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1990 Highs, Lows for Theater in S.D.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

San Diego theatergoers don’t know how lucky they are.

Here is the lineup that was their’s for the price of a ticket during the past year:

“Hamlet,” in a clever rendition; “Burn This,” a searing tale of tortured love; “My Children! My Africa!” the latest indictment of apartheid; “Follies,” a lyrical rendering of passing time; “Teibele and Her Demon,” a magical journey to a shtetl in turn-of-the-century Poland, and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” a tender tale of love against the odds.

San Diego is one of the best theater scenes in the country but it is also woefully under-funded by federal, state and local government and by individual contributors.

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With 1991 upon us, the strain is beginning to show.

Three of San Diego’s most respected professional theaters have announced crises that threatened, and in one case suspended, their 1990 seasons.

The La Jolla Playhouse produced “My Children! My Africa!” as the centerpiece of its season. It outlived its 1990 crisis by raising $700,000 in its $1 million deficit-reducing drive and by producing its most popular season to date.

The San Diego Repertory Theatre, which presented an electric “Burn This” along with a blackly funny “Loot,” a poignant “Cymbeline” and a spiritually satisfying “A Christmas Carol,” has raised nearly $300,000 of the $350,000 it says it needs to assure the completion of its season.

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And after six months of suspended activity, the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company is back in business with the recently extended “Frankie and Johnny.”

But finances are still fragile at all three companies. The Gaslamp, for instance, is still staring into the chasm of a deficit that approaches $1 million.

And finances are also fragile at companies were the situation has yet to reach the crisis stage.

The Bowery Theatre, which Actors’ Equity says is the country’s smallest professional house (it has just 78 seats), may postpone or change the next scheduled play in its season, “Stories About the Old Days,” because of a shortage of funds.

“We’ve seen the heights of glory and the depths of despair,” is how Bowery associate director Mickey Mullany describes 1990 for her company.

Because the 8-year-old Bowery has never developed a subscription audience, its fortunes rise and fall with the popularity of individual shows. Last year, it seemed that they could do no wrong as hit followed hit: “Italian-American Reconciliation,” “What the Butler Saw” and “Teibele and Her Demon,” which opened in February of 1990. But “Teibele” was also the last big hit for 1990. Later shows--"Jesse and the Bandit Queen,” “I Am Celso,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “Speed-the-Plow"--attracted their share of praise, but not the hoped-for audience.

The nail-biting result for the company, which runs on an annual budget of $200,000, is that it now lacks the money to stage “Stories About the Old Days,” a play about an elderly black couple, in the way the company would like.

“We have no breathing room at all,” Mullany said. “We are considering the efficacies of mounting the third show now. Is it wise to cross the fingers and hope that people will respond? Or should we do something radical? We can’t do a crisis campaign. For one thing, our entire operation is not in jeopardy. But we cannot afford to get into a big financial bind. Things are nip and tuck and every $25 donation makes a difference.”

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Starlight Musical Theatre also ended its season in the red this year, although there is no cause for immediate alarm here. Starlight, which operates on a $3-million budget, can dip into its reserves for the $220,000 shortfall in expected revenues.

What is disturbing is that board members might get an unfortunate message from the drop in revenues.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” broke all records at the Starlight box office, but the least successful show, commercially, was by far the most successful artistically. “Follies,” the company’s first venture into Stephen Sondheim territory, was an important move for Starlight. But is it a move, given the lackluster audience support, that Starlight will make again?

One show that Starlight staff points to with pride in 1991 is the brand-new musical, “For My Country--the USO Musical.”

Starlight is to be commended for devoting time and money during uncertain economic times to developing new material, as it has in its 1990 staged musical series. One wishes the best to this venture, but the choice remains questionable. A preview at a staged reading revealed an unfortunate sentimentality and lack of sophistication about the war scenes it portrays. It will take some work to transform this project into a winner.

Sushi, too, which grabbed headlines this year for having presented all four of the artists whose National Endowment for the Arts grants were pulled by NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer, has a $25,000 credit line that it has been struggling to pay off for the last three years.

The avant-garde presenter, which puts on about 35 to 40 different events a year on a $300,000 annual budget, is San Diego’s unique haven for the daring and controversial in theater, performance art, dance and visual art.

“We’re not losing money, but we’re not seeing any growth,” reports Sushi’s executive director, Lynn Schuette. “We know the private sector is not going to increase money and the public sector is going to remain flat.

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“We’re constantly concerned about the $25,000 credit line. But unless you launch a campaign . . . .”

Even the Old Globe Theatre, San Diego’s largest, oldest and most secure theater, complains of a lack of growth in these precarious economic times. Although Thomas Hall, Globe managing director, takes a justifiable pride in reporting that the Globe, as usual, ended the year in the black, he complains that finances have been flat for the second year in a row. And when the budget stays the same, it’s hard to grow.

With its $8.4-million budget, the Globe produces a backbreaking 12 shows a year, all of which are necessary to pay for the theater’s substantial overhead. (By comparison, Lincoln Center in New York has a $12-13 million budget and the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco maintains a $10-million budget.)

