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Susan Solt Brings the Savvy of Filmmaking to Her Role as Dean of the Arts at UCSC

Santa Cruz Sentinel Features/People

The first thing you need to know about Susan Solt is that she’s a former movie producer. 

What that tells you is she is someone who knows how to get from abstract idea to concrete reality. In the film ecosystem, the producer is the vital interface between someone’s artistic vision and the crass demands of the real world. She hires the cast and crew, pays the bills, troubleshoots the problems, manages the books.

Solt is now the dean of the Arts Division at UC Santa Cruz, and those old producer muscles still come in handy. In both enterprises, she has to demonstrate leadership chops with creative professionals from a wide range of backgrounds and specialties. She has to drive the bus — a bus full of artists. Whether it’s delivering a Harrison Ford legal thriller or establishing a master’s program in theater, her job can be boiled down to three words: Get Stuff Done.

She came to UCSC in 2016 after a 21-year stint at the California Institute of the Arts, aka CalArts, the prestigious Los Angeles-area art school which counts among its founders a guy named Walt Disney. Before that, she was a film producer whose credits include that Ford thriller “Presumed Innocent” and the Michael J. Fox comedy “Doc Hollywood.” She landed her first gig in the movie business while still a grad student at the Yale School of Drama. It’s a thing called “Sophie’s Choice.” Among her duties as a production assistant was to help the film’s star with her Polish dialect. Yep, we’re talking about Meryl Streep.

But her movie career also taught her lessons in what not to do in academia. “I had two pictures at studios when the studio heads changed,” she said in a conversation at the West Side Santa Cruz condo she shares with her sister Catherine. “And the one thing that studio executives never do is take care of anything that was in the pipeline before they got there. You never want to inherit someone else’s projects. But I didn’t feel this way about this.”

She’s referring to what’s inherited at UCSC’s Arts Division, specifically the Institute of the Arts & Sciences, a long-gestating project that was established only a few years ago as an interdisciplinary effort to bring artistic vision to scientific principles, a tool she’s eager to wield to produce a graduate program in Environmental Art and Social Justice, among other ideas.

That brings us to the second thing to know about Susan Solt: If you’re still sore about the university’s break with Shakespeare Santa Cruz in 2013, she’ll be glad to engage you on the subject. But know this: She had nothing to do with it.

Solt was still on the theater faculty at CalArts and three years away from being hired at UCSC when the ugly divorce occurred between the university and SSC — now the nonprofit independent company Santa Cruz Shakespeare. But theater’s her thing.

“I appreciate the hurt,” she said about the still sensitive subject of Shakespeare Santa Cruz. “I am sympathetic to the hurt. It hurt me, when it happened, just as a theater professional. You don’t have institutions that have been around 30 years like that just go away on you that easily.”

At Yale, Solt was trained to develop theaters on college campuses. She’s not saying that the SSC situation would have happened differently had she been dean at the time. But she did say that the relationship between the company and the university was structurally flawed. Without a master’s program attached to it, SSC had limited benefits to the university, which made it harder to justify the cost overruns. “I don’t see where there was a mechanism where training students was the purpose of Shakespeare Santa Cruz,” she said.

SSC was the most prominent cultural bridge between the university and the rest of Santa Cruz, and, even as a newcomer, Solt is aware of the necessity of such a bridge being rebuilt. 

Her first year at UCSC, she said, has been a time of assessing ideas on figuring out new traditions and cultural events that might unite Town and Gown. Her tenure thus far has seen a successful on-campus revival of Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit” with Valdez’s son Kinan as director and a woman in the lead role of El Pachuco; a panel lecture on “The Merchant of Venice” with celebrated director Karin Coonrod at the Museum of Art & History; and a multi-day music free music festival bringing contemporary composers together with Korean traditional music.

Solt pointed to the many artists on the faculty as the source of energy for new visions that might emerge from the Arts Division (the Pacific Rim Festival of Korean music sprung from the work of faculty member Hi Kyung Kim). Solt also recently hired acclaimed avant-garde theater and opera director Marianne Weems. “It’s great when you have this fertile group of people to draw from,” said Solt. 

And that’s the third thing you should know about Susan Solt. She’s not a business-as-usual administrator. At UCSC, she’s tending a garden to see what grows and what doesn’t. “Some of it I’m actually seeding,” she said, “and some of it I’m nurturing because it’s already here. I live in the realm of ideas. When people say, ‘Well, are you an artist?’ I say I’m a conceptual artist. I think about things.”

Then, she makes them happen.

-- By Wallace Baine, Sentinel Entertainment Editor

GETTING TO KNOW

Susan Solt

Home: Santa Cruz

Occupation: Dean of the arts division at UC Santa Cruz, since 2016.

Educational background: Originally from Indiana, and the daughter of two college professors, she attended the Yale School of Drama where she earned a master’s in theater administration. She’s also completed other advanced degrees from UCLA. 

Movie career: Solt’s career in film began in a circuitous way. While studying theater at Yale, she traveled to Poland to learn about Polish theater and the Polish language. “Because I learned what I was told was a useless language and spent two years in Poland, one of which was on a Fulbright (scholarship) studying avant-garde Polish theater, I learned to speak Polish and learned the culture.” It just so happened that director Alan J. Pakula was shooting ‘Sophie’s Choice’ at the same time. Solt’s talents came in handy on the set. She then worked as a producer on several Pakula projects and other movies. Soon, she got what looked like a major career break when she was hired as head of production at Miramax, the domain of the now disgraced movie executive Harvey Weinstein. She lasted only a few months at Miramax, turned off by the culture of bullying. She saw an ad for a position at CalArts in a journal. She made the jump into academia.