#SDTheatre: A Hotbed for New Work

by TCG News

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.)

Earlier in this series, Tim West highlighted two of San Diego’s Tony Award-winning theatres, The Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse, both of which have clearly demonstrated their ongoing commitment to developing new plays and musicals. And, in another article, Pat Launer noted that San Diego has “sent more shows to Broadway that any other city in the U.S.” So I wanted to follow their spotlight on new work and take a moment to showcase the incredible amount new plays fostered within the greater San Diego theatre community.

Herbert Siguenza-talking photoI attempted to compile a total for the number of new works produced this season, but with over 75 theatre companies in San Diego, the task quickly became unwieldy. Plus, early on in the process I got bogged-down in the definition of “new work.” Obviously world premieres are the definitive examples of this. As David Ellenstein, Artistic Director at North Coast Repertory Theatre said, “Producing a brand new play is a big gamble that not only requires support, but also a real leap of faith.” And year after year, San Diego theatres have taken many such leaps. In fact, during the TCG conference, you might want to get tickets to see the world premiere of Herbert Siguenza’s El Henry—a futuristic, site-specific adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV-Part 1 featuring Kinan and Lakin Valdez, plus Culture Clash Co-Founder Herbert Siguenza (above left) as “Fausto”—a without walls production by La Jolla Playhouse in association with San Diego REPertory Theatre, as well as the world premiere of the historical comedy Faded Glory—the first play for the stage Timothy Burns wrote back in 1976 about the notorious 19th-century congressman Daniel Sickles—at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

Claudio Raygoza photoYet, in my quest to note the “new work” in town, I was unsure about including regional premieres or the vast numbers of localized San Diego premieres until I pondered their value of exposing San Diego audiences to the new and necessary voices of today’s theatre. Claudio Raygoza (left), Founder/Executive Artistic Director at Ion Theatre Company encapsulated what many local theatre leaders are celebrating when he said: “We’ve introduced audiences for the first time to two recent Pulitzer winners—Quiara Alegría Hudes and Annie Baker—and other provocative writers such as Gina Gionfriddo, Neil LaBute, Rajiv Joseph, Elizabeth Meriwether, Bryony Lavery, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Yussef El-Guindi, Sam Holcroft, Simon Stephens, and Matt Pelfrey. All in all, we’re proud of our track record with cultivating the work of playwrights who go on to leave big footprints around the world.” Raygoza then offered another value found in this hotbed for new work, one that I had overlooked. “We’ve noticed a growing trend of San Diego’s larger theatres embracing un- or under-produced playwrights after smaller theatres with a penchant for risk-taking have championed their work through local premieres. Stephen Adly Guirgis, Craig Wright, and Martin McDonagh are just a few examples.”

While I ended up abandoning the quest to find a total for the new plays developed last year, a quick sampling of mid-level theatres in town revealed that each one developed at least one world premiere per season. Plus, when we broaden the definition of “new” to include regional and local premieres, new work makes-up 50-80% of each of these theatres’ seasons. San Diego REP, for example, has produced nearly 50 world premieres in a 38 year history, but since becoming a core member of the National New Play Network (NNPN), San Diego REP has radically increased the quantity of new plays in our main-stage season and reinvigorated our ongoing commitment to developing a significant number of new works each year. In fact, three of the six plays in our 2014–15 Season are world premieres, which is our highest percentage yet. And Ion Theatre Company’s next season boasts five world premieres—out of a six-play season—all from local artists!

That is the great part. Not only does the San Diego theatre community highlight nationally recognized playwrights, we have also collectively embraced local artists to help develop noteworthy plays and musicals. Some local talent includes: Matt Thompson, Phil Johnson, Ruff Yeager, Javier Velasco, Steve Gunderson, Tony Houck, Jacque Wilke, Jon Lorenz, Colleen Smith, Kerry Meads, Vanda Eggington, Mike Buckley, Eliza Jane Schneider, and Gilbert Castellanos. From the 45 world premieres (plus a similar number of regional/local premieres) at Lambs’ Players Theatre, nearly half were written by playwrights living in San Diego at the time, including multiple productions from David McFadzean as well as their resident playwright, Kerry Meads. Not to mention theatres like Diversionary, North Coast Rep, and MOXIE who have produced plays by recent local college graduates like: Thomas Hodges and Omri Shein of SDSU and Lauren Yee of UCSD.