“One of the things that makes us a little crazy is that people don’t think we have concerns or problems,” Hall said. “It’s a constant battle to stay ahead. The arts in general are woefully undercapitalized. There just is not enough money to have any sense of stability.”

Hall also has dreams of expanding the Globe’s theatrical role. He would like to bring back the Maly Theatre of Leningrad, which presented the powerful “Brothers and Sisters” in 1989, and he’d like to make the Globe “a home for international work on an ongoing basis.”

But that takes money. And while he said he had hoped to bring back the Maly as early as 1991 in collaboration with a group of other theaters, some on the East Coast are dropping out of the shared-cost arrangement because of tighter finances in this recession era.

Given the current economic climate, it is noteworthy that three smaller San Diego theaters flourished during 1990.

The North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach and the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista both credit at least part of their growth to a growing, theater-hungry audience in North County.

The North Coast, which operates on a budget of $230,000-$240,000, draws a large crowd from Solana Beach, Del Mar, Encinitas and Carlsbad for its eclectic fare, according to artistic director Olive Blakistone.

Blakistone said she was proudest of the production of Jon Robin Baitz’s “The Film Society,” even though it lost money. But Vaclav Havel’s “The Memorandum,” coincidentally and fortuitously timed to Havel’s ascension to the presidency of Czechoslovakia, and Stephen Metcalfe’s “Emily,” both made money.

Blakistone’s ambition for her 8-year-old company is to increase honorariums for actors to the point where she can prove that her theater can afford a professional Equity contract.

The Moonlight Amphitheatre, with a budget of $170,000, has been increasing attendance by about 10,000 a year in the past three years.

The company mounts its musicals under the moonlight in Brengle Terrace Park, and it made a breakthrough from light fare to challenging programming with a sweet but sophisticated production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” this year. Through that show the company attracted a new audience, and it now has a three-play winter season and is about to begin a $3-million capitalization campaign to build a new theater for its winter season and to improve the existing amphitheater for the summer season.

Meanwhile, in South County, the National City-based Lamb’s Players Theatre, a self-described Christian theater troupe, can credit at least part of its successes this year to the area’s appetite for programming with a religious and Biblical influence.

The company operates on a $1.1-million budget without any government support, and depends on the box office for 80% of its income. Thanks to some hit shows this year, box office income put them in the black.

Already it appears that financial needs will continue to be great for most San Diego theaters in 1991. For some theaters, the need is a question of survival; for others, it’s a matter of growth.

The La Jolla Playhouse, which shares facilities with UC San Diego, must make enough money during its six-month season to pay for year-round overhead, explains Artistic Director Des McAnuff and Alan Levey, business manager. It’s what Levey calls “a very tricky financial model,” which requires significant support even when it has a record season, such as this one, in which the company fills its two theaters to 96% of capacity.

The new 400-seat Mandell Weiss Forum, which will replace the Warren Theatre beginning with the ’91 season, should help because the company will be able to sell more seats. But the company’s goal remains to create a third theater that will allow it to operate year-round.

The San Diego Rep, which has said it needs to increase both ticket sales and contributed income, is pinning its hopes on increased subscription sales in 1991. The Gaslamp, according to managing director Steven Bevans, is counting on “quality” to bring in a new audience.

Officials at the San Diego Rep, the Gaslamp and the Bowery all say they may do some tinkering with their scheduling in 1991, possibly dropping out of the summer theater blitz, during which the Old Globe (which is planning a summer repertory season in 1991), the La Jolla Playhouse and Starlight Musical Theatre reign. Next year the additions from San Diego Playgoers’ of “Les Miserables,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “The Grand Hotel,” as well as the San Diego Symphony’s SummerPops, should be quite enough competition for anyone to handle.

Sad endings: the Del Mar Theatre Ensemble, the ambitious new children’s theater that suspended operations after its disappointing production of “Scapan” this summer, is not returning calls. The Progressive Theatre Company closed its doors after its venue at 433 G Street was deemed unsafe by the fire marshal.

On a more hopeful note: The homeless Sledgehammer Theatre, which closed its three-play, $64,000 season with red ink on its hands, is planning to raise funds and return to the Sixth Avenue Playhouse by April, 1991.

The homeless San Diego Actors Theatre ended its two-play, $30,000 season in the black, and artistic director Patricia Elmore plans three shows for next season, beginning with Studs Terkel’s “American Dreams” at The Elizabeth North Theatre in February. And the homeless Ensemble Arts Theatre has reached new audiences through its association with the Gaslamp, with which it co-produced “Dusk to Dawn at the Sunset.”

The Marquis Public Theatre, which, like the Gaslamp, had suspended operations for several months, is now getting new life from its new tenant, Christopher R of the Ruse Performance Gallery.

But the common theme for all is the need for more community support in 1991.

1991 may well be the year when San Diegans show whether they have enough commitment to make their theater scene last and grow.

If 1990 has shown us anything, it is that the span of theaters, like life itself, can be brutally short. The theater you do not support today may not be around tomorrow. Right now, many theaters can go either way. The dramatic tension is high.


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