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Theater in a Word: Change : Stage: San Diego companies did what they could to keep putting on productions in tight economic times of 1991.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Change. That’s the operative word for San Diego theater in 1991.

Change of name--as the Bowery Theatre became Blackfriars Theatre. Change of personnel--as La Jolla Playhouse managing director Alan Levey was replaced by interim managing director Abigail Evans. Change of venue--as the La Jolla Playhouse replaced the old Warren Theatre with the state-of-the-art Mandell Weiss Forum.

Change in play selection--as the San Diego Repertory Theatre, Starlight Musical Theatre and the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company all made shifts in their announced season to substitute smaller or more economically feasible plays.

Change in the shape of the season--as the Rep, Gaslamp and Blackfriars all lopped the summer months off their producing schedules, redesigning their seasons to run from just fall through spring.

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Change in structure--as the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company went through massive artistic and financial reorganization in order to survive.

And so the San Diego theater scene reflects changing times.

In 1988, companies seemed giddy with booming ambitions and growth.

What a difference three years makes.

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Now, as the recession tightens its vise-like grip around America’s throat, nonprofit institutions--and particularly arts institutions--are hurting. Badly.

Most of the changes in San Diego’s theater scene are a comment on hard times--though sometimes indirectly. The Bowery changed its name, in part, to change its image, which its leadership believed would garner more support for the company.

Levey said he resigned his Playhouse position to pursue other challenges, but one factor in his decision was that his decade-long fight to keep the Playhouse growing was taking its toll. The Playhouse’s drive to launch a new venue is part of a long-range plan to increase the theater’s earned income. The new Mandell Weiss Forum can sell about 200 more seats per show than the old Warren Theatre.

And the San Diego Rep, the Gaslamp and Blackfriars will no longer produce shows during the summer because the competition--from the Old Globe, the Playhouse, San Diego Symphony’s SummerPops and the host of other summertime activities--has been simply too great. Instead, these companies will rent their space in the summer.

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Many theaters across San Diego began to feel the sting at the box office in March, during the Persian Gulf War, as ticket buyers stayed home to watch the television coverage of Saddam Hussein and the threat of his Scud missiles. Later, as the recession took hold, patrons guarded their pocketbooks more zealously than before.

Exceptions were made--with the imported touring show of “Les Miserables” setting box office records for the San Diego Playgoers along with the locally produced “Forever Plaid” for the Old Globe, where the box office seemed the least affected by the recession. And each theater produced its share of shows that merited extensions or unusually long runs.

More consistently--but not across the board--the financial blows came in the form of shrinking government grants. Although the Globe and the Gaslamp bucked the trend with record years in corporate support, the knockout punch for many smaller companies fell in the form of a severe cutback in corporate and foundation grants. This hurt especially, as nearly half of most company budgets come from donations.

The Old Globe has been best as weathering the difficult times. It probably helped that the company began preparing for the downturn years before they began.

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“We anticipated this, and, having gone through the two fires (in which the Old Globe was burned down) and knowing financial strain, we wanted to make sure that we were not stretched that far again,” said Thomas Hall, the company’s managing director.

“We feel the recession. We’re not hit quite as hard (as others), but we’re working a lot harder to sell tickets and raise money. We’ve always been careful, and we’re even more careful right now. We’ve been operating for three (to) four years on a very slim margin. There have been no across-the-board salary increases for four years. For a theater of our size, we are fairly consistently understaffed, and we do a lot with the resources we have.”

It also helped that, on Nov. 1, the Globe brought back its runaway summer hit, “Forever Plaid,” which has been sold out “to the rafters,” as Hall puts it, through its Jan. 5 run.

“Frankly, without ‘Plaid’ this year, we would have had a very problematic season financially. It holds up the rest of the season.”

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But the Globe is the exception rather than the rule.

Hall is president of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), where 60% of the 64 theaters in the organization are

running deficits. Of those, 20 theaters are in “such severe trouble that they are being watched closely for their financial stability; they’re right on the ropes,” Hall said.

Artistic quality doesn’t provide immunity. Even places as esteemed as the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven and the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis are hurting.

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Just as theaters are hurting here.

The San Diego Repertory Theatre, the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company, Blackfriars Theatre and Sushi Performance Gallery are all running deficits this year, some of them life-threatening.

Starlight ended this year in the red, but it had enough money in the bank to avoid a deficit.

But all theaters are looking for new ways of making it in hard times.

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The solutions are as different as the theaters themselves.

At the La Jolla Playhouse and Starlight Musical Theatre, the leadership is looking for longer producing seasons to offset year-round overhead.

At the Playhouse, artistic director Des McAnuff doesn’t know when his company will be able to extend into a 10-month season--but that’s his long-term goal. To accomplish that, the Playhouse hopes to raise funds for a third theater to be built beside the Mandell Weiss Theatre and the Mandell Weiss Forum as part of an overall theater complex.

“When I look into the glass ball--crystal is too expensive--I think a longer season and a future complex are both in the cards for the future. I don’t think we’ve maxed out with our audience; the subscription audience is building even in recessionary times,” McAnuff said.

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“Cutting back programming is not necessarily saving money because projects allow you to earn income and create targets for contributed income. Producing less doesn’t make us cheaper, it makes us more expensive. Our historical problem is that other theaters get to operate for longer seasons. It’s all about how you spread your costs out.”

