The San Diego Repertory Theatre (The REP) is dedicated to bringing creativity and culture to audiences. Now celebrating its 40th year, The REP is more innovative than ever. In addition to its regular season of productions, special events, community partnerships and series like Amigos del REP, Kuumba Fest and the Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival have made the REP a destination for all ages.
As downtown San Diego’s resident professional theatre, The REP operates year-round with shows on three stages and in its art galleries, producing more than 300 events and performances a year at the Lyceum Theatre, located in Horton Plaza.
The $3.2 million renovation underway at The REP, set for completion in January 2017, is just one of the elements of the theater’s exciting future. In its upcoming 41st season, The REP will host a number of features, among them a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, four world premieres and five productions that celebrate diversity and inclusion.
The REP is currently in its spring season, and its latest piece, “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy written by Gina Gionfriddo and directed by REP co-founder Sam Woodhouse, running through May 15, is one example of the theatre’s reputation for representing multiple races, genders, and religions.
Engaging our city’s diverse populace is clearly at the heart of everything at The REP, and its goal is to “promote a more inclusive community through vivid works that nourish progressive political and social values and celebrate the multiple voices of our region,” according to its mission statement.
Co-founder and Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse says in a press release, “We are devoted to and provoked by new work that speaks directly to and about the diverse peoples of our Southern California bi-national region, gives voice to the underrepresented and uses comedy to promote an enlightened, progressive and political dialogue.”
Illustrating this beautifully is the recent announcement that playwright Herbert Siguenza will be working with The REP through June 2019 as part of the National Playwright Residency Program. Siguenza is an accomplished actor and a founding member of the popular Latino ensemble Culture Clash. He is also the creator of REP favorites “Steal Heaven,” “El Henry,” and “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso,” wherein he plays Picasso himself and paints onstage in the style of the great Spanish artist. His next original play, “Manifest Destinitis,” will open The REP’s 41st season in September, and an award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will support his residency as he continues to collaborate with the theatre and further establish himself as a playwright.
“Herbert is the ideal playwright for us because we share many passions, commitments, agendas and dreams,” Woodhouse went on to say in the statement. “We know Herbert’s work very well and Herbert knows our staff, audience, region and artistic collaborators very well. Our top priority will be to assist and support Herbert in the development of his own new work, while inviting [him] to imbed himself in our theatre and our city. We want him to be a full-fledged member of our family.”
Siguenza himself describes the REP as one big family, and says he is happy to be back. He spent two years there, from 2012-13, during his mentorship under Woodhouse, and says, “It will feel like home again.” He says he appreciates the theatre’s mission and says it understands the importance of doing Latino plays in a city so close to the Mexican border. “It’s a responsibility, not tokenism,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
He is excited to return to The REP, to “…land and pick up where [he] left off” with his production of “Manifest Destinitis,” an adaptation of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid.” He says his new play, “…takes a look at early California when [it] was Mexican territory, before California became part of the United States.” He explains how, when California, among other states, was signed off to the U.S. at the end of the Mexican-American War as part of the Guadalupe Treaty, it changed the political climate and power structure of the area.
“I like to show Latinos in another context. These were Latinos that were already here, already in power, and were getting threatened by the foreigner.” These concepts, he notes, are relevant to today’s political discussions where race and immigration are concerned, and his use of political satire allows him to shed light on these issues.
“It’s just a cycle,” Siguenza says. When he wrote “El Henry” (produced by the REP in 2014), an adaptation of “Henry the IV,” set in San Diego in 2035, he wanted to examine the other side of that debate, depicting a society in which there are no more “Gringos,” or Americans. Of this imagined future, Siguenza says, “In a sense, California, and these territories that we once lost, in my mind, will be reclaimed eventually, with the sheer numbers of Latinos populating these states. Demographically, the West will be Latino in 50 years, and I find that really fascinating, while other people find it horrifying. I love that dichotomy.”
Siguenza calls political satire is his “forte,” and says he believes everything a society goes through is based on historic events that affect the future; a “reaction” to past situations in history. He utilizes these themes in all of his plays — he likes to “reverse the shoe,” as he puts it, so “people can see the other side of things.”
He considers Latinos the “audience of the future” and feels a strong need to relate to them. He points out that the youth today may find theatre “boring” and he would like to be a part of bridging the gap, involving new audiences and helping make theatergoing a more desirable and exhilarating experience for the younger generation, Latino youth included.
