Playbill San Diego
All photography courtesy of Bill Edom, La Jolla Playhouse & Aaron Rumley
Since 1858, San Diego has played host to some of California’s most unique theatrical performances. In the early 1900s, shows were produced at old downtown theaters like Horton Hall and Fisher Opera House; since then, several theatres have thrived, putting San Diego theatre in a league of its own.
Among theatre hot spots like New York and Chicago, San Diego has attracted notable talents and performances with its increasing passion and commitment to the creativity and art of theatre. Discussing these talents and the overwhelming growth, presence, and future of San Diego theatre, FINE magazine recently met with artistic and managing directors from North Coast Repertory, Moonlight Amphitheatre, and the La Jolla Playhouse for a roundtable review. These are their thoughts:
Q: What attracted you to San Diego theatre?
David Ellenstein [Artistic Director, North Coast Rep]: Opportunity, quality and a great place to live. Being a freelance director and actor based out of Los Angeles for most of my life, I had the chance to work on many occasions with San Diego theatres. I always enjoyed the environment, the commitment to the “art of the play” and passion that existed to grow and flourish as a theatre town.
Kathy Brombacher [Producing Artistic Director, Moonlight]: I have been active in San Diego County theatre for more than 35 years. Since moving to [North County] in 1975, I have been teaching theatre and directing since that time, and performed at both the Old Globe Theatre and with Starlight Civic Light Opera in the late 70s and 80s. Having trained in classic repertory theatre, I watched the development of the Old Globe Theatre, San Diego Starlight, the San Diego Repertory Theatre, and La Jolla Playhouse, as well. I even saw the beginnings of Lamb’s Players Theatre in Balboa Park. In 1980 I began dreaming about producing an outdoor musical theatre in Vista, [having] grown up around the Redlands Bowl. Thirty-one years later, we present award-winning, professional productions in the summer and winter seasons in two venues: the Moonlight Amphitheatre and the Avo Playhouse.
Daniel Kays [Managing Director, Moonlight]: When I first moved to Vista in 2000, I was drawn to the opportunity that would allow me to reduce the time I spent traveling with previous jobs and to put some roots down as my family began to grow. The appeal that keeps me in this area, as I enter my 11th year at Moonlight, is the ongoing challenges that the arts present in a very tough economic environment. Everyday there is something to overcome - and when you are in the arts, this means “creative thinking” and “out of the box solutions” are not always meant just for the performance, but also in the everyday workings of the management side [as well].
Michael S. Rosenberg [Managing Director, La Jolla Playhouse]: I’ve been aware of the terrific San Diego theatre scene even while I was living in New York, heading up the Drama Dept [a non-profit theatre company, where he produced new works by the likes of Douglas Carter Beane, Warren Leight, Isaac Mizrahi, Paul Rudnick and David and Amy Sedaris]. The Playhouse, the Old Globe and others have had a longstanding history of developing new work and sending shows to Broadway and other stages around the country, and I [am] excited to be a part of this city’s vibrant theatre scene.
Q: How have you seen San Diego theatre change over the years?
Ellenstein [North Coast Rep]: The theatre scene in San Diego has grown up. With the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse creating a huge national presence, mid-sized and smaller companies have [also] grown and flourished [in the process]. There is a hungry audience here. [As a result], more opportunities for professional actors [are available].
Brombacher [Moonlight]: San Diego theatre has changed and grown tremendously in the 31 years I’ve been [with] Moonlight. A portion of that growth should be credited to the forming of the San Diego Performing Arts League, which was founded to market and grow the arts organizations in San Diego County.
We experienced in the late 80s and 90s the cultivation of great artistic directors-in-residence at the Old Globe, Starlight Civic Light Opera, The La Jolla Playhouse; along with ongoing leadership at San Diego Rep, Lamb’s Players Theatre, Sledgehammer Theatre, etc. Under the leadership of Jack O’Brien, Des McAnuff, Sam Woodhouse, Don and Bonnie Ward, Deborah and Robert Smythe, Kerry Meads, Kirsten Brandt, Olive Blakistone, Sean Murray, and the directors and playwrights who were invited to join these companies, we saw a more diverse palette of professional theatre. The advent of strong managing directors who refined the business of producing theatre was compounded with the strength of development directors on staff, who became more and more crucial to the backbone of survival for theatre companies, as productions and production values grew. National recognition came to many of San Diego’s major theatre organizations who sent new work and revivals of musicals to Broadway.
In North County, the North Coast Repertory had grown into a highly respected professional theatre in the 90s along with Diversionary Theatre in San Diego; other newly invented theatres were founded, such as, Black Ensemble Theatre, New Village Arts, Ion Theatre, Moxie Theatre, M’o’lelo Theatre, and Cygnet Theatre, to name a few. [In addition], the new millennium has brought enormous diversity to our theatre scene in San Diego. We are no longer defined by only the larger theatre organizations as was the case in the 1970s; but by the wide breadth of artistic offerings and visions.
