Can San Diego Go From a ‘Good’ to a ‘Great’ Theatre Town?

From where I sit, the state of theatre in San Diego is good but not great. There is high-quality work being produced in all sectors: professional, community, education (high school, college, university), and youth. I marvel at the variety of theatre that gets done here, a lot of it for love. Low and no-budget productions abound. specializes in reviews of professional arts, however, and it seems to me that producing professional theatre has gotten harder, not easier, in San Diego. I don’t pretend to be an expert in the business of theatre, but as an interested observer I have been alarmed by both the decrease in the number of professional productions, as well as the difficulty of finding venues where professional work can be produced.

Intrepid went dark but has recently announced a season at the Lyceum

Part of this year’s problem was that two companies that accounted for a lot of high-quality professional work went on hiatus in 2018. One of the two, Intrepid Theatre Company, has been something of a vagabond troupe and has pulled back from producing previously only to return. The other company, Ion Theatre, actually had space from which it was producing, BLKBOX, a 49-seat L-shaped theatre space, and URBN CNTR 4THE ARTS, an adjoining building that could be used in a variety of ways (and sometimes hosted cabaret-style performances). One-by-one, ion had to let go of both spaces, mainly, the company said on its website, because they found they couldn’t make enough money there to survive.

Given that these two companies accounted for all or part of seven of the twenty-nine Craig Noel Awards that the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle presented for 2017, their absence in 2018 made for a huge gap in the local theatre schedule.

Both companies mounted educational programs after going dark (schools have some funds to spend on assemblies) but doing something that will stand out is hard. The Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse and other companies have existing touring educational programs.

Mo’olelo Performing Arts presented its work at the Tenth Avenue Center Arts Center

It seems that affordable space seems to be the biggest problem: starting companies used to present their work at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center, but that venue, for reasons unknown, suffered a substantial production drop-off this year. InnerMission Productions seems to have settled into Diversionary Theatre’s second space (another L-shape with not wonderful audience sightlines), but the company took longer than expected to announce its third season. InnerMission does challenging work, and I hope it continues to find support.

And, individual leaders make a big difference in theatre companies. Mo’olelo Performing Arts looked strong, for example, but didn’t survive the departure of Seema Sueko to Arena Stage, in Washington, DC. The jury may still be out on Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s departure from Moxie Theatre, but I’d bet that it will come through the transition well. And, the departure of Glenn Paris from daily involvement in Ion Theatre undoubtedly had an effect on its current state.

The Geoffrey Off Broadway is busy during the Fringe Festival but needs serious renovation

Some of the problem is that renovations are needed to make many of the potential spaces viable. Kevin Charles Patterson, Executive Director of the San Diego International Fringe Festival, and his team are kings and queens of finding potential downtown performance spaces, but what works for a ten-day annual event doesn’t work long-term – witness the less-than-ideal condition of both the Spreckels Theatre and its cabaret space, The Geoffrey Off-Broadway. In fact, San Diego Musical Theatre relocated from the Spreckels to the Horton Grand Theatre (with Intrepid, for one season), but with a smallish stage and only 240 seats, doing musicals is tough. It is hard to close for renovations, though: witness the Welk Resorts Theatre, whose renovations didn’t seem to include the actual theatre and served mainly to lay off the theatre’s management. That said, the company has started producing again, focusing at first on the tried-and-true (a long run of Mamma Mia, and the upcoming Menopause The Musical). Later in 2019, the company mounts a two-month run of The Addams Family, so that’s a good sign at least.

La Jolla Playhouse uses The Shank Theatre to help launch small companies such as Backyard Renaissance

Even the larger companies found ways to economize: both Lamb’s Players Theatre and San Diego Repertory Theatre produced fewer shows this past year (and Lamb’s canceled its long-running An American Christmas for 2018, perhaps due to venue troubles). The Rep, The Old Globe, and La Jolla Playhouse relied somewhat on productions the companies didn’t originate (a couple from Hershey Felder’s production company for the Rep, The Lorax and perhaps others for The Old Globe, Hundred Days for La Jolla Playhouse). Kudos to the Playhouse, though, for helping to launch small theatre companies here. Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company has used its Playhouse residency as a means of kick-starting its way to announcing its first subscription season. When a company transitions from producing when it can to announcing a season, that’s a sign that there’s health and optimism going on. Intrepid has announced a season, too, taking up residence at the Lyceum Space when San Diego Rep has availability.

Things aren’t just tough in San Diego: I’ve been following an ongoing chat-board discussion about how Off-Broadway can’t sustain itself as a commercial production center for new shows. The issues there are similar to the issues here. And, Broadway is in a period where it’s not taking many risks: witness the number of current productions that rely on an artist’s song catalog. La Jolla Playhouse had two entries into this derby, one (Escape to Margaritaville) that flopped quickly and one (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical) that had a respectable run, including some Tony™ Award nominations, but will undoubtedly close December 30 without going into the black, financially (though, it might recoup during its planned tour).

Old Town’s Cygnet Theatre is a model of how effective renovation can propel a theatre company forward

What would make the state of San Diego theatre move from good to great? Money and vision, both, sadly enough, in short supply here. Much as there is vibrant theatrical work going on, a lot of it is nonprofessional. Breaking even in the arts is always hard, and arts usually struggle to be noticed. San Diego leaders are talking about revitalizing the Horton Plaza area now. Why not work on creating a vibrant arts presence downtown, including established venues such as the Lyceum, the Balboa, the Civic, Copley Symphony Hall, and the Spreckels but also leaving room for less traditional spaces to pop up? Doing so takes vision, however, and what vision exists seems to have been outsourced to developers by city leadership. The model can be Cygnet Theatre, which renovated its less-than-ideal space in Old Town and has establish itself as a right-sized and well-supported venue for theatre-goers. I will watch and wait with much hope but also not with bated breath.


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