TV REVIEW : KPBS Offers 1-Hour Ad for S. D. Theater

Come to San Diego, where everything is wonderful and theater is BOOMING! Look at the trolley! Look at Horton Plaza! How about all those plays!

Maybe Paul Hogan should have hosted "San Diego Arts Awakening: The Theater Experience," which airs at 8 p.m. today on KPBS-TV (Channel 15). Throw another play on the barbie, mate.

The one-hour, KPBS-produced documentary comes across like a travelogue on San Diego theater. It was partly funded by the City of San Diego, which may explain the superficial, Chamber-of-Commerce tone.

The San Diego theater scene deserves the pile of superlatives the program heaps upon it. But the documentary never answers the basic question it poses: Why did San Diego develop into a theater boom town?

It presents interviews with the directors of San Diego's major theaters, without showing the sweat, the long hours and the fierce battles these people went through to establish theater here.

The program doesn't mention San Diego Repertory Theater's recent financial problems, its battle to secure its new Horton Plaza home, or the efforts of dozens of people to raise the millions of dollars necessary to get the La Jolla Playhouse moving. Sure, La Jolla Playhouse is now recognized as one of the top progressive theaters in the country, but what about the supporters who called for Des McAnuff's head when they thought the Playhouse's first productions were too avant-garde?

There is a dramatic story behind the success of the San Diego theater scene. It's a winner-against-the-odds tale about a runt who turned into a champion. But that's barely touched upon in "Arts Awakening."

Instead, viewers are presented with self-congratulatory interviews with Jack O'Brien and Craig Noel of the Old Globe Theatre; McAnuff; Doug Jacobs and Sam Woodhouse from the Rep; the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre's Kit Goldman, and Lynn Schuette from Sushi Gallery. They talk about their theaters' successes, problems and artistic flair.

There is hardly a mention of artistic clashes, the creative confrontations that form the final products at these theaters, the never-ending search for financial support, or the very real problems of developing an audience.

Occasional shots of the principals involved in rehearsals or in deep discussions about theater plans are the only behind-the-scenes glimpses offered the viewer. Brief snippets from San Diego productions spice up the program, but there is no explanation of the plays, or why they are important, except to portray "Suds" as one of the most important shows in San Diego history.

Like a brochure with only quick descriptions of each subject, "Arts Awakening" doesn't even do a good job of paying tribute to San Diego's successes. Except for brief, unexplained photos, it doesn't mention the top-quality actors who have graduated from San Diego theaters, or the numerous big-name young actors who are annually spotlighted here. The many plays the city has sent to New York are not mentioned until the hourlong show is almost over.

Noticeably absent is any in-depth look at the smaller theaters in San Diego. The Bowery and the North Coast Repertory are barely mentioned. There is no objective analysis of the area's theater scene, its numerous pros and its very few cons. "Man on the street" interviews are the only attempt to get third-party reaction to the theater boom.

Goldman strikes the only realistic chord of the entire program when, after expounding on the virtues of the "revitalized" Gaslamp Quarter, she explains the reason the theater originally moved into the area: "It was cheap because it was a slum."

For the most part, "Arts Awakening" is no more than a cultural travelogue, a picture post card full of smiling locals basking in the glow of the San Diego theater experience.

Maybe in a few years it will be standard fare for local hotel-room TV. It won't need commercials. It is one.

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