Sam Woodhouse Picks the All-Time Best of the Rep

After 35 seasons and 265 shows, Rep cofounder Sam Woodhouse talks about some of his favorites.
  • After 35 seasons and 265 shows, Rep cofounder Sam Woodhouse talks about some of his favorites.

The San Diego Repertory Theatre has entered its 36th season. It has produced 265 shows. I asked Sam Woodhouse, cofounder, to talk about the ones where the Rep or he, personally, made a leap forward (below are the first ten; for the complete list, see the “Out and About” blog site at

Culture Clash in Bordertown (directed by Woodhouse, 1998). The Latino comedy trio, which has made the Rep a second home, interviewed over 100 people on both sides of the border. Some were the usual suspects; others included Shamu, who complained about undocumented killer whales at SeaWorld.

“That was a commissioned piece,” says Woodhouse, “binational and research-based. Clash even crossed the border for real — both ways in the canyons at night. It asked, ‘Where is the heart of San Diego?’”

Red Noses (directed by Woodhouse and Jael Weisman, 1988). In Peter Barnes’s comedy-drama (based on an actual movement in the Middle Ages), monks try to entertain people dying of the plague. “Some even thought they could cure it with laughter,” Woodhouse grins.

The full script ran 4 hours and 25 minutes. Woodhouse went to London. “I met with Peter Barnes on the steps of the British Museum (he looked very ‘writerly,’ in frumpy tweeds). He said, ‘Do what you can’ with the ‘impossibly sprawling’ text. ‘It’s fine with me.’”

The production, which included clowns from the Dell’Arte Players, won the SD Theatre Critics Circle’s top award. It also produced a workable, 2-hour, 45-minute version that has since been used elsewhere.

Hamlet (directed by Todd Salovey, 1995). “Starring Jefferson Mays,” says Woodhouse. “Nuff said.

“This was before he became Jefferson Mays [the Tony award–winning UCSD graduate toured the globe in the solo-piece I Am My Own Wife (2003)].” During rehearsals, Mays kept exploring more and more sides to the dour Dane and loved when they didn’t match up.

“I got to work with him onstage. I played the Gravedigger and would watch his eyes — so awake! — and you realize, as with all great actors, anything can happen here.”

Woodhouse also recalled the time he forgot poor Yorick’s skull for the scene. He held up his hand and...nothing.

“Mays didn’t blink. ‘Oh that skull,’ he said, ‘the one that’s...somehow vanished,’ and did a brilliant improv on the spot.”

In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play (directed by Woodhouse, 2011). Sarah Ruhl’s comedy drama, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, combines technology and sexual awakening in the Victorian era. Dr. Givings, aptly named, creates an electronic device that, as one “hysteric” proclaims, allowed her to “call on God.” Beneath the farcical doings, Ruhl’s play expresses (her word) “longing.”

“How do you put that on stage?” asked Woodhouse. “Isn’t that an emotion? What would it look like? Also, Ruhl takes intimacy to an extreme. That production was difficult, thrilling, and — not a word usually associated with my work — beautiful.”

Six Women with Brain Death, or Expiring Minds Want to Know (1987). The Rep’s longest-running show (and San Diego’s, since eclipsed by Triple Espresso): 565 for the first run, 5 or 6 shows a week, then reopened in 1990. The female ensemble musical was “a pop absurdist rallying event for women — all built on tabloid headlines.”

Six Women averaged $20,000 a week, much of it based on returning customers (one woman said she saw it 70 times). It helped the Rep, which had moved into the new Lyceum Theatre, through an economically tough period.

“My estrogen-laced partner for many years hit a particular note of recognition in the ’80s. People kept saying ‘Bring it back,’ but it no longer had that effect when remounted later.”

Burning Dreams (codirected by Woodhouse and Julie Hebert, 1994). A world premiere musical — jazz score by Gina Leishman — based on Calderon de la Barca’s drama Life is a Dream.

“Another commissioned work. Not a box office success, but a personal one. Most directors are interpretive. Can I go beyond and become a creative director? Here was a challenge where our ambition was greater than my knowledge.

