In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens’ novel about surviving tumultuous times, the opening paragraph includes the lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
That dichotomy of conditions could also describe the highs and lows I’ve witnessed this past year in San Diego’s theater community as it re-emerged from a long pandemic shutdown. Never in my nearly 30 years of covering San Diego’s theater scene have I seen so many economic, social and cultural forces coming together at once to transform the local arts landscape. Some of these changes have been for the better, but many have caused damage so great that recovery could take years.
The biggest news of the year was the surprise closure of San Diego Repertory Theatre, which suspended operations June 19 after 46 years in downtown San Diego. All of the company’s nearly 40 employees were laid off, including co-founder and longtime artistic director Sam Woodhouse who had been set to retire in September.
Among the 333 plays and musicals the Rep produced over the years were 50 world premiere plays by Latinx playwrights — more than almost any other theater company in the United States. The Rep was also the artistic home of several festivals that showcased a diversity of voices, including the Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival, the African American-themed Kuumba Fest, the Latinx New Play festival, Black Voices Reading Series and the Whole Megillah Jewish New Play Festival.
Then, just days after San Diego Rep announced its closure, a firestorm emerged on social media. Actors in a Rep production last January alleged that staff and volunteers at the theater had engaged in racially insensitive and discriminatory practices, which Rep officials either disputed or said was quickly ameliorated when the problems were brought to their attention. Later, an episode of the Rep-produced EDI-focused (equity, diversity and inclusion) live chat series “We Are Listening” focused on how the Rep’s culture of inclusivity had fallen behind the times.
Yet even with the Rep’s shutdown, other local theaters announced adventurous 2022 lineups that have made this year’s play season the most diverse in San Diego history.
Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, a coalition of hundreds of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) artists published a sweeping list of demands for transformational change called We See You White American Theater. Although the pandemic shuttered the industry, several local theater leaders say the shutdown gave them the time they needed to tackle this problem in a meaningful way with new anti-racist policies and plans.
Theatergoers began seeing the results of these policies onstage this year. Newly launched play festivals celebrated the work of not only BIPOC playwrights, but also LGBTQ and nonbinary writers. And in July, Carlsbad’s New Village Arts rededicated its performing arts complex to local playwright and arts patron Dea Hurston. It’s believed to be the first arts center in the Western United States, and only the second in the nation, to be named after a Black woman.
Meanwhile, many local actors and theater artists idled by the pandemic launched new theater companies, some of them specifically focused on presenting more diverse viewpoints from BIPOC, LGBTQ and disabled artists. They include the Loud Fridge Theatre Group, Patchwork Theatre, Teatro San Diego, Fenix Theatre Collaborative and Wildsong Productions.
These changes have been a boon for theater artists of color, particularly Black artists who have written and spoken online about now getting offers of work 12 months of the year, rather than just during Black History Month in February. One San Diego theater director told me a few months ago that demand for Black actors is now so great that some San Diego theaters are stepping up recruiting efforts out of town and at local community colleges and high schools.
Meanwhile, San Diego Opera had a major triumph in 2022 with the world premiere of the long-in-development Spanish-language opera “El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego” (“The Last Dream of Frida and Diego”). Co-written by Latin Grammy-winning composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright-librettist Nilo Cruz, the two-hour opera told the story of famed married Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera reuniting in the afterlife on Dia de los Muertos.
The project was one of many San Diego Opera efforts to expand its outreach to more diverse audiences, particularly the Hispanic community, which makes up nearly half of the region’s population.
While there were many theater and opera achievements to celebrate in 2022, the biggest and maybe most worrisome change that has happened to San Diego theaters this past year hasn’t been onstage or behind the scenes. It has been in the audience, which has dramatically declined since the first local indoor theaters reopened in fall 2021.
One of the major reasons San Diego Rep officials cited for the company’s closure was a 60 percent to 70 percent decline in 2021-22 ticket sales, compared to 2019. Other San Diego theater leaders I interviewed last summer cited similar declines of 30 percent to 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Plummeting ticket sales were especially painful for theaters this year because the funds from the federal government’s pandemic safety-net programs ran dry in 2021.
Where did the audience go? Past theatergoers, particularly seniors, were reticent to return to crowded enclosed spaces for fear of COVID exposure; people opposed to mask policies refused to come back in protest; and anything other than upbeat comedy and musicals were too depressing to watch after two years of pandemic. My belief, borne out by speaking to many once-avid theatergoers who have cut back their visits this year, is that people simply got used to being at home and watching streaming entertainment and haven’t felt compelled to return.
Over the past century, the American theater industry has been declared dead many times, but the 2018-19 Broadway season broke all attendance and ticket sales records. And this past month, Broadway ticket sales have showed a robust return to near-2019 levels as holiday travelers filled theater coffers.
It may take time, but I believe San Diego theater will rebound. It won’t be the same theater community it was three years ago. But it will be battle-hardened for survival and designed for developing the new and more diverse audiences of the future.