Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 2002
Maybe it will be remembered as the Year of Fear. A year when the earth shifted beneath our feet and shook our confidence. A year that brought the swaggering, soulless, over-indulgent ’90s to its knees. A year when we tightened our grips on our wallets and were afraid to open our mail. The dot-coms toppled and the youthful millionaires were out of work. We were on tenuous enough ground before 9/11. But then everything changed.
At first, folks just stayed home, dazed and numb. Then they ventured out, seeking mindless, escapist entertainment, looking anywhere for a laugh. They flocked to vapid musicals like I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (San Diego Rep) and Enter the Guardsman (Globe Theatres).But it was also in this year that our two of our longest running, most Pollyanna productions closed (Forever Plaid and Shear Madness), though Triple Espresso lives on — still fueled by the hyperbolic recommendations of two enormously popular morning-drive DJs.
The history of art has shown us that tragedy often breeds creativity. Ugly facts of life inspire philosophical musings and often, brilliant artistic invention.
In this awful year, San Diego audiences were treated to the dazzling theater experience of The Laramie Project (with its original cast, at the La Jolla Playhouse), a quasi-reportorial piece motivated by the brutal murder of a young gay Wyoming man.
Local playwrights were especially active in 2001. The youngest (Playwrights Project statewide winners) tackled Big Themes — death and the existence of God. Other new plays examined the many facets of morality: artistic and personal integrity (UCSD student Laura Henry’s Gorgeous Lies, David Wiener’s Van Meegeren, Master Forger at Octad-One Productions, Amy Freed’s glorious Bard of Avon up at South Coast Rep, and the magnificent acting tour de force of Jefferson Mays in Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife at La Jolla Playhouse); post-traumatic phenomena (Judy Montague’s Our Lady of the Shoulder of the Road at 6th @Penn, the inventive Ten Human Beings at UCSD); fundamentalist hypocrisy (Lot’s Daughters at Diversionary Theatre, Crumbs from the Table of Joy at the Globe Theatres); and an insensate SoCal existence (Annie Weisman’s wildly imaginative Be Aggressive at La Jolla Playhouse).
Some writers questioned our very mythos (Sledgehammer’s Devil’s River, conceived by Kirsten Brandt; Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid at La Jolla Playhouse; Tim West’s Amelia Earhart, Lost and Found at 6th @ Penn) and explored the mystical (Yehuda Hyman’s magical The Mad Dancers at San Diego Rep).
Artistic optimism flourished, even in the face of disaster. Three new theater companies were born (New Village Arts in North County, the Women’s Repertory Theatre in East County, and Epic Risk Theatre mid-city), even as plucky, homeless groups (the Fritz Theater, San Diego Black Ensemble Theater, Asian American Repertory Theatre) floundered, but persevered. A new theater space, the McDonald Mori Performing Arts Center (MMPAC) heralded the new year, and provided a home to AART and BET. The Fritz is still floating, but afloat. The small but mighty 6th @ Penn is back, offering a haven for independent productions.
Art reflects the socio-political climate and at its best, transcends or foresees events. Contemplations of good vs. evil featured prominently on San Diego stages: three different takes on the Faust legend of selling one’s soul and selling out (at Lamb’s Players Theatre, UCSD and the San Diego Opera), one updated Richard III (Sledgehammer Theatre) and a new, $2 million, over-hyped, hyper-tech musical version of Dracula (premiered at La Jolla Playhouse, but heading for New York).
Brilliant American classics made a comeback (Renaissance Theatre’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the San Diego Rep’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) but despite superb productions and great reviews, audiences failed to appear in droves.
San Diegans don’t seem to be grand champions of history; many people have come here to escape their own past. We don’t like to look back — even if the lessons learned from the time-worn and tested are invaluable. We prefer our lives to be forward-thinking and up-to-the-minute. As an audience, we are unpredictable. That keeps theatermakers off balance, but on their toes.
Everyone ended the year more than a little shaken and uncertain. Perhaps we needed to be brought down a peg. As history — and ancient theater — have taught us, hubris is self-destructive. We’re all taking a contemplative step back, to examine our lives and our ethics, to hold close our values and our families. Maybe that will drive more of us to find comfort in numbers, in the community of seekers and learners, huddled together in the dark, watching live actors bring fresh thoughts and other worlds to life. Maybe local theater will continue to rise to the occasion, doing what it does best — entertaining while enlightening, provoking, inspiring.
May it be so in this shaky start of a new year. Here’s to peace, safety, harmony and revitalizing art.
See you at the theater!
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.