Because there is such a wealth of talent rising from the San Diego soil (or maybe sand), our region’s theatres are building new support systems for these artists. One example can be found at Diversionary Theatre where they offer two monthly series geared towards the development of new work. Their Artistic Associate Anthony Methvin explained, “Our Open Mondays series is a playground for San Diego’s theatre artists to explore a mix of readings of new LGBT works, classic pieces of LGBT theatre, and concerts with a twist. Upcoming new work includes: Tarrytown by Adam Wachter—a new musical take on the Legend of Sleepy Hollow with a queer twist, and Plumbing by Rebecca Kirschbaum—the story of a young gay preacher’s son in the South who wants to change his gender. And our WordPlay Tuesdays series, which is hosted in collaboration with Playwrights Project, is an opportunity for writers to hear ten minutes of their work in front of an audience and get immediate feedback.”

devil dog six


(Devil Dog Six, Photo by Coast Highway Photography)

On the national scene, San Diego theatres continue to cultivate new work. One shining example is Devil Dog Six by Mary Fengar Gail, which was commissioned by the InterAct Theatre of Philadelphia through the NNPN and was subsequently work-shopped multiple times before its first full production at MOXIE Theatre. MOXIE’s Co-Founder/Artistic Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg said, “We’ve done quite a few plays deemed ‘impossible to produce’ such as Devil Dog Six, but it went on to win a Craig Noel Award for Outstanding New Play and has gone on to be produced elsewhere.” And speaking of the impossible, just last week I was sitting at the first rehearsal of Herbert Siguenza’s epic project, El Henry, alongside 15 actors (many of whom play multiple roles) and numerous partners from La Jolla Playhouse and San Diego REP as the designers talked about 75+ costumes, originally composed music, a plethora of steam-punk weapons, and a set built for an outside venue that includes the entrance of several vintage cars, TV sets, and walls colored with bold graffiti art. When we all went around the circle to state our names and why we were on the project, I was struck by the number of people who said they wanted to get involved in this project because it was unique, it was now, and it was a CHALLENGE!

The Exit Interview production photo from San Diego REP_ photo credit - Daren Scott


(The Exit Interview, Photo by Daren Scott)

However, it is not only important to celebrate the difficult to produce plays. It is also vital to make sure that these world premieres don’t just open and then disappear, but go on to get second, third, fourth…productions as well. This is one of the core values of the National New Play Network (NNPN)—an alliance of nonprofit theatres that champions the development, production, and continued life of new plays. Whether it is a world premiere like North Coast REP’s Words by Ira Gershwin—which has been produced at two other venues with several more slated to open across the country next season; a secondary production, like Diversionary Theatre’s recent West Coast premiere of Boys and Girls by Tom Donaghy—which hadn’t been produced since opening in 2002 at Playwrights Horizons; or an NNPN Rolling World Premiere, such as The Exit Interview by William Missouri Downs—which had six world premieres including one at San Diego REP, the critical point is that new plays and musicals continue to be produced in multiple theatres across the country. This is how we build the canon of tomorrow.

El Henry Costumes by Jennifer Brawn Gittings


(El l Henry Costumes by Jennifer Brawn Gittings)

So, while you are in town for the TCG’s National Theatre Conference in June, make sure you see our version of San Diego without walls and without borders. Reserve a seat for the world premiere of Siguenza’s El Henry, directed by Sam Woodhouse, where you will be transported to the year 2045 where Hispanics, Mexicans, and Chicanos rule in this new society abandoned by Anglo America. (TCG conference attendees get a $5 discount to see the show Thursday, June 19, Saturday the 21st, or Sunday the 22nd with the code TCG14.)

I then challenge you to think about the play’s continued life. Can you envision YOUR theatre producing the next production? It is written in a poetic mixture of urban Spanish and English slang, performed outdoors in an urban street environment, and requires a large number of powerhouse Latinos. Does that sound impossible? Give it a try!

2009 Jazz Port Townsend workshop vocalist classDanielle Ward is the Literary Manager at San Diego REPertory Theatre. She is proud of San Diego REP’s history of producing over 45 main stage shows by Latino/a playwrights and hosting artistic residencies with Luiz Valdez, Max Roach, Amiri Baraka, Culture Clash, Octavio Solis, Maria Irene Fornes, and others. She also loves developing new work, serving as a dramaturg on San Diego REP premieres of: A Hammer, A Bell, and A Song to Sing by Todd Salovey, In The Time of The Butterflies by Caridad Svich, and Steal Heaven by Herbert Siguenza. In addition, Danielle enjoys working as co-dramaturg for multiple theatres in Rolling World Premieres such as The Exit Interview by William Missouri Downs and Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons. Previously, Danielle worked as a Reading Coordinator on several New Works projects at the Mark Taper Forum before becoming the Assistant to the Head of the Story Department at DreamWorks SKG. She studied Theatre at the University of California at Irvine, with an emphasis on playwriting, and followed up with an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University.