In “A Story of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens’ novel about surviving tumultuous instances, the opening paragraph contains the strains: “It was the perfect of instances, it was the worst of instances … it was the season of sunshine, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
That dichotomy of situations may additionally describe the highs and lows I’ve witnessed this previous yr in San Diego’s theater neighborhood because it re-emerged from an extended pandemic shutdown. By no means in my practically 30 years of protecting San Diego’s theater scene have I seen so many financial, social and cultural forces coming collectively without delay to rework the native arts panorama. A few of these adjustments have been for the higher, however many have brought about injury so nice that restoration may take years.
The most important information of the yr was the shock closure of San Diego Repertory Theatre, which suspended operations June 19 after 46 years in downtown San Diego. All the firm’s practically 40 workers have been laid off, together with co-founder and longtime creative director Sam Woodhouse who had been set to retire in September.
Among the many 333 performs and musicals the Rep produced over time have been 50 world premiere performs by Latinx playwrights — greater than virtually every other theater firm in america. The Rep was additionally the creative residence of a number of festivals that showcased a variety of voices, together with the Lipinsky Household San Diego Jewish Arts Pageant, the African American-themed Kuumba Fest, the Latinx New Play pageant, Black Voices Studying Collection and the Complete Megillah Jewish New Play Pageant.
Then, simply days after San Diego Rep introduced its closure, a firestorm emerged on social media. Actors in a Rep manufacturing final January alleged that employees and volunteers on the theater had engaged in racially insensitive and discriminatory practices, which Rep officers both disputed or stated was shortly ameliorated when the issues have been dropped at their consideration. Later, an episode of the Rep-produced EDI-focused (fairness, variety and inclusion) stay chat collection “We Are Listening” targeted on how the Rep’s tradition of inclusivity had fallen behind the instances.
But even with the Rep’s shutdown, different native theaters introduced adventurous 2022 lineups which have made this yr’s play season probably the most numerous in San Diego historical past.
Following the homicide of George Floyd in Might 2020, a coalition of a whole lot of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and folks of coloration) artists printed a sweeping checklist of calls for for transformational change known as We See You White American Theater. Though the pandemic shuttered the trade, a number of native theater leaders say the shutdown gave them the time they wanted to deal with this drawback in a significant manner with new anti-racist insurance policies and plans.
Theatergoers started seeing the outcomes of those insurance policies onstage this yr. Newly launched play festivals celebrated the work of not solely BIPOC playwrights, but additionally LGBTQ and nonbinary writers. And in July, Carlsbad’s New Village Arts rededicated its performing arts complicated to native playwright and humanities patron Dea Hurston. It’s believed to be the primary arts heart within the Western United States, and solely the second within the nation, to be named after a Black lady.
In the meantime, many native actors and theater artists idled by the pandemic launched new theater corporations, a few of them particularly targeted on presenting extra numerous viewpoints from BIPOC, LGBTQ and disabled artists. They embody the Loud Fridge Theatre Group, Patchwork Theatre, Teatro San Diego, Fenix Theatre Collaborative and Wildsong Productions.
These adjustments have been a boon for theater artists of coloration, significantly Black artists who’ve written and spoken on-line about now getting affords of labor 12 months of the yr, reasonably than simply throughout Black Historical past Month in February. One San Diego theater director informed me a number of months in the past that demand for Black actors is now so nice that some San Diego theaters are stepping up recruiting efforts out of city and at local people faculties and excessive colleges.
In the meantime, San Diego Opera had a significant triumph in 2022 with the world premiere of the long-in-development Spanish-language opera “El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego” (“The Final 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 informed the story of famed married Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera reuniting within the afterlife on Dia de los Muertos.
The venture was one in every of many San Diego Opera efforts to increase its outreach to extra numerous audiences, significantly the Hispanic neighborhood, which makes up practically half of the area’s inhabitants.
Whereas there have been many theater and opera achievements to have a good time in 2022, the largest and possibly most worrisome change that has occurred to San Diego theaters this previous yr hasn’t been onstage or behind the scenes. It has been within the viewers, which has dramatically declined because the first native indoor theaters reopened in fall 2021.
One of many main causes San Diego Rep officers cited for the corporate’s closure was a 60 % to 70 % decline in 2021-22 ticket gross sales, in comparison with 2019. Different San Diego theater leaders I interviewed final summer time cited comparable declines of 30 % to 50 % of pre-pandemic ranges. Plummeting ticket gross sales have been particularly painful for theaters this yr as a result of the funds from the federal authorities’s pandemic safety-net applications ran dry in 2021.
The place did the viewers go? Previous theatergoers, significantly seniors, have been reticent to return to crowded enclosed areas for concern of COVID publicity; individuals against masks insurance policies refused to come back again in protest; and something aside from upbeat comedy and musicals have been too miserable to look at after two years of pandemic. My perception, borne out by talking to many once-avid theatergoers who’ve reduce their visits this yr, is that individuals merely obtained used to being at residence and watching streaming leisure and haven’t felt compelled to return.
Over the previous century, the American theater trade has been declared lifeless many instances, however the 2018-19 Broadway season broke all attendance and ticket gross sales data. And this previous month, Broadway ticket gross sales have confirmed a sturdy return to near-2019 ranges as vacation vacationers stuffed theater coffers.
It might take time, however I imagine San Diego theater will rebound. It gained’t be the identical theater neighborhood it was three years in the past. However it is going to be battle-hardened for survival and designed for creating the brand new and extra numerous audiences of the long run.