Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 2004
This is the story of The Little Theater That Could. Despite name and identity changes, small turnouts and financial hardship, 6th @ Penn Theatre kept up a dramatic, huffing-puffing mantra, “I think I can, I think I can.” And it most definitely has. Created a warm, intimate home for high-quality theater, that is.
Three years ago, Dale Morris purchased the property that had originally been 6th@ Penn Theatre, renamed the Quentin Crisp. As a board-member of the Fritz Theater, he was charged with renting the space. During negotiations, the former owner said he was interested in selling the space for $20,000 but he didn’t know who’d buy it.. “Me,” Morris blurted out.
“I didn’t know it was gonna come out of my mouth,” Morris laughs, still amazed. With his wife, Kim Bieda-Morris (a former CFO) and writer/producer Judy Montague, they whittled the selling price down and went for it. Later, Montague got her investment back, and Morris had himself a theater. In Chicago and San Francisco, he’d been a stage and industrial film actor. When he moved to San Diego in 1996, he performed at the Fritz and North Coast Repertory Theatres.
Now, at his own space, besides the occasional acting gig (including the Patté Award-winning A Prayer for My Daughter), he helps build and paint sets, moves furniture, takes pictures and cleans toilets. “It’s not a glamorous job,” he says. “I do it because I’m compelled to — by forces I can no longer control.”
Those forces have helped 6th@Penn become a force in its own right, an invaluable addition to the local theater scene. Morris produces most shows and approves all casting. As a tireless promoter of small theaters and new talent, he’s helped to change the face of San Diego theater.
“People are starting to realize that they can come to my little theater and mount — or see — a quality production,” he says.
It’s a tiny storefront space, only 49 seats. At first, shows were playing to only a handful of people. “My condition of employment with actors,” Morris explains, “is that they must work even for an audience of four or five. The theater needs every dollar we can get.”
For the first two years of operation, Morris made no money; now he takes an $800/month salary. This includes payment for managing two websites and producing a weekly newsletter. In 2001, he launched sdtheatrescene.com, because, he says, “I couldn’t find enough online information about San Diego theater. So I thought I’d list what’s going on in town and send out a weekly reminder of who’s out there and what’s doing. My mission was to support the San Diego theater. Most people in the community were like me: working their butts off and getting paid nothing. I wanted to promote the good work they do.” His weekly, non-profit sdtheatrescene newsletter now goes to about 4500 theater-lovers.
Back onstage, Morris teamed up with popular local actor Linda Castro to present readings of the Greek tragedies. The ‘Seven Weeks of Greeks’ series began in 2002, but became so popular it’s a sold-out monthly fixture at the theater.
“I wanted the Greeks read so I could understand them,” Morris confesses. “I found them so flowery, they were almost unreadable.” Castro acted and/or directed, David Cohen served as dramaturge, and local scholar/writer/philanthropist Marianne McDonald wrote translations and adaptations, provided funding, and showed up to introduce and discuss the plays. Now colleges have begun to request special off-site readings.
Morris was so grateful to the women who’d helped make his theater a success that he declared 2004 ‘The Year of the San Diego Woman.’ Among his recent, estrogen-enhanced offerings have been a stellar production of the dark, delicious comedy, Kimberly Akimbo, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, starring Linda Castro; My Nights with George, Kurt and Cole,” a musical revue featuring Debra Wanger; and Leigh Scarritt’s cabaret show, “A Stocking Full of Love.”
On tap this season is a heavy schedule of impressive productions, some shows running on weekends and others, off-nights (Monday-Wednesday).
Currently onstage is Shirley Valentine, a Renaissance Theatre production directed by George Flint, starring local favorite Rosina Reynolds as an unfulfilled English working-class housewife who escapes her humdrum life to find excitement and adventure on a Greek island (through June 6).
Next up: two haunting dramas by internationally acclaimed South African playwright (and sometime San Diego resident) Athol Fugard — The Road to Mecca (May 2-June 2), starring Priscilla Allen (directed by Black Ensemble Theatre’s Patrick Stewart), and A Lesson from Aloes (June 20-July 21), in which Morris will appear, with Rhys Green and Linda Castro (directed by Luis Torner).
San Diego Repertory Theatre co-founder/producing artistic director Sam Woodhouse ventures off his home turf to direct Jean Genet’s The Maids, about two treacherous sisters, played by Laurie Lehmann-Grey and Dana Hooley (June 18-July 25).
And there’s late-night comedy on Saturdays, hosted by comedienne Christian Slater (10:30pm Saturdays). The Grass Roots Greeks continue their readings the last Monday of every month.
There seems to be room enough for everyone. No wonder 6th@ Penn has been called ” the city’s busiest low-budget, big-hearted theater.”
Pat Launer, KPBS’ theater critic, writes a weekly column at sdtheatrescene.com. Listen for her on-air reviews Fridays during Morning Edition at 89.5FM or at www.kpbs.org
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.