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Do San Diego Theaters Need A Fresh Vision?

Charles McNulty, theater critic at the LA Times, wrote an article on Sunday about regional theaters in Southern California and how they've become too profit-driven and less focused on artistic innovation. Both The Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse are mentioned in the article.

McNulty actually cites the Cambridge Guide to Theatre when outlining the mission of regional theaters: "a focus on the art of the theater, the development of theatre artists, craftsmen and administrators dedicated to establishing a new American theatre, and the production of classical and innovative contemporary drama."

What are Southern California theaters producing, according to McNulty? An "orgy of mass-musical frivolity and star-struck casting in plays that seldom spring from the next generation of playwrights."

McNulty notes that many of the region's theaters are in a state of leadership transition and therefore poised to change course and innovate.

I'm curious to hear what readers want from our local theaters. Do you agree with McNulty's premise about what regional theaters should be doing? Or do you think that they should be doing whatever the audience wants - and if that's big splashy musicals, then so be it?

Are you looking for pure entertainment when you go to the theater? Do you want provocative theater? Do you want to see work by emerging playwrights? Do you want a balance of these things? Are San Diego theaters producing the kinds of shows you want to see?

Let me know what you think.

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Avatar for user 'sailinsax'

sailinsax | March 29, 2010 at 5:03 p.m. ― 6 years, 11 months ago

I read McNulty's article and think he is just rehashing a safe topic: artistic innovation must come above all else. His argument seems to be mostly that nonprofits have become too commercial and are not producing new work but I'm not sure that this is their duty. I'm not an expert on nonprofits, but I'm pretty sure that their employees are still dependent upon them for their paychecks, so I can understand theatres for not taking bold risks in this economy when it's hard enough to get people in the door. It would be nice if theatres could produce art for art's sake and not have to worry about drawing audiences, but isn't this the age-old balance between artists and audiences? They need each other. Most theatres are businesses and if a business doesn't turn a profit or at least cover its expenses, it fails.

McNulty also says that the largest theatres are selling out but it makes sense to me that larger theatres are going to be more inclined to cater to the masses while smaller ones are probably more apt to take risks for a more select audience.

He spends most of the article acknowledging the many challenges facing theatres, but he doesn't really explain how bold and innovative programming is going to keep the doors open for business. He offers a quote from Samuel Beckett about how artists fail better than anyone else, but it seems to apply more to creators of art than producers of art. As to what kind of theatre experience people want, I think there are all types of theatres for all types of audiences. This is the beauty of variety: people can choose what they want.

I sympathize with live theatre and think it's amazing that we have so many theatres in this region that are still being productive in this world of digital entertainment. In this economic climate where most people are cutting back on non-necessities like live entertainment, we need more people championing the arts instead of being setentious about them.

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Avatar for user 'sailinsax'

sailinsax | March 29, 2010 at 7:03 p.m. ― 6 years, 11 months ago


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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | March 30, 2010 at 8:59 a.m. ― 6 years, 11 months ago

@sailinsax: Thanks for commenting. This is an age-old battle but it seems to me it will always be relevant - what is the appropriate balance between commercial interests and artistic risk?

I think McNulty trots the issue out on an annual basis and some years it feels more relevant than others. In this economy, more commercial ventures are understandable.

What's interesting is that I think he's wrong about San Diego's regional theaters, especially the La Jolla Playhouse. They may have produced big musicals like "Memphis" and "Xanadu," but the company also took on "Tobacco Road" and "Creditors" last season, not to mention the Page to Stage program which takes on edgier fare annually. The 2010 season includes Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ruined," a play by a San Diego playwright called "Surf Report," and "Notes from the Underground," based on the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel, the latter hardly a splashy musical. That's just three of their six shows this season, a fair balance if you ask me.

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