KPBS AIRDATE: January 2, 1992
Standing on the threshold of a new year, I don’t know whether to look forward or behind. I’m haunted by the spectres of Orpheus, Cassandra, Pandora and Pollyanna. Do I look back at the past year of theater with some longing for what was? Or with some paralytic realization of what really was? Do I look ahead with wide-eyed innocence? Or jaded pessimism? Do I examine the spectacles on the stage, or the debacles behind the scenes? Well, as in every year, some of each is warranted.
When I actually took a head-count, I found that I’d seen 142 productions this past year. And that’s only a fraction of what went on throughout the county in 1991. This is, remember, a theater town. And even though there was some occasional evidence to the contrary, — like the enormously popular “Forever Plaid” at the Globe or “Elmer Gantry” at the La Jolla Playhouse — it’s still basically the media that really knows this is a theater town, not the audience.
As 1991 comes to a close, most local theater companies are struggling, some barely treading water, some merely holding on by a fingernail. Money is tight, and funding sources have dried up. Corporate donations are down, as are subscription sales. All this may be attributable to the flagging economy. But most distressing is that, despite all the efforts made to entice them, audiences are staying home, watching TV or renting videos. Or, on occasion, venturing out to see the latest movie horror, thriller or overrated blockbuster.
A recent marketing survey donated to the San Diego Theatre League revealed that 16% of the local music and theater audience decreased their attendance in the past year, mostly for financial reasons. But more than half of the 600 respondents didn’t know about the half-price tickets available on the day of the performance at the Times Arts Tix booth in Horton Plaza. Only a fraction knew about the Theatre League’s Post-Tix Program, which provides half-price tickets in advance, by mail. They were unaware of the Sneak Preview Series, with its $5 tickets to final dress rehearsals. Or the Family Theatre Days package, offering a free youth ticket for every half-price adult ticket purchased.
There just isn’t any excuse not to go to the theater. Many events are even cheaper than the movies. We’ve got to keep the theater community alive and vibrant. And that means a New Years Resolution from every literate person in San Diego, vowing to see more live theater in ’92.
There’s something very much alive in live theater. Active viewing, an interaction with the performers. Any actor will tell you no two performances are the same because no two audiences are the same. Plus, there’s an element of choice. Movies and television tell you exactly what to look at, when and for how long. In the theater, you can focus on a chorine’s ankles if you want, or a minor character’s collar and cuffs. You take and active role, you play a major part in the process.
Of course, you can get even more actively involved. In any one of the 40 or so community theaters, which offer not only entertainment, but also camaraderie and a giving, sharing, learning experience.
Well, those are my words for the future. Predictions are less important than commitments. Terrific theaters are in trouble here. From the bountiful little Blackfriars, the smallest professional Actors Equity contract theater west of the Appalachian Trail, to the lively La Jolla Playhouse and the San Diego Repertory Theatre. And many semi-professional and community companies in-between. Here’s a place where you can make a difference. You can help maintain San Diego’s colorful spot on the national theater map.
On a more personal note, I traversed many miles on my own theater map this past year. And some striking presentations bear mentioning. Plays or productions that turned my head, or made me think.
From the Playhouse’s big, splashy Broadway-bound “Elmer Gantry” to the Naked Theatre Company’s “Fool for Love.” These are my Best of the Year:
The Gaslamp’s darkly memorable production of “Woman in Mind” with a marvelous lead performance by Rosina Widdowson-Reynolds
Sweetooth Comedy Theatre’s hilariously irreverent “Baby With the Bathwater”
Ensemble Arts Theatre” “Lady Macbeth,” and a tiny, one-night production called “Threeplay”
“The Lady and the Clarinet” at San Diego Actors Theatre
For rockin, rollin’, dance-in-the-aisles fun, the San Diego Rep’s “Rocky Horror Show” with Sean Murray’s dynamite performance as Frank N. Furter
For tear-rolling laughs, Lamb’s Players’ “The Foreigner”
For great music and dancing, Moonlight Amphitheatre’s “Anything Goes”
For searing drama, North Coast Rep’s “Breaking the Code,” starring the versatile Ron Choularton; Athol Fugard’s playwriting, acting and direction of “A Lesson from Aloes” at the La Jolla Playhouse, and the starkly brilliant “Abundance” at Blackfriars Theatre
For hot revivals, Coronado Playhouse’s “American Dream” and “Zoo Story”
For most interesting, intelligent new comedy, “Fortinbras” at the La Jolla Playhouse and “The Regard of Flight,” the latest performance by that gumby-man, Bill Irwin
Around the county, in the community and college theaters, I loved Patio Playhouse’s “Lion in Winter,” Octad One’s “Rose Tattoo” and “Artist Descending a Staircase,” SDSU’s “Cloud 9,” Grossmont College’s “As Is,” OnStage Productions’ “The Dresser,” Christian Community Theatre’s “West Side Story,” “Diviners” at the La Jolla Stage Company, and Beckett at the Big Kitchen.
Not to be xenophobic, I must mention a few visiting dignitaries, who graced San Diego stages this year:
Spalding Gray, with his brilliantly unforgettable new monologue, “Monster in a Box,” performed at UCSD
Rachel Rosenthal, the Big Bald Mama of Performance art, part of Sushi’s Neofest IX
And a couple of aching performance pieces by Joan Hotchkis and Rhodessa Jones, at Sushi.
Well, I’m ready for another theatrical onslaught in ’92. Are you?
This is Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.