Rosenberg [La Jolla Playhouse]: I’ve only been a part of the San Diego theatre industry for the last two and a half years; but even in that time, I’ve seen a wonderful blossoming of theatre offerings here. At the Playhouse in particular, we’ve expanded our season programming as well as our outreach programs. We’ve established community partnerships with such groups as the San Diego Youth Symphony and Playwrights Project for each of our productions and reached record-breaking numbers of schools and students through our Performance Outreach Program (POP) Tour for young audiences. This exciting cross-pollination among arts groups has helped us all to reach new audiences.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the production process? What’s most rewarding at the end of it all?
Ellenstein [North Coast Rep]: I love to rehearse. To be in the rehearsal room exploring and creating with inspired and creative actors is my joy. As artistic director and as a director of an individual play, my main job is to put the right people with the right material and to create an environment where the greatest work can be achieved; to guide or “direct” the proceedings to fulfill the vision of the work. To feel we have created something together that will bring joy or tears or insight to an audience while also allowing the creative souls of the artist to flourish. There is no better feeling than that.
Brombacher [Moonlight]: My favorite part of the production process is the rehearsal process: the creative discoveries, the dialogues with the cast and designers, and the chance to create an experience for the audience that remains in their memories. The rehearsal process is stimulating and sometimes undefined territory; myriads of creative decisions are made each day in a collaborative way with musical directors, conductors, actors, choreographers, and stage managers. During rehearsal there is a great need for everyone to catch the passion about the project, so that for those five weeks leading up to opening night, everyone on the team is giving the best of their imagination and expertise. At the end of it all, when the show is put in the hands of the stage manager and the audience reacts with applause, tears, or laughter, and the actors are feeling comfortably rehearsed and ready to deliver the work, it’s an incredibly rewarding place for me to be: sitting at the back of the house, watching the layers of performance unfold. Another big joy for me is working with artists who have been on the team for many years; conductors, directors, costumers, stage managers, [as well as] ongoing relationships with actors.
Rosenberg [La Jolla Playhouse]: One of my favorite parts of the production process is seeing artists come together on the first day of rehearsal and feeling that wonderful energy generated in the room, knowing we are creating something brand new together, and that the Playhouse will support and nurture these endeavors.
Q: Anything new on tap for your venue, in regards to leadership, upcoming productions, guest directors or even actors?
Ellenstein: It is our 30th Anniversary season, so it is a special one for us. It is eclectic and filled with all kinds of plays that will take our patrons on a joyous roller coaster ride. Not only have we pulled out a title from North Coast Reps inaugural year, “The Lion in Winter,” and peopled it with San Diego favorites Candis Chappell, Richard Baird, and Mark Pinter, but also we have brought Andrew Barnicle in to direct it. Andy was Associate Artistic director here in the early years and has been the Artistic Director of the Laguna Playhouse for 19 years.
Our production of “Heroes” will feature three of the greatest actors in the country: Jonathan McMurtry, Ken Ruta, and Ray Reinhardt – a major coup for our intimate 194-seat venue. We have new plays, a musical and repeat of our co-production Shakespeare collaboration with MiraCosta College, our production “Henry IV Part 1.” Guest directors Kirsten Brandt, Matthew Wiener and Christopher Williams will all be contributing to this landmark season.
Brombacher: [We have] “The Marvelous Wonderettes” opening September and performing through October 1. We’re putting together next year’s winter and summer season with show titles being considered for our four-show summer season. Titles such as, “Legally Blonde,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Spamalot,” “Anything Goes” and “1776” are under consideration.
Rosenberg [La Jolla Playhouse]: We have some truly exciting productions coming up in the rest of our season, including the world premiere of a Playhouse co-commissioned work “Milk Like Sugar,” Culture Clash’s latest piece “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose” and the thrilling Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” directed by Playhouse Director Emeritus Des McAnuff. This amazing revival has received glowing reviews across the board and we are delighted to bring Des’s amazing production to San Diego audiences. We’ll also be presenting “Susurrus” at the San Diego Botanic Garden in September as part of the Playhouse’s new “Without Walls” site-based theater program. This exciting series, supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation, is designed to break the barriers of traditional theatre.
Q: What do you predict for the future of San Diego theatre? What are you most excited for?
Ellenstein [North Coast Rep]: I see the community of theatres growing and realizing the potential of being the next great regional theatre presence in this country. With the slew of high quality theatres that exist and the rising awareness of our communities hunger for quality work. We can surpass what Seattle was and Chicago is. After all, they can’t touch our weather and surroundings!
Brombacher [Moonlight]: I hope that there will be a continued resurgence in producing works of Shakespeare and classical plays; and that people will continue to embrace musical theatre for the savvy, stimulating, and demanding art form that it is. Theatre producers all need to pay attention to the social media opportunities for marketing; and continue to find new audience members who will become life-long patrons. That is our challenge; and our future.
Kays [Moonlight]: There is always a place for the arts - especially for the performing arts. There’s nothing like experiencing a live performance, knowing that it is a human experience through and through.
There’s a bond that happens, both as an audience member, and as a performer, which makes that particular performance unique to that specific moment in time. That is what I’m most excited about; being a part of that unique bonding experience that happens every night we hold a performance.