By Scott MacClelland
GOOD THING Mike Ryan loves his job. Over the last couple of years it’s been quite the rollercoaster ride. The sole artistic director of Santa Cruz Shakespeare now has the entire 2015 season paid for, based on a business model that is rare in the world of live theater. “The majority of companies run on less than four months of operating capital. That’s tenuous,” Ryan says. “When we launched our remake of the festival we asked ourselves how much money do we need to raise. We decided that if we didn’t raise enough for a full season which would be around $800,000 we wouldn’t go forward.” That means ticket sales from one season would be the “backbone” of the next one.
This still-young business model did more than put the independent SCS on proper footing financially; it also began needed repairs on the reputation of the preceding Shakespeare Santa Cruz operated by UC Santa Cruz which pulled the plug on the original festival confirming deficit spending and a large outstanding debt. “They did damage with some poorly chosen words.” Ryan cites that as one of the things that troubled Marco Barricelli, last year’s co-artistic director, who decided to leave.
The 2015 season, from June 30 to August 30, includes two Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth, sandwiching Pierre Corneille’s hilarious The Liar in the adaptation by David Ives, playing in rep, plus a short, four-performance production of Aphra Behn’s 1677 Restoration comedy The Rover. All performances will take place in the Sinsheimer-Stanley Glen, afternoons and evenings.
“One of the ways we reward our interns is to entrust them to produce their own play,” says Ryan speaking of the “Fringe” production Behn’s The Rover. “We sell tickets at a reduced rate, but those shows have become very popular.” Behn was a spy in Antwerp for Charles II. In what may be an apocryphal story, Charles neglected to cover her expenses so she turned to play writing to pay the rent. “It’s set against a Carnival backdrop,” Ryan adds.
Ryan’s vision recognizes the need for classic theater to be relevant for 21st century audiences, hence the Ives adaptation. At the same time, The Liar is about deception, which complements the two Shakespeare plays, “in which deception is a very strong element.” At Shakespeare Santa Cruz the great playwright’s words were sacrosanct. “We treat them sacrosanct, but we’re not afraid to change pronouns,” says Ryan.
“In the ‘90s, New York and LA were casting hubs,” Ryan says. He was living in the Big Apple where, “on any given day I could audition for several plays.” He had been an undergrad at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, then took an MFA at UCSC. His first professional job here was with Shakespeare Santa Cruz, starting in 1997. Between then and 2013 he missed only four SSC seasons. Between 2003 and 2009, he was also a theater arts lecturer at UCSC.
Today Santa Cruz Shakespeare is a lessee of UCSC. “Our relationship with the university now is much cleaner, simpler,” says Ryan. “If I want to pass a budget I only have to go through our board of directors.” He says the university’s bookkeeping for Shakespeare Santa Cruz grew so complicated that tracking it was a nightmare. The failure of the SSC, in hindsight, was probably a good thing, Ryan thinks. “Sometimes, particularly when things have been around for awhile, it’s good to break them. Patterns emerge that we can’t even see.” He gives Barricelli great credit. “Having Marco on board gave me training wheels. He had the answers for all the questions.” Now at UC San Diego, “he continues to be an asset.”
For the 2015 season, Ryan, who does all the casting, identifies 11 Actors Equity members, eight actors and three stage managers. An equity actor himself, he’s taking the role of Benedick in Much Ado. Since UCSC can’t even budget for someone to manage the costumes and props from the deceased festival, SCS had to start over. They purchased a part of the late San Jose Rep’s costume stock.
Ryan dreams big for the future. “We would love to have our own beautiful outdoor space and to expand in spring or fall depending on our shows,” he says. And he wants to restore the Victorian pantomimes during the holidays. “They are musical, tongue-in-cheek, very campy and fun for children and adults alike.”
Swooping in to revive Shakespeare in Santa Cruz were many longtime supporters who now populate the board of directors. That includes SSC founders Karin Sinsheimer and Audrey Stanley, plus such luminaries as SSC emeritus Patrick Stewart. “We have only three full-time staff,” Ryan says, “including SSC’s former managing director Aimee Zygmonski. I’m thrilled with our new team.”
Keen for an opportunity, he adds, “We’re offering free tickets for Much Ado to anyone 18 or younger accompanied by a paying adult. I would really love to see a lot of young people in the audience.”
Photo by Jana Marcus: Neiry Rojo and Mike Ryan in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2014 production of As You Like It.