UC Santa Cruz celebrates 25th anniversary of Chautauqua student theater festival

In 1979, the UC Santa Cruz Chautauqua Festival made its debut at the Barn Theater, just inside the main entrance of the fledgling 14-year-old campus. Modeled after a tradition of theater festivals that began at Lake Chautauqua, New York, more than a century ago, the annual campus event has now helped teach students how to produce, direct, write, and star in dramatic productions for two and a half decades.

The UC Santa Cruz Theater Arts Department will celebrate a significant milestone this year when it presents the 25th annual Chautauqua Festival, beginning on Thursday, May 13, and running for two weeks at the campus Theater Arts Center. All performances are free and open to the public.

"To me, it's the truest training ground for the future of theater that we can provide," noted Gregory Fritsch, a lecturer in theater arts who has overseen numerous presentations of Chautauqua since his first foray as festival director back in 1989. "It presents a practical and successful model of mentoring fellow artists and provides a comprehensive training arena for all aspects of theater--design, directing, playwriting, acting."

Perhaps the greatest asset of Chautauqua is that it provides a showcase for new dramatic writing. The festival offers students a remarkable chance to have their own original plays developed and produced under the direction of other students.

"It provides our students with opportunities that exist in very few undergraduate programs in the country, and serves as an incentive for students hungry to get their work out in front of an audience," observed award-winning playwright and UCSC theater arts professor James Bierman.

Bierman noted that four students who have had work produced in the Chautauqua Festival have gone on to win the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, "making UCSC the most successful producer of dramatic writers of any university program in the country in the academy's eyes," he added.

The original Chautauqua Festival worked from eight scripts that were created by students in Bierman's 1979 theater arts playwriting workshop.

"The first evening began with a real tour-de-force production of a two-minute piece that featured an actor in a hazardous materials suit who cut down a potted geranium with a chainsaw," Bierman recalled. "That was the shortest piece on the program. The longest was a one-hour-and-twenty-minute drama by a gifted student named Philip Heim, who went on to direct in New York City."

During the 1980s, the festival evolved and expanded in various experimental directions, adding short dance pieces and student films, and increasing the number of dramatic productions. One year, the festival closed with a 13-hour marathon that began on Sunday at noon and ended at two in the morning. "It was amazing how many students endured the whole thing in one sitting," said Bierman.

Today, nearly 150 students devote themselves each year to running the festival, spending vast quantities of time covering all aspects of theater production. Bierman said that in recent years, the festival has become more disciplined than it was in the past, noting that the quality of the productions has increased measurably despite limited financial resources.

This year's festival will feature 12 original scripts, ranging from a stage adaptation of George Orwell's 1984, to a production combining African folklore and modern puppetry. The schedule includes:

Program A - Second Stage

Let's Say 'OK'- A Zombie Play

Written by Chris Webster

Directed by Troy Delaney

What happens when a future Shogun, a cross-dressing girl, and a horrifying zombie join the Roman army? Skateboarding happens. and some ninjas. Find out what else happens in this hilarious and tantalizing tale of love, family, friendship, and decomposing flesh.

The Magnificent Adventures of Mothman and Chrysalis

Written by Steven Sautter

Directed by Gwendolyn Dreyer

The story of a superhero and his trusty sidekick which goes awry with the sudden realization that it is not 1966 and criminals no longer play by the rules. So what does it take to be a hero?

The Trial of Anansi

Written by Camilla Henneman

Directed by Andrew Susskind

A combination of African folklore and modern puppetry.

Program B - Second Stage

Beyond This Water

Written by Laurel Fantauzzo

Directed by Athena Osborn

17-year-old Sidney Malone-Rizal examines her parents' history on the cusp of their brutal divorce. Her father, Eddie Rizal, is a former activist against the Marcos regime in the Philippines; her mother, Patricia Malone, is an English-American lawyer from New York City.

Box Set

Written by Martha Michaels

Directed by Blake Morris

What happens when you put a sitcom in the theater? Wacky inanity! "Box Set" is theater with all the comforts of television.

Circle's End

Written by Dane Diamond Errisson

Directed by Blake Anderson

The lives of eight characters are intertwined in unexpected ways. Are they good, bad, or just human?

Program C - Experimental Theater


Written by Sara Angell-Isom

Directed by Emily Plumb

In a time of seduction, betrayal, and oppression; in a world where law is fashion and fashion is law--one woman rages against a world that oppresses her. Change is here.Are you ready for it?

The Fallen Caryatid

Written by Cyndy Glucksman

Directed by Larissa Golerkansky

An aspiring art professor explores her past through the transformation of four caryatids (stone columns in the shape of women) into human beings. A tribute to the sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Found Umbrellas

Written by Chris Lezama

Directed by Lauren Pasternack

Program D - Experimental Theater


Adapted by Timothy Jordan

Directed by Timothy Jordan and Derrick Wolf

A new adaptation of George Orwell's timeless commentary on a possible totalitarian future.


Written by Brett van Aalsburg

Directed by Carissa Lynch

The Machine

Written by Daniel Mirk

Directed by Wei Shan Piak

A brilliant scientist living in a basement builds a robot girlfriend.

The 2004 UC Santa Cruz Chautauqua Festival runs from Thursday through Sunday, May 13 to 16, and May 20 to 23 at the Theater Arts Center, UC Santa Cruz. Show times are: Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (831) 459-2787.