bring the same passion that she has. “This is getting so big that it’s going to get out of hand if we don’t have more infrastructure,” she says. “It is hard to let go when you’ve been doing everything. That’s why it’s important who you’re giving it up to.”

James says she never had any grand vision for a year-round theater company.

“It just started with a show,” she says. “People responded to that first show. Really it’s the people coming to see us that drive this. It has its own momentum. It just keeps expanding.”

But Art Manke, who is directing Enter the Guardsman, says she doesn’t give herself nearly enough credit.

“Julie’s so smart in the way she’s built this company very carefully,” he says.

Considering how James has navigated the craziness of the theatre business, it’s interesting that Guardsman, written by a creative team whose members all have connections to Santa Cruz (music by Craig Bohmler, lyrics by Marion Adler, book by Scott Wentworth) and based on the French play The Guardsman by Ferenc Molnar, is set in that very world. Centered around a pair of actors whose marriage is falling apart, and a love triangle that ensues, it draws on the public’s endless love affair with behind-the-scenes stories.

“It speaks to the fascination with reality shows in general,” says Manke. “It holds a fascination for the audience, because they [normally] don’t get to see behind the curtain. And it’s great fun for all of us, because we don’t have to do any research, first of all.”

James calls it “a smart musical,” and says its mix of witty lines and deeper subtext about relationships is a microcosm of the balance she tries to strike while choosing Jewel material—some heady, some lighter.

“I really like great writing, really philosophical kinds of things interest me,” she says. “But every once in a while it’s like ‘well, you know, it’s just damn funny.’”

‘Enter the Guardsman’ runs Nov. 6-30 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. For tickets, call 425-7506, or go to PHOTO: Marcia Pizzo and David Ledingham play married actors in the backstage world of ‘Enter the Guardsman.’  STEVE DIBARTOLOMEO

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