Jon Nordgren

By Scott MacClelland

Jontux2Among Monterey Bay theater companies affiliated with colleges (including UC Santa Cruz) the Cabrillo Stage is, on balance, doing well. “We got a huge cut in funding in 2003,” says Jon Nordgren, Cabrillo Stage’s artistic director since 2006, “but have managed to stay in the black just by ticket sales.” But that circumstance is “unsustainable” over the long run, he adds.

This weekend, Cabrillo Stage opens its new production of Urinetown, by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, a showpiece that “satirizes the legal system, capitalism, social irresponsibility, populism, bureaucracy, corporate mismanagement, and municipal politics.” It also makes parody of some even better known musical comedies. Directed by Andrew Ceglio, and with Michael McGushin as music director, Nordgren will be playing reeds in the pit orchestra. (Click here to link to the website.)

Nordgren is just the third Cabrillo Stage artistic director, following Lile Cruse, who jon579afounded the company in 1981, and a couple of seasons with set designer Skip Epperson at the helm. Indeed, Nordgren is a product of the Santa Cruz County community and, to large extent, Cabrillo College itself. He came here at age four, and began studies at the college while a senior at Aptos High. At Cabrillo, he studied band with Cruse, jazz band with Ray Brown and orchestra with Vince Gomez. (As a wind player, Nordgren agreed to take up oboe, but, when it came time for him to play in a Haydn symphony “nothing came out.” He quickly discovered the instrument had cracked open, an omen he took to heart.)

Cabrillo Stage, The Western Stage, Santa Cruz Shakespeare and the MPC Theatre Company have all seen their status with their respective colleges abruptly changed by savage budget cuts. While this turn of events started in Sacramento, each of the academic institutions involved has dealt with the ‘sink or swim’ challenge differently. (Presently, Santa Cruz Shakespeare and the MPC Theatre Company are on the ropes.) Nordgren credits John Graulty, Dean of Visual, Applied and Performing Arts division (VAPA) since 2011, who is tasked with restructuring the relationship between the college and Cabrillo Stage, but complains that the new president’s “cabinet has tunnel vision about their mission.” He says the college “canceled and reinstated Cabrillo Stage twice over the last three months.”

Facing an inevitable restructuring, and with an eye toward proposing a conservatory relationship between company and college, Nordgren traveled to Santa Maria to study the “fantastic” program in place at Alan Hancock (community) College, which has been ramping up its fine arts facilities and programs. At Cabrillo, “Next season will be a kind of transition,” he says. “Productions will be limited a little bit, but our audience won’t notice.” Ironically, “they can’t cut us loose,” he says, “because we actually fund a lot of things on campus.” Even with no financial support from the college, “they charge us a percentage of what we bring in. What they [the board] do see is the current plan won’t continue to work.” But, citing his own work and that of managing director Dustin Leonard, he says, “Finance isn’t really the problem.” Further, Cabrillo Stage “provides the college with full-time students.”

Meanwhile, Nordgren, who is also a faculty member of the music and theater departments, favors turning Cabrillo Stage into a conservatory of its own, “a whole course of studying tech, or acting, including summer classes leading to a two-year AA degree.” He names Cabrillo Stage alumni who have gone on to important careers in theater at the national level, including on Broadway. He envisions reviving the Artists in Residence program. Finally, he says, “If it were up to me, and given the needed financial support from the college, I believe we could restructure the company ourselves.”

Photos by Jana Marcus