A nondescript "For Lease" sign and some ramshackle window masking are all that stand between a stretch of Normal Heights thoroughfare and the memories of some of San Diego's finest small shows to date. The old Adams Avenue Studio of the Arts, at 2804 Adams Ave., hosted some big-time cool stuff, and its true storefront façade greatly enhanced the nearby neighborhood's sense of itself. But time has made short work of those vestiges-the venue has been vacant for 19 months, its once-growing reputation stemmed by a series of code squabbles and an inane little rent flap.
Adams may have seated only 49, but it's a metaphor for a larger and familiar dilemma around here. Discussions on the number of San Diego's live performance spaces are legendary, and they usually center on the area's few midsize spots (say, 400 to 1,000 seats), which are often booked with non-theater fare or are inconveniently located. But smaller theaters (250 or fewer chairs) don't escape the same scrutiny-they normally serve companies that mount regular seasons and can't accommodate San Diego's approximately 17 million homeless groups. That leaves us with the super-tiny spaces like Hillcrest's 6th@Penn Theatre (49 seats) and even the 35-chair North Park Vaudeville and Candy Shoppe, whose small capacities preclude big box offices by default.
Even so, and however strikingly: The word "shortage"-a term wielded almost without thought in any reflection on theater spaces in San Diego-may not be the operative descriptor after all.
Dori Salois, artistic director of La Jolla-based Vantage Theatre, can maybe shed some light accordingly. She likes to cite the more carefree days in Vantage lore, which date to 1994 and pivoted on an arrangement that could have served as a model for other space-starved groups. The solution lay in a commodity as plentiful as it is innocuous-a school auditorium. In this case, the venue was called The Little Theatre, a 250-seater at Roosevelt Junior High School at the north end of Balboa Park, and it would serve as Vantage's home for six seasons.
"We were way ahead of anybody else," Salois said. "We did a full version of The Importance of Being Earnest, not just the little half-thing that's out there, and everybody was Equity. We did a political play about Proposition 187," a 1994 ballot initiative designed to deny public benefits to California's illegal immigrants. "We were getting successful. We had a base and an identity. You could find us. We were always in the same place. I thought our solution was brilliant."
Eventually, though, the school started asking the company for rent instead of barter, which Vantage had furnished through its interaction with the student body. One thing led to another, and the company soon found itself on the street begging for chairs. Nonetheless, Salois said, the Roosevelt venture "was a very positive experience. I don't know of many 250-seat theaters around other than at schools, and those are often available."
The idea immediately inspires thoughts about similar facilities. Churches. Community centers. Parks. Business campuses, such as the Clairemont suite that hosts Al Germani's terrific Lynx Performance Theatre. Even potential mixed-use venues like the new Hot Monkey Love Caféé location on El Cajon Boulevard near 70th Street (thanks to a dear vocalist friend's exhortation, I've seen it; it has anterooms and wing space to die for). The potential for venues, it seems, stops only at the city limits.
But for flagship veteran Todd Blakesley, a native San Diegan who's been involved in local theater for 40 years on just about every level, the issue is far more fundamental than the number of empty seats.
"The theater that gets presented anywhere," Blakesley said, "is the theater that people who are interested in doing plays create, not from what the public demands. There's nothing within our society that makes theater a vital part of how we talk to ourselves. The only way theater can fulfill our broad-based cultural need is if it's made an integral part of a person's life from the very beginning."
Under any conditions, Blakesley added, "you're going to have the number of venues that the public will support or [that] somebody is willing to finance as their own personal playhouse. In San Diego, there's no shortage of space, because we have the number of theaters that people are willing to support. The difference is that there are plenty of theater groups that want to use the spaces, but there aren't that many that will draw sufficient audiences or who could afford to rent the venues."
He added that on occasions when demand is high, "the theater cuts itself off at the knees by not being able to continue with those pieces. The companies get bumped out of a space because shows are scheduled behind them, [yet] the public wants to come. You need that kind of freedom to continue to run productions that audiences hear about and want to see. That's probably the most hurtful thing." A good new midsize theater-or better yet, a complex with three 300-seaters-is Blakesley's ideal facility for companies seeking to hold over a hit.
If we built it, would they come? Probably, Blakesley said, but only in characteristic numbers and with characteristic expectations. "Light and musical [fare] works in San Diego," he said, "and it always has. [Experimental] interest within the theater community is infinitely bigger than it was 30 years ago, but in terms of audience impact, the effect is still the same."
In the time it's taken you to read this, the Adams Avenue space has shed a few billion subatomic particles of its exterior-but its legacy is none the worse for wear. Backyard Productions' full-throated Experiment with an Air Pump; Poor Players Theatre Company's peppery Romeo and Juliet; Ruff Yeager's edgy, stream-of-consciousness Cool As We Fly: The venue certainly had its moments, and, ideally, those moments spawned the companies' efforts at other locations. But if necessity is the mother of invention, then popular demand is the family patriarch-and, fittingly, he'll seat us at whatever pace he chooses. At the very least, San Diego theater has more than its share of chairs to accommodate those bodies. If there's a local venue shortage, it rests exclusively in the theater community's mindset.
The day God turned His back
Woody Allen once wrote a play called God, a bizarre little thing about the Supreme Being's supposed governance of the earthly experience. It's not the greatest script in the universe, but it does yield some insight into Allen's terribly funny quip about otherworldly affairs and the Figure at the center of it all. "Basically," Allen's said, "he's an underachiever."
In human microcosm, you maybe got that idea on Tuesday, Dec. 19, when clarinetist Allen played Copley Symphony Hall with his New Orleans Jazz Band. The Dixieland group got off to a shaky start; the up-tempo songs were infinitely tighter than the slow stuff; and the preponderance of pieces were confined to three key signatures, which, after a while created a self-sustaining lull-but, hey, it was Woody Allen, who at 71 still has his fingers in more pies than he can eat. It was a pleasure to have him here in a capacity outside theater and film, God's inattentions notwithstanding.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and editor@SDCitybeat.com.