By Patti Rasmussen
“Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush stumble and fall.”
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Who doesn’t remember watching or reading the play Romeo and Juliet in high school? Who really understood what was going on except that two young lovers kill themselves because they couldn’t be together?
Romeo and Juliet is that and so much more, says David Stears, President and Executive Director of the Santa Clarita Valley Shakespeare Festival.
But he admits having felt the same way about Shakespeare in high school.
“I remember reading Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade and it was torture,” Stears said. “It seemed so foreign to me.”
After viewing a tape of Stacy Keach in the chorus of a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Stears said the plays suddenly became clear to him.
“Shakespeare was meant to be spoken and heard, and the characters, relationships, power struggles, jealousies and loves haven’t really changed since he wrote his plays,” Stears said. “(Shakespeare’s) writing elevates the conversation.”
Born and raised in New York, Stears considered himself an underachiever and was in danger of failing high school but, once he discovered theater, found a direction in life.
Two community college teachers in particular “lit a fire under me,” he said.
While training in New York, Stears decided to complete his degree and ended up at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.
From 1986 to 1994, Stears said enjoyed his time at CalArts. “It was, at the time, a classically-based school. They gave you a lot of freedom to develop as an artist and make connections. It was a wonderfully creative place to be.”
While CalArts got him to the West coast, it was the California weather that kept him here after graduation. That and meeting his future wife Debbie while both were working at CalArts.
New graduate Stears got involved in the community. He made the rounds at every high school and presented a theater production of Romeo and Juliet to ninth graders. He developed children’s theater productions and brought those to the local elementary schools. He volunteered to sit on arts organizational committees and was known to help others when it came to writing grants or starting a non-profit. Stears’ motto was “What can I do to help you succeed?”
In 1999 he found himself redesigning a former dry cleaner space on what is now Main Street into a small theater venue.
For the next 11 years, Stears worked hard to bring a different type of theater to mainstream Santa Clarita. With 81 seats, The Santa Clarita Repertory Theatre held forth several plays with a goal of becoming an Equity venue, raising enough money to pay actors and technical staff.
Upon leaving TheSCRT, Stears worked various jobs and got himself out of debt (“acting doesn’t pay much,” he said with a smile). He taught part-time at College of the Canyons and for 10 years was the director of their New Works Festival. He directed and produced over 120 original short and one-act plays and published two anthologies.
In 2008, Stears again embraced Shakespeare by producing summer-time shows in Towsley Canyon. When asked if it seems he is defined by Shakespeare, Stears said he is glad to be associated with the Bard.
Stears was recently hired as a full-time instructor in the Theater Department of College of the Canyons.
“One of the reasons I love teaching at College of the Canyons is because I want to pay it forward,” Stears said. “I want students to find a passion in their life, even if that passion isn’t theater. Maybe the spark will lead them to a direction, any direction, but to have a direction with passion.”
For Shakespeare Festival, Stears continues to focus on finding a permanent space for the summer festival, a community amphitheater and performance space. He also brings free and low-cost programs to local schools and sits on the boards of two non-profit organizations. He believes the next step to nurture the arts in Santa Clarita is securing affordable rehearsal space where community classes and workshops can be held and possibly provide a space for smaller non-profits to conduct administrative work.
He does all this while raising a family with his wife; daughter Madison, 14, son Jaden, 12 and daughter Kylie, 9.
Look for Stears’ productions at the MAIN this summer: Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic children’s play The Little Prince, and Euripides’ Greek tragedy Trojan Women, a classic that seems to be speaking to the world today.
For more information regarding the Shakespeare Festival or summer productions at the MAIN, go to www.scshakespearefest.org.