Bud Franks, executive producer at Starlight, also sees a longer season as the solution to Starlight’s problems. He has already reserved slots for the fall and winter of 1992 at the San Diego Civic Theatre to launch Starlight’s first winter season.

In contrast, the San Diego Rep and the Gaslamp are cutting back their seasons in order to survive. The Gaslamp, most dramatically, has relinquished the lease on its small theater. Under an agreement with the new owner, Victor Gill, who also owns the neighboring Cafe Sevilla, the Gaslamp will continue to provide programming--but of a cabaret nature. The shows will be designed to appeal to patrons as they sit and order drinks and food.

The main business of theatrical producing will continue in the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre.

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The San Diego Rep, still in the midst of a crisis campaign, intends to hold onto all three of its venues, the Lyceum Stage, the Lyceum Space and the Sixth Avenue Playhouse.

But it’s struggling to make it.

“This theater has gone from a $2.5-million operation to a $1.8-million,” said managing director Adrian Stewart. “It affects every part of the operation. You tend to do smaller work. When people leave, the positions are not filled. Four-color brochures become two-color brochures. We’re doing six plays plus ‘A Christmas Carol’ rather than seven plus ‘A Christmas Carol.’ ”

The Rep, like other theaters is also trying to come up with creative solutions during the current climate.

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Like the Playhouse, the Globe and the Gaslamp, the Rep plans to increase its number of co-productions, working with other companies to produce a show. Such arrangements reduce costs and provide artists more time and exposure to develop new works.

San Diego theater patrons can expect smaller-scale shows soon. One-person shows may become increasingly popular this year. The San Diego Rep replaced “Unchanging Love” with the one-man show, “A Tale of Two Cities” and the Gaslamp replaced “Just Kidding” with “Reverse Psychology,” then ended up with the one-woman co-production of “Family Secrets.” Both shows scored artistic and commercial successes at the most modest of costs.

Sushi also produced a record number of one-person shows by performance artists in 1991: Tim Miller, Leonard Pitt, Rhodessa Jones, Joan Hotchkis, Kate Bornstein, Rachel Rosenthal and Marty Pottenger, among them.

Even the Globe has a one-woman show scheduled for 1992: the San Diego premiere of “Shirley Valentine.”

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On another tack, most local theaters have been developing more multicultural programming in an attempt to reach new audiences and build broader bases of support. This new direction also helps companies grow artistically as they reach into new sources of inspiration.

Nowhere is the shift more dramatic than at the Gaslamp, formerly known for its mannered British plays by the likes of Noel Coward and Harold Pinter.

In 1990, the Gaslamp came back to life after a 6 1/2-month shutdown with this country’s first interracially cast production of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” This year, the company launched a new outreach program with homeless children, YO!, which culminated in performances by the children last weekend. In March 1992, black director Oz Scott is planning to direct a black version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in which only the character of Maggie is white.

Given the Gaslamp’s restructuring, such programming is bound to increase. The Gaslamp, now run by managing director Steve Bevans, will get its artistic vision from a roundtable of directors that includes the varying perspectives of Will Roberson, Adleane Hunter, Rosina Widdowson-Reynolds and Oz Scott.

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At the San Diego Rep, which has consistently been in the forefront of multicultural programming, an African American Advisory Council and a Teatro Sin Fronteras Council have been formed.

Stewart, the Rep’s managing director, calls them his theater’s proudest achievements.

“In terms of the work and diversifying our audiences, it (the formation of these councils) is one of the strongest success stories of the year. Fifty percent of our artists were artists of color, and our audiences are starting to reflect that. It is one of the best things we ever did.”

The Old Globe, too, has consistently featured one Latino play annually for the last three years (as well as the San Diego premieres and sometimes the West Coast premieres of August Wilson’s latest works). It just added “Pastorela ’91: A Shepherds’ Play,” a pastorela to the December programming. The show has an English text, Spanish songs and a multicultural cast.

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Managing director Thomas Hall said he intends the pastorela to be an annual event.

And Blackfriars Theatre not only included in its main season “Stories About the Old Days,” a show with an all-black cast, but made its theater available this summer to black director Anasa Briggs-Graves for her production of a new musical, “State of the Art Heart.”

Curiously, some of the smaller companies like the North Coast Repertory Theatre and Lamb’s Players Theatre are feeling the pinch less. But even they are slowing their long-range plans. Olive Blakistone, artistic director at North Coast, has long dreamed of moving her company up into Equity status, employing union actors. But she’s moving slowly and cautiously toward that goal. Her first step has been to hire a development director whose job is to see if the funding support is there to support such a move.

Lamb’s producing artistic director Robert Smyth said the 1992 season, which includes two musicals, is on the same scale as it has been. But the company will postpone improvements and expansions. The construction of an auxiliary space for rehearsals and set and scene shops has been put on hold. Company raises have been put on hold. The company had to lose staff with its touring company as fewer schools are able to buy their programming.

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Sledgehammer Theatre, which scored a coup with its world premiere of “7 Blowjobs,” is also holding steady. The company will reopen “7 Blowjobs,” which closed Sunday, on Jan. 4 and will run weekends through Jan. 19 at 843 10th Ave.

“Times are going to be tough, but we can weather it,” said Sledgehammer’s executive director Ethan Feerst.

And that seems to reflect the attitude of all the San Diego theaters in 1991--from the small to the large. And, if all manage to make it through 1992, it will be a very good year for theater indeed.


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