#SDTheatre: A Critic’s Eye View of San Diego Theater

by Pat Launer

in National Conference

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(The following post is part of a series highlighting and celebrating the theatres and theatre people of San Diego as part of the 2014 TCG National Conference in San Diego. Email Gus Schulenburg if you’d like to participate.)

San Diego is a theater town;
the curtain goes up when the sun goes down.

Sure, we’ve got beautiful beaches – miles of them. But San Diego County’s topography is so varied that, within a single day, you can be at the ocean, desert, mountains and in another country.

We’ve got a terrific Opera and Symphony, myriad dance companies and a wide array of museums and galleries. But our most vibrant, robust, diverse and innovative art form is theater.

I’d venture to say that there aren’t many cities where a critic like me (or a regular, everyday theater fanatic) could see more than 200 plays a year, for more than 25 years (that does include readings, of old plays and new; we’re a hotbed of playwriting, too).

We have more than 75 theater companies, including two world-renowned, Tony Award-winning theaters, each with three performance spaces: the 80-years-young Old Globe and the spunky La Jolla Playhouse. We’ve sent more shows to Broadway than any other city in the U.S.

Our theater spaces run the gamut from large (the 3000-seat Civic Theatre) to small (the 49-seat storefront ion theatre, our edgiest). We’ve got companies that focus on issues specific to women (Moxie Theatre); the LGBT community (Diversionary Theatre); Latinos (Máscara Mágica and many productions at the San Diego Repertory Theatre); Asians (Asian American Repertory Theatre; Asian Story Theatre); African Americans (Black Ensemble Theatre, Common Ground Theatre).

One local company is situated in a state park (Cygnet Theatre), another in a state-of-the-art high school performing arts center (Intrepid Shakespeare Company); yet another in a shopping mall (North Coast Repertory Theatre); and one’s linked to working artist studios (New Village Arts). One theater (Circle Circle dot dot) creates new work from interviews with sub-groups of the local population (roller derby queens, mall Santas, fantasy gamers, graffiti artists).

We have loads of youth theaters, and most of our adult theaters have classes, outreach or productions for young people. Five universities and seven colleges provide training for the theatermakers of tomorrow. San Diego State University boasts one of only two MFA programs in musical theater nationwide. UC San Diego has one of the top-ranked undergrad and graduate theater training programs in the country.

Our incredible weather makes outdoor and site-specific theater irresistible.  Of course, there’s the annual al fresco Summer Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe. And with its WithOutWalls (WoW) project, the La Jolla Playhouse has staged productions in the San Diego Botanic Gardens, on the streets of Little Italy and in the backseat of cars. Last year, the Playhouse launched a three-day, international, biennial WoW Festival that was endlessly exciting and enormously successful. 2013 also saw the inaugural San Diego Fringe Festival, a knockout which will be even bigger and better this year.

Doesn’t all this leave you kind of breathless? Me too. I can hardly keep up – and I’m at it 3-6 nights a week.

So, come to San Diego, where the theater’s as dramatic as the views.


PAT LAUNER -  A member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle, Pat has been the radio voice of San Diego theater for 25 years. For her work on TV, radio, online and in various print outlets, she has earned numerous writing honors, as well as an Emmy Award and a National Commendation from American Women in Radio and Television. She holds a Ph.D. from the City University of New York, and during her two decades teaching at San Diego State University, she was named Most Influential Faculty eight times. Pat is the creator of the Patté Awards for Theater Excellence and founding artistic director of Sign of the Times, The San Diego Theatre of the Deaf. The Women’s International Center has named her a “Living Legacy.”