On March 11, the temperature in Chicago maxed at 64, beating San Diego's high by 7 degrees. That was around the time it hailed here like a traffic cop and left crazy ol' Julian buried under 833 feet of snow (a record). George Flint took it in with his customary calm, anticipating a trip to the Midwest amid a predictable retort.
"We gotta get out of these cold climates," the La Jolla man quipped at a Carlsbad theater just before curtain.
Chicago's weather will be just as balmy by the time Flint and his wife Vally arrive May 1. So far so good, except for one minor complication: Flint's not coming back, at least not as a local resident. He disbanded his Renaissance Theatre Company in December and is on his way to suburban Barrington, Ill., to be closer to family and friends. He's packing a load of critical and public acclaim along with everything else. And his inventory features a few choice memories of what might have been-memories that underscore some big-time perennial negatives for San Diego theater.
For one thing, Flint explained, "there are no venues that would be suitable, from my point of view, for rentals or productions. [That situation] doesn't afford me the opportunity to do the kind of theater that I like to do. I find myself between shows with, pretty much, time on my hands."
And although Renaissance's gate receipts were on the upswing, Flint expressed misgivings about the overall appeal of the company's traditionally heavy fare. The Zoo Story, Long Day's Journey into Night, Waiting for Godot, A View from the Bridge (which netted Flint five 2003 San Diego Theatre Critics Circle awards alone): Compare these broad-brush modern classics with Room Service, a popular comedy Flint just directed for a Vista group. The March 19 closing matinee, Flint said, found an audience "replete with little old blue-haired ladies with tennis shoes. These... people, by and large, don't want to be taxed or stretched to think about theater. They want to be entertained.
"I've just about come to a dead end in San Diego."
That dead end is the product of an exceptionally well-traveled highway. Flint, a New York native, retired surgeon and San Diego theater figure for the past 16 years, will turn 86 on April 6, which makes him literally older than the plays he's produced or directed. He founded Renaissance in 2000 as its producing/artistic director, just about the time San Diego was girding for its latest wave of stage practitioners. That was at age 80, for God's sake!
But while that influx was surely welcome, it was absolutely nothing like what Chicago saw during its theater movement of the '70s and '80s.
The world-touring Second City group, many of whose alums found fame on TV's early Saturday Night Live; Steppenwolf Theatre Company, a landmark whose ensemble includes John Malkovich, Joan Allen and co-founder Gary Sinise; the Victory Gardens Theatre, a Tony-winning development center for new American plays: These are among the League of Chicago Theatres' 170 members (the San Diego Performing Arts League has about 65 theater groups on its roster). The town is psychotic with live performance and a literary tradition that helps nurture it-traits that give Flint pause should he get any bright ideas.
"I'm gonna be 86 years old," Flint said without a trace of disbelief. "I don't feel it. I don't have any concept of myself being at that advanced age. It doesn't inhibit me from doing anything challenging. [But] I also have no illusions about Chicago waiting for me with open arms. Chicago's a place you go to after you've established a big reputation."
But Flint's kind of plays-the story-rich, highly reflective pieces hailed as the last century's best-have established that big reputation on their own. And Roche Schulfer, executive director of Chicago's acclaimed Goodman Theatre, assured that there's probably an audience waiting to board if Flint's willing to drive the bus.
Chicago patrons have "a desire for storytelling," Schulfer said, "more than abstract work. That's tended not to play as well in Chicago. But they do respond to just about everything else. It's a big theater community. There's a huge population here. Above all, they know quality. They do respond to quality work."
By contrast, many San Diego audiences would rather laugh than learn. And God knows the city's corporate donors tend to look the other way in matters theatrical, with some exceptions. But in many important respects, San Diego does sport a fairly strong stage environment. The topical stuff is covered regularly and, for the most part, pretty well. Broadway-styled spectacles may get here belatedly, but at least they get here. Cutting-edge directors like Lynx Performance Theatre's Al Germani and young freelancer Esther Emery are staking a welcome claim. Institutions like The Old Globe Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse and The San Diego Repertory Theatre figure pricelessly into the local mindset (although they criminally overlook the actors in their own backyards).
What hurts is that so much of that foundation rests on the backs of gallant old warriors like Flint. When somebody of his caliber departs, especially for the reasons he states, the delicate balance shifts as uneasily and as surely as the watery San Diego winter yields the sun-tinged Chicago spring.
George Flint is a thoughtful, deeply committed director and a supremely nice man. I wish him many happy returns on the 6th and every good thing as he samples the bottomless fare in one of the greatest theater cities in the western world. But, boy, I sure wish he were staying put. And it has nothing to do with his age.