San Diego County Arts Writer

The San Diego Repertory Theatre will inaugurate the Lyceum Theatre tonight with “Quilters,” a folk musical about pioneer women, to the accompaniment of grand-opening ceremonies.

The asymmetrical, wide-angled, modified-thrust-style Lyceum Stage with its 511 cushioned, burgundy velour seats is a far cry from the former funeral chapel with hard, wooden benches that the Rep converted to a theater in 1977.

For the Rep, the opening also marks a shift to fully professional status. With a hefty annual operating budget, it is now San Diego’s third resident theater (the La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe Theatre are the others).

The Centre City Development Corp. contracted with the Rep in 1985 to manage the new city-funded complex, built as part of downtown redevelopment efforts.

The Rep’s rapid growth is a rare success story. In 1976, the theater produced its first season of plays at San Diego City College. The cost of staging the six plays was less than $25,000. Few people would have imagined then that 10 years later the Rep would be running a $1.6-million operation in a multimillion-dollar facility. No one, that is, except for the company’s co-founders, Douglas Jacobs, Sam Woodhouse and Willa Mann Day.


That threesome has grown to a full-time staff of 19, headed by Woodhouse as producing director and Jacobs as artistic director, with managing director John McCann in charge of business operations. Day is no longer directly involved in the theater.

“First off, we’ve always wanted to be downtown,” said Woodhouse as he, Jacobs and McCann quickly ate a lunch Tuesday between rehearsals and meetings. In 1980, the theater leaped at the opportunity to expand its operations into the original Lyceum Theatre before it was razed to make room for Horton Plaza.

Jacobs and Woodhouse always had the goal of creating, as rapidly as possible, a fully professional theater for local artists. Going from scratch to its current professional status in 10 years is a rare success story by anyone’s reckoning. The Los Angeles Actors Theatre’s development of the four-stage Los Angeles Theatre Center last year is the only other example that comes to mind.

There’s little time for self-congratulations at the Rep, however. Woodhouse is staging “Quilters” and Jacobs is directing the cast of “Holy Ghosts,” a play about Appalachian faith healers that opens June 8 in the 200-seat Lyceum Space. Meanwhile, McCann has been working 12-hour days as a liaison with contractors in the final weeks leading up to opening night.

The two theaters are a reason to cheer for those who appreciate the arts.

Situated beneath the glitzy shops of Horton Plaza, the complex contains the fourth and fifth state-of-the-art theaters to open in San Diego since 1982. (The Old Globe’s rebuilt Globe, its Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, and the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts at UC San Diego are the others.)

Because work on the Lyceum did not begin until after the completion of the $140-million Horton Plaza regional shopping center last year, the construction process has been compared to building a ship in a bottle.

Architects Leibhardt, Weston & Associates of La Jolla designed the two-stage complex and S. Leonard Auerbach & Associates of San Francisco served as theatrical consultants.

The larger Lyceum Stage can seat 564 when used in a traditional proscenium configuration and 511 as a thrust stage.

“Intimacy is its No. 1 strength,” said Malcolm Yuill-Thornton, senior consultant for Auerbach. Working in a space with a 32-foot height limit, the consultants and architect used 11 separate seating areas on three levels to give the asymmetrical theater simultaneous feelings of openness and coziness.

The Lyceum Space, on the other hand, was designed as a multipurpose “black box” stage. Seating is flexible and may be arranged in the round, on two sides or in an end-seating configuration.

Besides tripling its nightly seating capacity from 211 to more than 700, the move to the new complex has puffed up the cost of the Rep’s operations. The current budget is double last season’s $800,000 figure and nearly quadruple its 1983-84 budget of $467,000.

In 1984, the Rep made a hard fiscal commitment to improving its quality by signing a contract with the Actors Equity Assn. and agreeing to pay a company of 10 members a minimum salary of $205 a week on an annual basis. That and associated costs boosted its budget by $200,000.

Now the theater operates under a contract similar to those of the Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse.

The scale of operations is also expanded for the move to the Lyceum. Besides San Diego, the Rep now conducts auditions in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The first two plays in the Lyceum require 28 actors and musicians. With the addition of the crew and permanent staff, the payroll now totals 73.

Although the theater ended up with a modest surplus last season, McCann said the Rep expects to end the current season with a deficit. Much of it, he said, is due to the 10-month delay in opening the theater. McCann had planned to use the Lyceum’s 700 seats for at least four productions in 1985.

The theater advertised to its subscribers that only three plays would be produced in the “church,” McCann said. But all seven plays were performed there, as were two productions this year.

Horton Plaza developer Ernest Hahn offered to provide space for a theater in the basement of his shopping center in 1982 after hundreds of theater backers protested the planned demolition of the old Lyceum to make way for a parking garage.

Ultimately, Hahn spent about $800,000 to move structural supports to provide room for the theater complex. The remainder of the cost of building and outfitting the theater will be funded by the city through bonds.

Along with other theaters, the Rep responded to the Centre City Development Corp.'s request for proposals to use the new complex.

“When we looked at the Lyceum proposal a couple of years ago, we had three choices,” McCann said. “We could stay in the church and never grow, we could go into the community and raise $8 million or $10 million in a five-year campaign and build our own theater, or we could spend as much time as necessary in the process of getting this theater on our terms.”

Because they stuck up for their terms in the 18-month negotiating period, McCann, Jacobs and Woodhouse feel the city has a theater complex that will benefit many performers. The Rep will only produce plays in the 40,000-square-foot facility part of the year: the larger stage for eight or nine months and the smaller theater for half the year. The remainder of the time the Rep will rent the theaters to other groups.

The Lyceum Space will be inaugurated Sunday with “Games,” the opening work of the Sushi performance art gallery’s Neofest, a festival of new arts.

In addition, the La Jolla Chamber Music Society has signed to present a seven-concert series at the Lyceum. The San Diego Symphony, opera and various dance and theater companies also have asked about using the new theaters.

The opening of the Lyceum marks a milestone not only for the Rep, but for the performing arts in general. Even before the curtain goes up, it has begun to fill the city’s need for more theater space.