Save Shakespeare Santa Cruz

By Eric Johnson

Jan. 10, 2014—A week after he had been informed that UCSC was pulling its support for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Marco Barricelli, the company’s celebrated creative director, took the stage in the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen for what may have been the last time.

Performing in the role of the Chorus, the narrator who introduces each scene of Henry V, Barricelli delivered a speech that is one of Shakespeare’s cleverest celebrations of the power of theater itself. Inviting the audience to flex their “imaginary forces,” the Chorus sets the stage for Shakespeare’s epic tale of politics and war in England and France circa 1400.

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.

Witnessing Barricelli recite these lines that night, aware of the real-life drama unfolding behind the scenes, it was as though he’d selected the play in order to create this very moment. (In fact it was selected three years ago, when SSC staged Henry IV, Part 1, the first of the so-called “Henriad” trilogy.) I’ve seen this play several times, and I don’t recall having been moved by this speech before. As often happens with Shakespeare—with literature in general—the words took on new meaning because the world had changed a little.

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The same thing happened throughout the evening. As King Henry and his council debated whether to invade France, as things turned mean and bloody, I couldn’t help but reflect on current events. All that day, Sept. 1, President Obama was being attacked by Republicans for what they had decided to call his “U-turn” — a decision not to invade Syria.

In that light, I was aware of a powerful anti-war theme running through Henry V. Yes, the most famous speech in the play, maybe in all of theater, is a call to battle — the St. Crispin’s Day monologue (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”), which is all about martial camaraderie and honor.

But earlier in the play, Henry delivers another speech that articulates the horrors of war with brutal clarity. At the walls of the French city of Harfleur, Henry implores the townspeople to surrender.

If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds…

Charlie Pasternak, the brilliant actor who played Henry V with a mix of ferocity and sensitivity, made this speech even more important than the heroic battlefield monologue, spitting the words with out-of-control rage.

Nobody at SSC could have known that we would have the opportunity to hear in the threats of King Henry echoes of words being said in Washington, DC. This is why some of us can return to Shakespeare over and over. I agree that it’s banal to speak of “the Bard” and his mastery of “universal themes,” but there you have it.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz: Act Two?

Of course Shakespeare doesn’t have any kind of monopoly on universal themes—far from it. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that SSC’s holiday play, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, can also be cited in reference to the company’s current situation.

This Frank Capra sugarplum ends, you will recall, with the townspeople of Bedford Falls mobbing the Bailey Building and Loan Association to give money to save the bank and George Bailey — whose work has helped make the town a better place.

I don’t want to stretch this comparison too far (let’s not cast Donna Reed in the role of SSC founding director Audrey Stanley), but one thing is true: if Shakespeare Santa Cruz is to survive, it will require a community coming together, Bedford Falls-like, to support it.

As you may know, several former SSC board members, including Ms. Stanley and her longtime collaborator, Karen Sinsheimer, have formed a non-profit called Shakespeare Play On. Its mission is simply to preserve the SSC mission. That may or may not include the name Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and may or may not include the tradition of performing in the Glen — the group is in negotiation with the University on both issues.

The Play On folks launched a fundraising drive in December, facilitated by the Arts Council of Santa Cruz, aiming to raise $885,000 — which they believe is enough to fully fund a 2014 season. As of today they’ve raised more than $300,000.

According to Bill Richter, who also sits on the Play On board, the group is reaching out to a handful of potential big donors — six to ten individuals — in the hopes or raising another $250,000, which they will use as a kind of “challenge” to leverage that much again.

Richter is hoping to be able to accomplish this in time for a good-news announcement at the Arts Council’s 18th annual Gail Rich Awards event on Jan. 22, in which the community honors outstanding local artists.

Much has been written and said about UCSC’s decision to de-fund Shakespeare Santa Cruz. On one hand it’s a shame that the university — somewhat notorious for its “city on a hill” aloofness — would choose to kill what may be its premier contribution to local culture. On the other hand, there is no denying that when arts dean David Yeager and vice chancellor Alison Galloway point to the university’s somewhat dire economic straits, they are clearly not lying.

I believe Carey Perloff of the San Francisco-based American Conservatory Theater makes the most cogent argument in an open letter to UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal:
“You are justly proud of your engineering and genetics departments, which engage in an active way with the latest developments in their respective fields,” she writes. “Yet you question the value of a paltry investment in superb classical theater that not only binds UCSC to its broader community but keeps a rich level of humanistic dialogue alive over generations.”

Wisely, I think, Shakespeare Play On has decided that it’s better to split than fight, and seems to welcome the opportunity to go its own way. And Blumenthal, to his great credit, has promised to work with Shakespeare Play On in hopes that Shakespeare Santa Cruz may live.

On Friday afternoon, Pat Reilly, an intellectual property attorney, hosted an ice cream social / Play On benefit at Next Space. He put his own spin on the situation: “SSC is the property of the community, and we can’t let it be shut down,” he said. Then, like many people have been doing lately, he quoted Shakespeare:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see /
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Learn more at the Shakespeare Play On website.

Donate now to keep Shakespeare Santa Cruz alive.