His current partnership with the theatre, Amigos del REP, consists of a series of readings, held once a month, allowing Latino actors to get training and showcase their talent, first-time directors to gain experience, as well as providing exposure for the works. He began Amigos, he says, “…to show the community, and San Diego REP, that there [are] a lot of good plays out there, written by Latinos, with Latinos starring in [them].” He takes pride in the fact that these readings have been a hit with audiences, and that some of the readings have been picked up as plays produced by The REP because they had great impact as a reading.
Siguenza says he is one of the writers that has benefitted from the program and says, ”It has been a win-win situation for the community, for actors, and for the San Diego REP…It is one of the most gratifying projects I have worked on.” He points out that “…it’s really the people’s enthusiasm and participation that has made it happen.”
Audience engagement, and gaining new audience members, is a huge focus of The REP, and a big part of Larry Alldredge’s job as Managing Director. A longtime subscriber, he was attracted to employment at the theatre for its progressive values. He refers to Woodhouse as “a great partner,” and comments on the director’s ability to “keep it fresh” 40 years into The REP’s existence. He points to Woodhouse’s willingness to take on challenges such as “directing in the round,” as he does in “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” and calls him not only “…one of the best directors in town,” but the ultimate decision-maker with regard to what appears onstage at The REP, one who “sets the vision” and is known nationwide for running an inclusive theatre. In fact, the organization is the second most prolific in the country when it comes to production of Latino playwrights (#1 is a strictly Latino-based theatre).
One of the ways The REP has been able to connect with the local community and beyond is through its production of “HONKY,” a comedy that ran in a previous season, that Alldredge describes as an avenue for conversation about racial issues, its theme is the essence of “why it’s hard to talk about race,” and he mentions using productions like these to open up the discussion for how to solve “some of the equality problems” the public faces. Plays such as these are what Alldredge calls The REP’s “signature pieces.”
“HONKY” received national attention when it was produced for television with “Onstage in America” and broadcast on PBS. Exposure like this is what helps encourage theatergoing as a popular pastime and reinforces the accessible nature of what is developed at The REP. One of Woodhouse’s intentions when he founded the theatre in 1976, says Alldredge, was to produce contemporary works by living artists. At that time many theatres were doing shows by non-living playwrights; Woodhouse made it a priority to be progressive, to make the experience of seeing plays fun and exciting.
In planning for the future, Alldredge mentions Siguenza’s upcoming Artist in Residence position and says that “… providing that creative space for one of the country’s preeminent artists has been a dream of [The REP’s].” He says the hope is for a continuation of Latino playwrights and artists to have an outlet for their work and give the community exposure to it.
Another source for enticing new audience members can come from supplementary programs, what The REP calls “engagement events,” like REP Your Pride Night, or Chai Night at The REP (sponsored by L’CHAIM Magazine), that involve patrons in supporting organizations like the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation and the Jewish National Fund. These typically take place before or after a performance and tickets sold benefit the various local charities, and are a way to educate and entertain at the same time.
Dajahn Blevins, who runs the REP’s Kuumba Fest, likes to use the term “edutainment” when describing his work and contribution to the theatre. Kuumba Fest, held every February, is San Diego’s longest running and premier celebration of African-American expression, culture and heritage. Blevins has produced the event for the past 25 years, and the last four years have seen the program venture out into the community, with performances in local parks.
The Fest is a three-day show that includes African dance, a youth play, a speech competition and the comedy show “Late Night Live @ the Lyceum.” Showcasing African-American playwrights in the festival has given Blevins a chance to provide role models for its young members.
The idea behind Kuumba Fest is connecting young people to positive African-American images and teaching behavior modification to at-risk kids through performing arts. A role is created based on the actual behavior or competency needed, Blevins explains, and through that portrayal, the student will learn the desired behavior, or value. Most of the participants, urban youth displaying early self-destructive behaviors, have been referred to the program through the County of San Diego, city schools and the police department, when traditional interventions have proven ineffective.
“Whatever their issues [are], we … work it out through theatre,” says Blevins.
