#SDTheatre: An Artistic Home (for the whole family)

by Jason Heil

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 known as a fairly great place to live. As I write this, arctic blasts are oppressing much of the country and we are experiencing 70-degree sunshine. Aside from a few rainy spells, that’s pretty much the way it is year round. We have great beaches and parks. We are right across from the Mexican border. It’s a short drive if you want to go skiing or hit the desert. And we have the World Famous San Diego Zoo.

But none of those are the main reason that my wife and I moved here.

San Diego is a great theatre town – no, actually it’s better. It’s a livable great theatre town. It’s a town where several hundred people make a middle class living working onstage and behind the scenes in theatre.

It’s a city rich with opportunity. We have two of the nation’s largest theatres – The Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse. Between them, they have over 150 year-round employees, which don’t even include all of the artists and artisans hired for each production. We also have an unusually large number of mid-size theatres, with budgets from $500,000 to $4 million – San Diego Repertory Theatre, Lamb’s Players Theatre, Cygnet Theatre Company, North Coast Repertory Theatre and Moonlight Stage Productions. We have other companies dedicated to youth (and youth playwrights), ensemble, women, LGBT, ethnic, boundary-breaking, classical and original plays.  Beyond the actual theatres, there are also multiple opportunities throughout the community; from Sea World and Legoland to industrials to teaching artist positions ranging from youth to collegiate. There is a wide variety of work available, onstage and behind the scenes.

This brings me to my story. My wife and I had lived in Los Angeles and New York for several years each. We had been fortunate to find steady work, but often it pulled us out of town away from each other. There were dry spells where we had to work in non-artistic fields. We struggled to envision adding a family to that mix. When we started looking at what we desired for the long term, San Diego seemed to fit the bill. We wanted a place where we could raise children. We wanted theatre to be a vocation and not a side pursuit. We wanted to be together. Thankfully, San Diego has exceeded our expectations. We are now in the middle of our tenth year here and have been able to build a life here that incorporates theatre and family. After 9 years working in the Artistic, Literary and Education Departments at the Old Globe, my wife Kim is now Education Director of San Diego Junior Theatre. I piecemeal work together as a freelance actor, director, stage manager, teacher, and assorted other part time jobs. I’ve done everything from running a spotlight to working in Development – as a freelance artist in a smaller town, it helps to be able to wear multiple hats. We’re not rich, but we manage a nice, middle class existence. We have two kids, a dog and a small house.

But the great thing is that we are not some isolated, fortunate freaks. The San Diego theatre community is populated with people who are able to make this town a capital-H Home. A unique quality of San Diego is that there are multiple opportunities here that do not require leaving town, waiting months between every job, choosing between work and family.

Have a family? Have no fear! Multiple companies go the extra mile to help parents find solutions for juggling work and children. Parents are embraced and the idea of work/life balance is one that is given a lot of weight. Some companies (Intrepid Shakespeare Company and Moxie Theatre Company) are run by parents of young children.  In other cities I have worked, arts careers and families are often presented as an either/or proposition.

Are things perfect? Of course not. San Diego is an expensive town to live in (which we think is often offset by how many free activities you can find by just walking out your door). The recession hit here too and theatres have tightened their belts, with smaller staffs and productions. As in any city, there are more artists than jobs to serve everybody. There is a finite amount of available work in town each year and once it’s filled, there may not be other local options. That said, I have only had to leave town for work once in ten years. The negatives have been far outweighed by the positives for us and many others.

We have an incredibly tight-knit community. We even have organizations–Actors Alliance of San Diego and the San Diego Performing Arts League–that are devoted to supporting the individuals and groups in the community! Artists often work at multiple theatres and companies find many ways to collaborate. I have frequently heard the theatre-community-at-large referred to as a single repertory company.

Artistic careers are filled with triumphs and struggles, hot streaks and dry spells.  Positive energy is so important. I feel fortunate to have found an artistic home in a city that challenges, supports and embraces those who want to make the crazy decision to have a career in the arts. San Diego has shown me that it doesn’t always have to be either/or. I know we are looking forward to sharing the city with all the guests at this summer’s TCG Conference.


Jason Heil has appeared in San Diego with La Jolla Playhouse, Old Globe, San Diego Rep, Cygnet Theatre Company, ion theatre company, North Coast Rep, Compass Theatre, Moonlight Stage Productions, Starlight Theatre, and in 16 productions with Lamb’s Players Theatre, where he is an Associate Artist.  Other regional credits include Arkansas & Tennessee Repertory Theatres, A.C.T., A Noise Within, & nine seasons with the Utah, Lake Tahoe, Marin, & Texas Shakespeare Festivals.  In San Diego, Jason has directed for Moonlight Stage Productions, Intrepid Shakespeare Company and New Village Arts. Jason teaches privately and for UCSD Extension MFA: UC Irvine., and just began teaching at Cal State University, San Marcos.  www.jasonheil.com

  • Cassandra Proball

    Despite the arctic wind gusting outside my window, I was thinking as I read your article that Minneapolis/St. Paul (a.k.a. The Twin Cities) shares many of the same qualities! My husband and I, as well as many of our friends and colleagues, enjoy living in a rich, artistic community dedicated to supporting artists that make a life working in many different theatres, organizations, schools, and more! I’m sure there are more cities like ours and I hope this trend continues to gain momentum across the country!