Richard Knight spent the first part of his Thanksgiving listening to football, checking out the paper and scarfing a snack to tide him over. The San Diego man planned to visit friends in Pacific Beach later in the day-there were roughly 109 more games on tap, and the news he was reading just might have morphed into some world-beating conversation around the dinner table. You never know about these things.
But Knight's pleasant speculation lost its luster when the topic switched to downtown San Diego's growth and a fabled slice of the city's theater scene. As caretaker at St. Cecilia's Playhouse the last two decades, Knight has a unique perspective on both. Transient foot traffic through the parking area, he noted, has picked up as newer construction creeps toward his vantage on the western slope of Bankers Hill. And that advancement now figures into a major moment in San Diego performance history-the January departure of Sledgehammer Theatre, St. Cecilia's central tenant and one of the most popular live arts collectives this city has ever known.
“I think it's a shame,” Knight said from his tidy corner office on the facility's west side. “It's disappointing. It really is. I think they were really trying to do something different, something to get their audiences thinking.”
Since 1986, Sledge has been throwing caution to the wind with its ear-splitting, head-banging, fiercely progressive takes on theater and on the people who perform and see it. With its track record of more than 50 productions (including a five-hour Hamlet, Mac Wellman's scathing political satire 7 Blowjobs and last season's magnificently raucous A Dream Play), it's staged 20 world premieres, has been featured in American Theatre magazine and is routinely recognized around the country for its crack tech work.
In the process, it had become the city's only established renegade company with a roof over its head (the Fritz Theatre is as psycho as ever, but it hasn't had a permanent home to speak of for several seasons).
But for all his concern, Knight is overstating the company's near-term fate. Contrary to a small but stubborn perception, Sledgehammer is not-repeat, not-disbanding. It's merely vacating St. Cecilia's, effective Jan. 1, as required by the city's seismic retrofit ordinance, which provides no funds for mandated work. The building's owners have taken no action on the modifications to the walls and roof, which would reportedly cost around $100,000. That leaves Sledge as anchorless as the Blackfriars and Theatre E and California Rep groups before it, which projected the same maverick image and later died without a home base.
For co-founder and two-time artistic director Scott Feldsher, however, the glass is not only half full-it's shattered under the weight of its contents.
“For the first five or six years that we ran the company,” the 41-year-old L.A. native explained, “we did site-specific work at storefronts and warehouses. We kind of fell into St. Cecilia's. We got it for a song at the time. But we eventually became a run-of-the-mill theater company that performed a four-show season all in the same space. That was never what we wanted to do when we started the company. Interestingly enough, we're going back to how [co-founder] Ethan [Feerst] and I envisioned the company, as more nimble and flexible. It's very exciting.
“And now, we don't have to worry about establishing who we are. We're already something.”
Sledgehammer's home, at 1620 Sixth Ave., is formally known as the Bradley-Woolman St. Cecelia Chapel (the city's Historic Resources Board record shows “Cecelia” with two e's; the building sports two i's in the name, and Sledge's promotional material mirrors that spelling). The Spanish Colonial-style facility was built in 1928 as a funeral church. In 1976, it became known as the Sixth Avenue Playhouse and was the original venue for the San Diego Repertory Theatre, now located in downtown's Horton Plaza.
The space was designated a city historic site in 1991. Sledgehammer moved in two years later, and the name St. Cecilia's Playhouse took hold soon after.
The 150-seat theater sits on a square block owned by several parties from the same family. No information about the family's plans for the building was immediately available. Feldsher said he understood the family is close to a sale agreement with an unnamed condominium developer for an undisclosed price.
But at the moment, the owners' decisions are immaterial. City planner Mike Tudury explained that as a historic site, the structure is subject to a lengthy review procedure by the Historic Resources Board and several state agencies regarding any proposed demolition. The California Environmental Quality Act governs these things, Tudury said, adding that compliance involves a series of impact reports and state-regulated waiting periods for public comment.
Had an applicant already sought such a review on St. Cecilia's, he said, “I'd have known. Honestly, this is the first I've heard about it.
“What the board would attempt to do,” Tudury continued, “is to work within the context of the resource to achieve what the applicant wants to achieve and [yet] find a way to preserve the primary historic portion of it, which is the part that faces the public right-of-way.”
