All this miserable news about the economy rings an unrelenting bell with theater psychoids like me. Eighty years ago, the 36 square blocks that made up Broadway held 88 live theaters; most were built from scratch amid popular demand. By the time the dust had settled after five decades' fiscal tumult, that number had dwindled to 33, and they were located on half the number of blocks. Broadway's picked up only three venues since then, and one of those is about to bite the mid-Manhattan asphalt.
While San Diego's performance climate doesn't begin to compare with that on Broadway, there's a sign of life within it, one whose grassroots elements may speak to the spirit of early 20th-century New York. Don't look now, but The Theatre, Inc. is courting aspirations as imposing as the renovation of its space. The Greek classics-oriented company has entered into a rental agreement at its original Downtown venue, at 899 C St. next to the Hotel Churchill, its personnel laying its own floor after digging through seven layers of tile that date to the building's construction in 1918.
New lights, paint and seats (the venue is permitted for 70) are the byproducts of two vital element that San Diego theater has sorely lacked, at least until now: corporate sponsorship and the magic formula for securing it.
“It's just been a process of asking,” artistic director Doug Lay explained, “and being nonprofit. We come in looking good, too, with lots of information and a portfolio and all that kind of stuff, and we were very specific about our needs. It's never been, like, ‘Well, whatever you can give.' It's amazing, the amount of corporate sponsorships we've accumulated just over a few months.”
Lay said that Balboa Park's Reuben H. Fleet Science Center donated the theater's chairs on the heels of the Fleet's current remodel (the seats are only a year old). Dixieline Lumber and Home Centers kicked in more than $5,000 in wood. Home Depot coughed up about $7,000 worth of materials. OCB Reprographics is absorbing the cost of the group's printing—all of it.
Lay, who declined to reveal the company's budget and monthly rent, credits producer Melissa Sneddon with eliciting the business community's response. But while Sneddon may be proficient in nonprofit-ese, another local figure tempers his optimism in light of history's many belly-ups among small Downtown venues. San Diego Theatres Inc., which oversees operations at the giant Balboa and Civic theaters, is also a nonprofit entity—and when it comes to such ventures of any size, CEO Don Telford speaks the same language.
“The smallest thing going wrong,” Telford said, “can create a fatal flaw for an operation working on such a small scale. I can't imagine how difficult and how challenging that kind of operation must be, because the economy's in horrible shape. But to have something new and venturesome and experimental in a small black-box is not something you're going to get in a large venue. It does provide new opportunities. My hat's off.”
San Diego theater has a long way to go before it permanently imprints itself on the city. But I'd like to think Lay's needs-specific approach to local vendors is the most efficient route to that end. After all, those original Broadway houses were the products of local persistence. And they didn't get there by themselves, any more than those seven layers of tile dispersed at Lay's command. The Theatre, Inc. unveils its new space with a Greek-motif gala Friday, Nov. 7, followed the next night with the openings of Prometheus Bound and Cyclops. www.thetheatreinc.com.