“Most directors stage backwards from the climax. In rehearsals we often didn’t know what would come next. When we hit a wall, we jumped high: exploring and experimenting. This was an artistic leap for me that was more about the process of discovery than the final product. Learned big time on this one.”

K2 (directed by Andrew Traister, 1984). Patrick Myers’s drama strands two mountain climbers 27,000 feet up the world’s second-tallest peak. One has a broken leg; the other lost his climbing rope.

“One day, Doug [Jacobs, cofounder of the Rep] came slamming through a door. He slapped the cover of a play-script in my face and said, ‘You and I have got to do this one together!’

K2 became a metaphor about our shared climb up the mountain that was our building the Rep. The production put Doug and I as artists and seekers into high definition for our audience. Almost 30 years later I am still asked, ‘When are you going to remount K2?’ I just smile and remind myself there are many rivers to cross on the other side of K2.”

The Threepenny Opera (directed by Woodhouse, 2009). “A farce, a tragedy, a political satire, a vaudeville, a jazz concert, and an homage to the morality of a crook. It has to be nasty and sexy and fun and immoral while teaching a lesson. And then you need to dis the audience and smack at their own moral values. I’ve never seen it produced successfully.

“It was a leap because the work is flawed, mischievous, elusive — postmodern before postmodernism existed. And what Brecht wrote about it kept changing over the years.

“It was like trying to catch a giant tiger by the tail and persuading it to roar on cue.”

Working (directed by Woodhouse, 1981 and 1982). Based on Studs Terkel’s book about American workers, the musical closed on Broadway after 24 performances. It became the Rep’s longest-running show, before Six Women, and toured the state.

“It was a populist, culturally diverse piece — practically a musical version of the Rep’s mission statement.”

It opened at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse, then moved to the Old Lyceum Theatre (316 F Street) in 1982. “In those days, there wasn’t much theater south of Broadway. Working proved you could produce a show there and people would come.”

King Lear (directed by Todd Salovey, 2005). Woodhouse played Lear. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Every night the mountain that is Lear stands in front of you. You launch into the climb knowing you will never reach the peak.

“You must try to harness the power of nature to crack the world in half — you plead, threaten, beg, assault, and then you must go mad. But it’s not over yet. You emerge on the other side of madness with an open heart and the safety of the one daughter you trust. Then she is killed and you wail at the heavens as you carry her corpse in your arms.

“The character and the actor are both exhausted emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Both are so grateful to finally die. Gielgud, Laughton, Olivier — all said they never could find ‘all of Lear.’ The character’s just too massive.

“I never got it right. I never made it to the top of the mountain. I wiped myself out each night on the climb and would say, ‘Thank God it’s over. Thank God I get to climb again tomorrow night.’” ■

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Yeah, Woodhouse is a gol-durned JEWEL, inadequately appreciated in and by San Diego, and "Working" was one of his best productions. If the rather "lame," overproduced PBS-TV version resembled the Broadway production, no wonder it closed after a mere 24 performances.

The Rep's simple staging and the band (and the intimacy of the set-up) had a lot to do with its magic, but the acting (and no doubt the directing) had a lot to do with the special spark of the San Diego production.

We dragged friends to it four times. I could have gone for at least six.

Yes, more of this sort of thing, PLEASE! I find I can trust few critics, but knowing how Woodhouse thinks about the best is another very valuable cut on how to position my paltry theater budget most wisely.

Of course, this kind of article tends to boost Smith's credibility as a "critic" too . . .

And yes, if you produce a show like "Working," just about anywhere, people will come--provided the word gets out fast enough. Shows like this should have a budget adequate for taking it past the point where the curve goes exponential. Up or down. What more noble gamble could a fat cat make and get fatter with less risk than to keep underestimating the taste of the American public. (It IS improving!)

But like poetry, there are too many bs plays unloaded along with the ponies. We, the Great Unwashed, need people like Smith and Woodhouse to cry havoc--and publications like the Reader to provide the trumpets.

San Diego Repertory Theater has, indeed, gone a long way – a successful one at that. I remember watching its shows, and they really bring words to life. Of course, it is not only about the actors, but the concept, direction and everything that goes into a good or great play. I would definitely watch more of their plays and productions when I go back to the area for a vacation.

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