Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 1990
It’s something of an anomaly — a two-headed, single-minded, theater-loving chimera. Douglas Jacobs, artistic director, and Sam Woodhouse, producing director, have melded into the unified force that is the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Fiercely proud of their harmony and unity (they refused to be interviewed independently, and they ordered identical lunches), Jacobs and Woodhouse choose different types of cigarette, but the same brand of theater.
When they started out in 1976, they had a mission: “To create a theater for the future, for a San Diego that didn’t yet exist: a sophisticated, diverse, modern metropolis with an interest in art that was progressive and contemporary.” (This from Woodhouse, the more garrulous and gregarious; Jacobs is reserved, contemplative. He’s been called the “visionary”).
They had been together since undergraduate school at UCSB, and they shared this dream. San Diego grew and developed, enough to fulfill their fantasies. And the Rep prospered, moving in 1986 from a long, cold narrow 200-seat church to the big, modern two-theater Lyceum complex of 750 seats in the heart of downtown. This was the house that Sam and Doug built (though it was owned by the city). They had many successes and a broad-based following.
Then, last year, they took a nose-dive. Perhaps too many risks, too far a stretch. The critics panned the season; the Rep lost seventy percent of its subscription audience. The directors remain undaunted.
“Popularity is only one definition of success”, says Woodhouse. “Is it the purpose of art to reconfirm preconceptions, or to challenge, surprise, sneak up on?”
“We were breaking ground,” adds Jacobs, in response to Woodhouse’s rhetorical question. “We were trying out new works, new playwrights. It was an off season. It happens in any theater. And that often helps you to get in greater touch with the audience.”
Woodhouse picks up the thread. “That’s true. We had more contact with our audience last year than ever before. And we’re going to radically intensify that communication this year, telling them why we choose the material we do, why we think it’s important. In retrospect, it’s something we didn’t do very well last year. But this year, we’ll have forums and dialogues, and a speaker series, notes in the program, articles in our newsletter.”
Jacobs holds back a bit. “I have mixed feelings about how much you should explain to an audience. But the critics set the wrong frame for us last year, not mediating the information in the right way. So we need to set the frame.”
Over the last year or two, the directors also reframed their business operation. They brought in Adrian Stewart as Managing Director — according to Woodhouse, “the most experienced and aggressive professional manager we’ve ever had.” And things changed. The old, informal small-family feeling gave way to a sophisticated, computerized organization with a larger board of trustees. The general manager, business manager, production manager, development director and public relations director left.
“It’s a typical internal administration story,” Jacobs explains. “There’s turnover any time there’s a new manager. The same thing happened the last time we hired a high-powered managing director; most of the staff left. I think it’s inevitable… Our staff is leaner and more efficient now. There are fewer people, but there’s higher volume output, through Adrian ‘s coordination and cutbacks.”
Not everyone would agree. Some of the former employees wouldn’t go on record, but they felt that some unfortunate financial and artistic decisions were made last year. And yet, they expressed continued respect for the directors, their vision and their integrity.
Woodhouse wants to put it all behind. “To set up a comparison between last year and this year is short-sighted. It ignores the other thirteen seasons we’ve done. We are continuing our commitment to the development of new work, to multidisciplinary work, to reflecting the multicultural nature of our society.”
June 1st marks the beginning of the Rep’s fifteenth anniversary season. It includes, according to Woodhouse, “two world premieres, three strong multicultural works, and two pieces reflecting Doug’s long-term interest in looking at classics in a new way.”
Woodhouse directs the San Diego premiere of”Burn This” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Lanford Wilson. And, with Jorge Huerta, he co-directs “Widows,” by the respected Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman (“Burning Patience”).
Jacobs takes on William Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, directing “Cymbeline” and “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.”
The season opener (June1-July 1) is “Latins Anonymous,” a Latino comedy revue fresh from a successful six-month run in Los Angeles .
“All of the plays have to do with identity, and with change” says Woodhouse. And then he realizes that these themes have as much to do with the Rep as with its season.
“We firmly believe, as artists and as leaders of an institution, if you don’t explore and change, you atrophy. Why should we look back, when the future is full of so much undiscovered potential and surprises?”
©1990 Patté Productions Inc.