Blevins says all Kuumba Fest’s kids have turned their lives around as a result of the program and have been able to avoid gang activity and teen pregnancy, improve their grades and get internships and jobs. He estimates that 90% of them have ended up mentoring new members. He is proud to say that he is now working with the third generation of his show’s players (when participants move on, they are responsible for replacing themselves with someone else who wants to join), and enjoys “utilizing creativity” (the very definition of the Swahili word “kuumba,” one of the principles of Kwanzaa) to make a difference.
Blevins credits Woodhouse for helping make this program a success. “Sam’s vision is empowerment, and he uses the arts to instigate change,” he says. “Never has there been a director to open up his [theatre] to the inner city and has stuck with it annually.” According to Blevins, there are now 18 Kuumba Fests throughout the country modeling themselves after The REP’s, all due to Woodhouse and his commitment to supporting the goals of the program.
Woodhouse “really pushes” the idea that “there’s really only one race — the human race,” as Blevins puts it, adding, “That made him so revolutionary in this city.”
It is clear this is one of the central principles through which The REP operates, and the Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival is a fine example of that.
“The essence of the Festival is to celebrate Jewish history, thought, and traditions expressed in art, and to encourage the development of more … Jewish work,” Todd Salovey, Associate Artistic Director, and Artistic Director of the Festival, says. “We love taking accomplished artists of all backgrounds and encouraging them to explore Jewish themes.”
Running from May 27 to July 17, this year will be the Festival’s 23rd in existence. The Fest started with one day of performances, and has grown tremendously over that time; this year features three full productions and 12 different events at eight venues.
Highlights include Hershey Felder starring in “Maestro” at The REP, Rosina Reynolds in “Golda’s Balcony” (which Salovey directs) at New Village Arts and Teatro Punto y Coma’s World Premiere of “Gridlock,” written by one of Siguenza’s AMIGOS alumni and L’CHAIM columnists, Salomon Maya.
The Festival also features such annual touchstones as the Klezmer Summit and “Women of Valor.” This year the Klezmer Summit will spotlight a mingling of Jewish music and Bluegrass called “Jewgrass.”
Salovey’s play for The REP’s upcoming season, “The Dybbuk Wedding for Hannah and Sam” began as part of The Festival. “Gridlock” started out as a staged reading in last year’s Jewish Arts Festival, and will be fully performed this year, he says. (Be sure to check out sdrep.org for the entire program.)
Salovey says he loves seeing the energy, pride and excited conversation in all the venues after the shows. “It’s thrilling to provide so much joy,” he says.
He is pleased to be a part of an organization that is constantly developing new work, and says that The REP has commissioned more than 50 World Premieres.
“I think of the Festival as a place that nurtures artists to explore meaningful Jewish themes in high quality art,” says Salovey. “I am so proud that it’s been the birthplace of so much great art, theatre, music and dance. I am also proud that it has birthed so many flourishing collaborations across cultures, styles and forms.”
The REP’s upcoming Ruby Reunion will celebrate 40 years of these accomplishments. Alldredge describes the upcoming anniversary party as a “birthday bash,” unlike a traditional sit-down fundraising gala. It will be held June 12 in the Shiley Special Events Suite at the San Diego Central Library downtown, where guests will gather to experience live music by Gilbert Castellanos and Friends, pop-up performances, food and drink from local restaurants and much more. The event will recognize the accomplishments of The REP and pay tribute to Sam Woodhouse, the extraordinary man behind it all.
CHAI NIGHT AT THE REP!
L’CHAIM Magazine is proud to be the sponsor of Chai Nights at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Chai Nights connect non-profit organizations, L’CHAIM and the Rep.
On Chai night, 25% of ticket sales to that night’s show are donated to a designated non-profit. Ticket-holders are also invited to the post-show hangout on stage, complete with kosher wine and light refreshments.
Chai Night began in February and paired “Outside Mullingar” with Jewish Family Service. In March, The Salk Institute was matched with “Bucky.”
This month, on May 11, L’CHAIM is sponsoring a performance of “Rapture, Blister, Burn” where Chai Night proceeds will go toward the Jewish National Fund. Please join us, along with JNF and the cast and crew.
To learn more about Chai Nights or to partner with L’CHAIM and the San Diego REP, email Diane Benaroya at email@example.com.
Nikki Salvo is freelance writer who has had her work published in numerous local magazines. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from SDSU. She also works full-time at the Clinique counter at Bloomingdale’s Fashion Valley and does freelance makeup artistry. She lives in the East Village with her boyfriend and 7 month-old son, Jude. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.