By Susan Meister
Julie James, Equity actress, director, producer, and founder/artistic director of the Jewel Theatre in Santa Cruz, claims to be thriving when many small theater companies are struggling. According to her, the Jewel has had a consistent increase in subscribers, ticket holders, and overall support and enthusiasm for what they’re doing, and her passion and unique qualifications for her project is likely to be the reason. Jewel’s new season opens at Center Stage in Santa Cruz this weekend with George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
James was an actor in Los Angeles where she helped found a nonprofit, much like the one she runs today, when she decided to put on a production of her own in Santa Cruz. She got such great feedback she stayed. Not just an emotional decision, it made business sense: there was no professional year-round theater in Santa Cruz, there was a solid base of arts patrons, and her key volunteers—her family—lived here. It seemed like a natural place to continue her artistic vision. The decision worked out well, she says. “It’s just evolved into this great thing that I could never have imagined when I decided to come here and do one show.”
Founded in 2005 with the goal of putting on quality theater that combines the elements of strong writing, direction and acting, and spanning the genres from comedy to musicals to high drama—those values that most any producers would call out as essential to success—James adds one more piece: hands-on participation. During the runs of shows, Jewel holds bi-weekly “Talkback” nights in which audiences provide details of their reactions and pose questions about the play. According to James those nights are among the most popular, selling out early. She says, “You never know what people think about a show until you actually ask them,” adding, “We have been so engrossed in the details we lose perspective. We like to know that our audiences are getting what we had in mind when we put on the performance. Sometimes it’s not what we thought, and that helps us.”
James has extended these nights to pre-show events, in which she provides the background of the playwright and the circumstances of the play. “By inviting our patrons to discuss an evolving production, such as the world premiere of Kate Holly’s play, Complications From a Fall, which we did last December in a staged reading, Kate has been able to add details to the script that resonate with people who have been through the situation the play concerns. The theme is the decline of an aging parent seen through the eyes of their children, and when people came for the discussion, they talked about their own experiences in that situation. The playwright can use these ideas to enhance the verisimilitude of the work.” A fully staged production is scheduled for April, 2015.
Through these audience participation events, James is achieving a larger goal: binding her audiences to her theater. She addresses all the forms which this can take, from interacting with patrons on the phone, whether they are ordering or changing tickets, to paying close attention to their “user” experience of being in the theater. James puts high value on her audiences feeling they are in the hands of a caring family.
And a family affair it is. James is the dramaturge, among her other roles, deciding in consultation with them what plays will be produced. She has a long list of plays she’s wanted to do as an actor, but has other considerations when making these decisions, such as space limitations, the number of actors that would be required, how plays might complement each other, and whether the rights are available. But in managing the theater she has help. Her mother, a former public administrator, runs the box office, her father, a former commercial contractor, builds the sets, and her sister assists with technical and administrative matters. Even her nieces have acted onstage. Now, with the theater’s financial stability, James has been able to hire a professional production manager.
Still, future financial success is not assured. James receives grants from local foundations, such as the Community Foundation and Arts Council of Santa Cruz County, and that side of the funding picture is growing as well. But owning a theater company is always a gamble. “Nothing is guaranteed, not your subscribers or grant funding. From year to year, you can’t count on that income. Even with theaters that are doing millions of dollars in business, it’s still a stomach-churning business. Still, we have managed to attract regular theater goers who didn’t go to the theater all that much before, especially because they had to travel to do it.”
Yet Julie James has a higher goal than the success of her venture. “Theater exists to entertain us, and also to help us think. I have a great appreciation for how important it is to the arts in general, so here I am. The ball is rolling and I’m rolling with it.”
This passionate and multi-talented woman behind the Jewel Theater has a calling. Who could resist answering it?