Arts & Entertainment

San Diego live theaters unite to save struggling industry

Moxie Theatre Executive Artistic Director Jennifer Eve Thorn, top center, chaired a Zoom meeting recently of several theater leaders involved in “One Theatre. One Story.” They are, from top left: Erin Lewis, Thorn and Justin Slagle; second row: Sean Boyd, Jill Drexler and Phil Johnson; third row Kristianne Kurner, Jill Lewis and Ted Lieb; fourth row: Kym Pappas, David Ellenstein and Veronica Murphy.

In an unprecedented joint appeal to San Diego audiences, 28 local theater companies united on Friday, May 1, to ask the local community for help as they navigate the treacherous waters of the COVID-19 pandemic in the coming months.

The “One Theatre. One Story.” project aims to enlighten theater audiences about the local industry’s history and achievements, as well as its impact on the local economy. It also aims to survey audiences’ feelings on returning to theaters. And the final goal is to raise money for local theaters through online donations via a page set up on the San Diego ArtsTix website at .

Project participants range from the county’s largest and oldest theaters, The Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse, to the smallest and newest startups, including The Eastern and Blindspot Collective, as well as several volunteer-run community theaters, a youth theater and a sketch comedy club.

San Diego is one of the largest and most prolific theater cities in America, with a long track record of sending new musicals and plays to Broadway. The region’s arts and culture sector provides over 35,000 full-time equivalent jobs annually, with the sector generating over $1 billion in economic activity. Theater makes up a large portion of that amount and is also a generator of tourism dollars.

In mid-March, the state banned public gatherings of 10 or more, which led to the indefinite closure of most arts, sports, office, school, dining, drinking, shopping and other venues. Theaters were forced to close shows mid-run before they had the chance to recoup production expenses via ticket sales and most have also postponed or canceled shows for most of the summer. Many theaters also canceled their spring fundraising galas, which would have provided needed bridge funds to help them ride out the quarantine.

As a result, some theaters have cut their staffs by up to 70 percent and Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein recently told the Union-Tribune that the Globe’s losses could top several million dollars.

“One Theatre. One Story.” grew out of an email that Sean Murray, artistic director of Cygnet Theatre, sent out to about 10 fellow artistic directors in San Diego when he was preparing to close the company’s production of “La Cage aux Folles,” which shut down March 14, the day before its opening night. Murray said he initially wanted to ask his colleagues how they were dealing with the situation in the wake of the order and how actors’ schedules would be impacted by postponements.

Then, when it became clear that the closures could last months rather than weeks, Moxie Theatre executive artistic director Jennifer Eve Thorn proposed to fellow members of the email group her idea for “One Theatre. One Story.”

“I was really excited that this small email chain included the (La Jolla) Playhouse and (Old) Globe and said ‘I know we’re all running our own messaging and campaigns right now, but as much as I can advocate and talk to my audience about the position we’re in, if we speak together in one voice it will be a lot stronger message for our audience and the media,’ ” said Thorn, who was also forced to cancel Moxie’s spring production of “Shiv.”

Enthusiasm for the project was universal, so she began reaching out to theater companies that are members of the San Diego Perfrming Arts League, regardless of their size. “We have some overlapping and some different patrons but we’re all in the exact same position right now and we’re feeling so deeply for each other right now.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently introduced a four-stage plan to gradually reopen businesses in California. Live theaters are in phase four. Murray said there hasn’t been much public discussion about what theaters will be required to do in order to reopen. He has read that cinemas may be asked to sell only 20 percent of their seats to allow adequate social distancing. But theaters could not profitably produce shows at 20 percent capacity.

Actor’s Equity, the labor union for professional actors, is working on its own guidelines for what theaters must do to ensure the safety of performers. But Murray said even if theaters follow every safety protocol, the big question will be when ticket buyers will feel comfortable returning to the theater.

Thorn said “One Theatre. One Story.” project members, who meet every Tuesday via Zoom, are collaborating on a joint survey to assess how theatergoers feel about coming back. The survey won’t be sent out for several weeks, she said, because the situation is changing so rapidly.

To support theaters over the next few months, the coalition is asking ticket-holders and fans to support these nonprofits through donations. People who purchased tickets to a show that was postponed or canceled are being encouraged to donate the price of the ticket back to the theater. Charitable donations are also being accepted collectively for the 28 participating theaters as well as for the individual theaters via the web page. Donors who contribute $100 or more will receive a “One Theatre. One Story.” keepsake item.

Murray said he is hopeful that the community will respond to the appeal.

“It’s a question of whether you want live theater in San Diego, and not just that, but live music and dance and art galleries. If those things go away, you’ll have a city with no culture left,” he said. “If that’s not what you want, then we have to do what we can to help this situation and push it to the other side.”

The participating theaters for “One Theatre. One Story” are, in alphabetical order are: Backyard Renaissance; Blindspot Collective; Coronado Playhouse; Cygnet Theatre; Diversionary Theatre; InnerMission Productions; La Jolla Playhouse; Lamb’s Players Theatre; Moonlight Stage Productions; MOXIE Theatre; National Comedy Theatre; New Village Arts; North Coast Repertory Theatre; OB Playhouse; Oceanside Theatre Company; OnStage Playhouse; San Diego Junior Theatre; San Diego Musical Theatre; San Diego Repertory Theatre; Scripps Ranch Theatre; The Eastern; The Old Globe; The Roustabouts Theatre Co.; Trinity Theatre Company; Vantage Theatre; Wildly Successful Theatre Co.; Write Out Loud; 413 Repertory Theatre.

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

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