Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s season ended Sunday night with the final performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. But even as our premier local Shakespeare company goes dark until next summer, there’s a little-known spot not too far down Highway 1—in Moss Landing, of all places—that continues to celebrate the Bard year-round. It’s easy to speed past it, but tucked away in this community of barely more than 200 residents, as of the last census, is the Shakespeare Society of America.
The sign above the door at 7981 Moss Landing Road declares the SSA the “New Shakespeare Sanctuary.” Inside, mannequins are adorned with elaborate Elizabethan costumes, while leather-bound tomes fill bookcases along the perimeter of the room. A maze of glass cases display coins, elaborate knives and other artifacts, and a glance upward reveals framed woodblock prints and aging playbills. It’s hard to know what to make of it all, and indeed, the story of the SSA and how it got here is as offbeat as its collection would suggest.
“In 1967, the Shakespeare Society began as a group of culturally active, like-minded individuals who were dedicated to instructing and advancing the works of William Shakespeare,” says SSA President/CEO and museum docent Terry Taylor. “It was based out of a Tudor mansion on Alta Loma off Sunset Boulevard, near Mel’s Diner in west Los Angeles.”
In those days, a different Taylor ran the SSA. Under the leadership of R. Thad Taylor—Terry’s uncle—and John D. Uhley, the Shakespeare Society became a nonprofit in 1968.
“Let me tell you about Thad,” says SSA Board Member Francis Hamit. An author, journalist and playwright for more than five decades, Hamit says Thad Taylor told him much about his life over the years. “He was a merchant sailor who got ahold of the Complete Works of Shakespeare. He read it to pass the time, and it changed his life.”
Taylor and Uhley planned on building an Alta Loma Shakespeare Center on 20 acres of land, but could not raise the money. Instead, they moved out of their location in 1972, and into a quonset hut on Kings Road in West Hollywood.
“The museum aspect helped a lot,” remembers Hamit. “Thad had all this stuff he had collected over the years, and he would put it out in the lobby.”
Taylor and Uhley would eventually turn the hut into the world’s first replica of the interior of Shakespeare’s 1599 Globe Theater. They built it as a half-scale model, based on meticulous study through hundreds of primary documents and original drawings. Between 1976 and 1979, the SSA performed all 38 plays by the Bard outlined in the First Folio—known as the Shakespeare Canon. A monstrous task, the endeavour required more than 600 producers, actors and directors, with 200 supporting staff. Between 1981 and 1984, the society would repeat the Canon, along with the Apocrypha—plays attributed to Shakespeare but never verified—and the Sonnets.
The SSA’s work has reflected the constantly evolving understanding of Shakespeare’s writing, and the mystery that continues to surround the playwright. Details around everything from his birth to his “lost years” to his death continue to be disputed—not to mention the very question of whether he actually authored many plays attributed to him. Just last year, Oxford University Press announced they will begin printing copies of Henry VI with a new addition: a co-authorship for Christopher Marlowe, who was the subject of a 1988 play by Hamit called Marlowe, which debuted at the SSA’s Globe and is currently in the pre-production stages of being adapted into a feature film, Christopher Marlowe.
“Writers in Shakespeare’s lifetime were very collaborative, and jointly worked on numerous projects,” Santa Cruz Shakespeare Artistic Director Mike Ryan tells GT via email. “In some ways, they were more like today’s television and film writing teams than contemporary playwrights.”
Debates over authorship aside, Hamit thinks there is a reason that Shakespeare’s plays continue to be re-imagined for every new generation.
“He has universal appeal,” says Hamit. “Shakespeare had the talent of tapping into human consciousness, even if he wasn’t always 100 percent original.”
Between the 1990s and the early 2000s the SSA continued its mission to reproduce Shakespearean productions for audiences of all ages.
“An estimated 10,000-plus actors and actresses crossed the stage,” Terry says.
It was in 2006, when Thad Taylor died, that the SSA found itself wondering what to do, and where to go. Hamit was asked to rejoin the Board of Directors, which he did out of dedication to Thad and the company, and Terry was elected president and CEO.
A native of the Bay Area, Terry decided to move the SSA to Moss Landing in 2008. He notes his uncle was a “feverish collector,” and the elder Taylor left behind a rare book and reference collection of more than 1,000 museum and memorabilia items, as well as a visual arts collection containing more than 1,000 pieces.
While the sanctuary can’t house everything in the SSA’s archives, it’s home to some of Terry’s favorites from the collection. Among them are the eight-foot sculpture of Shakespeare holding a torch, commissioned by the SSA for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and the 1805 printing of the Complete Works of Shakespeare owned by legendary actor John Barrymore.
The “New Sanctuary” has hosted more than 10,000 tourists in the last decade. Like many nonprofits, they still struggle financially and with staffing.
“Terry has gained progress, but he’s only one man,” says Hamit. “He really needs volunteer help that will stick with it.”
Hamit says Taylor and the Board have recently been going through and selling Thad’s collection of non-Shakespeare-related items, in order to raise funds to keep the sanctuary going. Another clever way the society has been raising money is through a unique merchandising line of playing cards called “Shakespeare’s Flowers.” The playwright mentioned 181 plants and flowers in his plays and sonnets, so British company Heritage Playing Cards released a line dedicated to the Bard’s love of nature. The deck features 54 different plants, along with Shakespeare’s quote on the items and the reference to where it can be found in his work. The SSA is the top retailer of the deck in the U.S., and they recently gained permission to reproduce the floral prints on mugs, greeting cards and even an 8-by-11-inch coloring book.
The SSA also plans to begin digitizing their folios and prints, making their archive accessible to a global audience.
“The SSA is one of the most unique cultural education organizations in the world, with an unparalleled stage legacy and physical artifacts,” Terry says, “[with a] publishing empire in a room full of master copies unseen by the world.”