Looking ahead to 2023: San Diego stages will get creative with new and smaller-scaled shows

Lead image for 2023 stage look-ahead
(Getty Images)

Local leaders are moving forward with some caution, but 2023 is still looking like a great year


This time last year, I was a sunny optimist about how San Diego’s theater community would rebound from the pandemic in 2022.

I thought pent-up audience demand for the unique communal experience of live theater, the state lifting indoor face mask mandates last February and the bounty of new play festivals popping up at theaters large and small would make for a year of great theater. Instead it was a year of modest success, belt-tightening, conservative programming and middling attendance.

Despite my off-the-mark prognostication for last year, I’m going to once again offer optimistic thoughts on what San Diego theater audiences can expect in 2023.

I believe the rebound I expected last year will finally happen this year, but it may be summertime before it comes to full fruition. Inflation and COVID are fading, so San Diegans may feel inspired to return to theater-going, and a strong increase in spring-summer tourism could boost box office sales.

I also believe the theater community that returns in 2023 after three years of pandemic will not be the same one that existed in 2019. Audiences will see more new plays by local writers, more Shakespeare and Chekhov classics and more small-scale productions. Why? Because they’re less expensive to produce in an ongoing environment of higher expenses and lower ticket sales.

Theaters will also produce more upbeat, lighthearted ticket-selling comedies and musicals, like “42nd Street” and “Xanadu,” which are both being produced twice in San Diego this year. And to lure back former playgoers, there will be more “experiential” theater productions that can only be experienced in a live environment, like La Jolla Playhouse’s annual and ever-popular Without Walls Festival in April.

What’s driving many of these decisions isn’t what you might think. The pandemic idled thousands of California theater artists, but California’s 2020 gig-worker law AB-5 has also had a chilling effect on the industry. Although it was written to help gig workers achieve employee status and benefits from employers, it backfired when many gig workers fought for its repeal. AB-5 restricted the flexibility and opportunities many gig workers desire and it caused pandemic-strapped companies to cut back staffing.

Within the theater industry, actors, directors and designers were gig workers before that was ever a defined occupation status. They travel from show to show, filling in the gaps with full- or part-time jobs as teachers, software programmers, yogis, waiters and more.

The law designed to help gig workers achieve guaranteed salaries sounded good, but the county’s mostly nonprofit theaters spent most of pandemic on federal life support and weren’t in a position to hire. Even though many local theaters reopened in 2021 or early 2022 with money in the bank from the Paycheck Protection Plan and Shuttered Venues Operating grants, the added expense of new production costs and lower-than-expected ticket sales have chipped away the shells on their nest eggs.

Instead of hiring more actors and artisans as employees under AB-5, many Diego theaters have announced 2023 seasons that include a larger percentage of plays and musicals with casts of just one to five actors. The pandemic-era measure some theaters instituted of replacing live musicians with pre-recorded tracks may stick well into 2023. And several theaters have reduced the number of shows in their season lineups.

That’s not to say San Diego’s 2023 theater year will be disappointing, dull or safe. I’m very excited by many of the shows coming up at local theaters in the next 12 months. They’re a mix of adventurous and ambitious new plays and musicals that that celebrate hope, resilience, the human spirit and diverse viewpoints.

Several theaters are taking major leaps in 2023. Teatro Máscara Mágica will present its first full season in a permanent artistic home. Four-year-old Loud Fridge Theatre Group is presenting its first full season. And La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe are both presenting ambitious seasons filled with new plays and new musicals.

San Diego Opera, which produced a world premiere Spanish-language opera about artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in 2022, will continue to push ahead this year with more firsts. In February, famed mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe will perform for the first time the male title role in “Gianni Schicchi.” And in April, the company will premiere three new horror-themed operas by San Diego composer Nicolas Reveles.

Also on a positive note, the vast majority of San Diego theaters continue to heed the call to produce plays and musicals that celebrate diversity and inclusivity, and they are hiring more artisans and staff who reflect the rich diversity of the community at large.

Playwright and arts donor Dea Hurston
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

One theater company that seems to best reflect the renewed commitment and spirit of 2023 is New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad.

On Feb. 4, it reopens after an eight-month renovation in its newly renamed Dea Hurston New Village Arts Center. Named after the prominent San Diego playwright and arts patron, it’s the first performing arts center named after a Black woman in the Western United States. New Village also recently appointed as associate artistic director Ahmed Dents, one of Hurston’s mentees, who in 2020 created and hosted San Diego Rep’s “We Are Listening,” a live and frank chat show spotlighting Black voices in San Diego theater.

New Village’s season-opening production is the Tony Award-winning play “The Ferryman,” with a luxurious cast of 24 actors. It will be the first theater company outside London and New York to produce Jez Butterworth’s play about “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland in 1981.

Theater is all about hope and risk-taking, and the gusto with which New Village Arts is entering the new year adds to my optimism that 2023 will be a great theater year.