Knight, 67, isn't holding his breath. In 20 years, he's seen too many boxy high-rises and condos eat away at the ocean views and “sort of take downtown by force. That's the attitude. The city just seems to let development get out of control. [Once], you could at least see over the tops of all those older buildings. Now-,” he trailed off, half-gesturing oceanward at a cluster of faceless monuments.
For lifelong San Diegan Todd Blakesley, those skyscrapers represent a different kind of encroachment. The Actors Alliance of San Diego summer festival executive director recently returned from a fact-finding mission in Minneapolis to help develop San Diego's first fringe theater festival, scheduled for the fall of 2007. That city's downtown, he noted, is giddy with performance art, some in the most unlikely places. One venue, he said, shares space with a traditional bastion of refinement-a combination bar and bowling alley.
But Minneapolis and other great theater cities are also pretty cold this time of year, and they thus enjoy healthy audiences by default. “Once you drop below the 33rd parallel,” Blakesley quipped, “interest starts to dissipate. We have to turn up the chill factor if we want more theater.”
Either that or rob a bank. A real big one.
“One of the problems with theater almost anywhere,” Blakesley said, “is that you're always spending the money you make just in order to survive. That's the main thing that keeps things unstable. You just never get a leg up on the rent. In the case of Sledge, you had a basically generous landlord. The rents never [approached] what the value of the property was, or at least I didn't think so.” Sledgehammer, which operates on a $200,000 annual budget, most recently rented St. Cecilia's for $2,300 a month.
“Real estate prices have gotten so high,” Feldsher added, “that arts groups are being pushed out of virtually every downtown area in the country. Of course, it's up to the groups to find alternative spaces if they can. There's that and a lack of start-up money for arts groups-those are the two things that have made it more difficult for small young groups to start doing work.”
In Blakesley's ideal world, theater companies own their own property. Feldsher isn't quite that monopolistic-he noted that Sledge began with seed money from the city and from the California Arts Commission before it attained relative self-sufficiency (and of course, the decent rent didn't hurt). In either case, Feldsher said, both approaches are way too late for Sledge.
“In terms of the bigger cultural picture in San Diego,” Feldsher said, “it's definitely a drag to be losing a site like St. Cecilia's, particularly because we weren't the only group that performed there. Sushi [Performance and Visual Art], the Actors Alliance and lots and lots of groups did important work there. It's a shame that the space won't be there for them.”
Dec. 7 through 10, Sledgehammer will stage its final production in the interest of their safe passage to the netherworld.
A/WAKE is an original musical set to coincide with the removal of the company's longstanding hardware. Seats, lights, cables, props, sentiment: They'll all be dispatched to posterity in a ritual few companies could fittingly stage.
“It's a remembrance,” Feldsher said, “and it's also kind of a political wake-up call for people to support the arts. It's not really about Sledgehammer so much as about the space and its 30 years of service to the San Diego theater community. It's mostly about the community coming out and having a moment together.”
Feldsher added that the Dec. 9 show will be the coolest and maybe the most bittersweet. That's when the stage itself-which no less than Whoopi Goldberg graced ages ago as a funky Mrs. Fezziwig in a production of A Christmas Carol-will be dismantled.
Sledge has one show left in its 20th-anniversary season. It's called Blow Out the Sun, and it's based on Georg Buchner's 19th-century drama about an Everyman named Woyzeck. Ironically, the group staged the play in 1989 as part of the city's ReinCarnation building reclamation project (audiences followed the action to various locations, watching through door frames, windows and even automobiles). Feldsher, who will direct and open the show in February, said an agreement on a site is nearly at hand. He declined to name it.
Meanwhile, Richard Knight is left holding not one bag but two. Sledge's departure leaves his employment prospects in limbo, all right, but he's equally concerned with the immediate future of the building that's such a part of him. The playhouse's outer walkways and crawlspaces, after all, make ideal settings for opportunistic transients as they seek to weather the coming rainy nights.
“They've never caused any trouble to speak of,” Knight said. But he added that since the mid-'80s, “more of them have been moving this way [with] new construction. I've seen it over and over.”
He needn't fret. They'll eventually be routed by the wrecking ball, if nothing else. And by then, Sledgehammer Theatre will be bustin' some serious chops all over again, St. Cecilia's all but forgotten amid the company's call to service at a landfill near you. It may not have a home, but it'll always find a place to live.