#SDTheatre: America’s Finest City is a Fitting Site for TCG’s 2014 Conference

by Tim West

in National Conference

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(Pictured: Tim West. 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.)

The selection of San Diego as site of TCG’s 2014 conference confirms “America’s Finest City” as a cultural destination as well as a fine place to weather a rough winter.

This is demonstrated in a variety of ways, but one of the most significant barometers of San Diego’s theatre climate is as a generator of new plays.

The La Jolla Playhouse and Old Globe Theatre have long since been recognized for their role in developing new work on its way to the Great White Way. The La Jolla Playhouse has sent 24 productions to Broadway, from 1985’s Big River to Hands on a Hardbody in 2013. The Old Globe Theatre has sent 30 shows to Broadway, from Into the Woods in 1988 to the current Broadway hit A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.

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The La Jolla Playhouse playbill for Hands on a Hardbody, by Doug Wright (Photo: La Jolla Playhouse)

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Jefferson Mays (UCSD MFA ’91) in 2003’s I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright. (Photo: Playbill.com)

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Norbert Leo Butz and John Lithgow in the Old Globe’s 2006 musical export to Broadway, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. (Photo: Old Globe Theatre)

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Jefferson Mays as one of many characters in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Photo: Playbill.com)

San Diego’s two oldest and largest regional theatres have addressed their mission to act as geographically diffuse generators of the nation’s theatre art in a variety of ways. The Old Globe hosted three Broadway-bound productions of plays by August Wilson, retrospectives on the life and art of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan and dancer Chita Rivera, and adaptations of the motion pictures Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and  The Full Monty. The La Jolla Playhouse developed work by playwrights Doug Wright and Moises Kaufman as well as shows featuring celebrated performers Billy Crystal and John Leguizamo and remounts of Thoroughly Modern Milly and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. It is significant, though, how many of these plays were designed as exports, how many are musicals, how many are adaptations from other media, and how many are by playwrights whose widespread name-recognition preceded the work. Generative work that happens at and stays on a local level may have as much impact on the vibrancy of a theatre community as San Diego displays in 2014. There is an excitement that comes to an audience from seeing new work, an inspiration it imparts to artist and audience from participating in its development and (perhaps most important) an opportunity for  empowerment it provides to theatre artists. This simply cannot be replicated by hosting out-of-town try-outs for Broadway, no matter how much it allows the city its national ‘claim to fame.’

For this model of play development, San Diego’s sin qua non is Deborah Salzer, who in 1985 founded the California Young Playwrights Project. Salzer’s mission was to give writers in high school a sense of what it is like to work with professional tools. The organization has staged more than a hundred such productions, including the first staged works of playwrights Josefina Lopez (Real Women Have Curves) and Annie Weisman (whose Be Aggressive and Surf Report debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse), Karen Hartman and Jim Knable.

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Salzer with Playwrights Project Advisory Board Member Edward Albee.

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Salzer with Playwrights Project alumns Lopez (1986) on her left and Weisman (1999) on her right.

Perhaps as significant to the young playwrights involved in Playwrights Project were the experiences of two of San Diego’s most significant working theatre artists. 2001 participant Rachel Van Wormer is seldom idle as an actor, and as a playwright is currently working with Playwrights Project on Art Play  and a loose adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, seen in a 2013 reading at TCG co-host Cygnet Theatre.  Jason Connors –an unusual two-time Playwrights Project participant, in 2000 and 2002— has taken time from a busy career as actor, playwright and designer to served on the Board of Directors of the Playwrights Project, and is currently in Tonga, at last word building a library with the Peace Corps.  These are but two examples of Salzer’s impact on the lives of individuals, whose influence is then felt in San Diego and other communities.

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Salzer and van Wormer share admiration for each other (Photo: UT – Eduardo Contreras)

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Van Wormer with ensemble member Amanda Morrow in New Village Arts’ 2009 mounting of Be Aggressive (Photo: NVA)

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Jason Connors in 2002 with Craig Noel, long-time Old Globe luminary and director of Henry Wants a Renaissance, Connor’s play about theatre in the 1935 Exposition in Balboa Park (Photo: Charlie Reindeau)

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Connors, now and at 16 in 2000. (Photo: Playwrights Project)

Salzer, now retired as Executive Director, is still very active as a teacher with the organizations programs for youth and seniors. The organization she founded has named their Excellence in Arts Education Award in her honor. Salzer is that most admirable thing, a founder who leaves behind her a thriving and sustainable  arts organization.

Playwrights Project, now headed by Cecelia Kouma, returns to the Old GlobeTheatre  for its 29th season of Plays by Young Writers, March 6-16, for the first time since the old Cassius Carter Centre Stage (1966-2006) was replaced by the Sheryl and Harvey White Stage at the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center, formerly the Globe’s Simon Edison Center for the Performing Arts. Under Kouma, Playwrights Project has reached out into the community to work with New Village Arts (Playwrights Village), Cygnet Theatre (Plays in Process) and Diversionary Theatre (Worldplay Tuesdays) to support various opportunities for playwrights to hear their work read.

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Kouma (above) has reached out to area playwrights. Here she is seen with (clockwise from Kouma in upper left) Playwrights Project Advisory Board Member Stephen Meltcalfe and area playwrights Ingrid Hoffmeister, Jennie Olson Six, Thelma Virata de Castro and June Gottlieb.

There is certainly more work to be done to offer opportunities to area playwrights, both emerging and established. Others have undertaken such work in the past, and are undertaking such work in San Diego in 2014. However, it’s clear that in every mature ‘theatre town,’ artists must look to successful models of play development and organizational leadership. As the Playwrights Project returns to the welcoming embrace of the community-minded Old Globe theatre for the 29th annual Festival of Young Writers, San Diego can look with pride and for inspiration to the work of Deborah Salzer.


Tim West is a San Diego theatre artist. Among his acting credits are back-to back drag-roles in Absolutely and So Two Guys Walk into a Bar by Molly Lambert –in 1999-2000, a precocious teen, now a professional writer on the arts. One of West’s proudest possessions is a letter of recommendation from Deb Salzer for his 1998 direction of Sarah Weintraub’s Distraction on the Cassius Carter Centre Stage.

  • Jake Edmondson

    Just last night, Deborah Salzer provided feedback to a couple of emerging playwrights who are part of the Out on a Limb new play festival sponsored by Scripps Ranch Theatre this summer. I didn’t know who she was, but now I have a good idea why her critiques were so stimulating.