Three decades of San Diego theater


Back in the days when Sushi, the Fritz, and Sledgehammer Theatre thrived, San Diego had a vital core of experimental companies. Their absence has left a gap. This year, two new festivals premiered. The San Diego Fringe Festival — much like the internationally famous Edinburgh Fringe — hosted work from around the world. The La Jolla Playhouse’s WoW (Without Walls) Festival presented site-specific projects in “real” environments (inside cars, the power plant at UCSD). Both challenged traditional conceptions of “theater.” Word has it that they will expand next year to two weeks instead of one — and help to close the gap.


Possibly because of the economy, or because the plays are new, or require too large a cast, or might not jibe the subscription base, San Diego has become Staged Reading Central. Many local theaters have a program whereby actors read/perform a script. And audiences flock to them to hear the word. The San Diego Shakespeare Society offers an “open” reading of the Bard once a month (at the Upstart Crow in Seaport Village and also in North County), where anyone can partake. And Write Out Loud, which specializes in staged readings, has become the flagship for this popular form of entertainment.

The Tony Train from San Diego: Old Globe Theatre

On average, San Diego theater sends over two shows to Broadway every year. The Old Globe Theatre earned at least one (and often many more) Tony Award for: Into the Woods (1988); Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988); Rumors (1989); Two Trains Running (1992); Redwood Curtain (1993); Damn Yankees (1994); Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005). The Old Globe received a Tony Award for regional theater in 1984.

Claudio Raygoza: A Five-Skill Theater Artist

Baseball has five-skill players. Claudio Raygoza, artistic director of Ion Theatre, is the theatrical equivalent, times two. He produces, directs, writes, coaches dialects, designs lighting, graphics, and sets (and constructs them), dramaturges, and does publicity. And on those rare occasions when he steps on a stage, he gives an unforgettable performance. In 2013 he played Saddam Hussein’s insane son, Uday, in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo — at once hilarious and evil — and a spellbinding, 20-minute monologue as John in Shining City. Versatility, thy name is Claudio.

The Tony Train from San Diego: La Jolla Playhouse

The La Jolla Playhouse earned at least one Tony Award for: Big River (1985); The Who’s Tommy (1993); How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1995); Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002); I Am My Own Wife (2004); Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays (2005); Jersey Boys (2006); Memphis (2010); Peter and the Starcatcher (2012). In 1993, the La Jolla Playhouse received a Tony Award for regional theater.

Up and Coming: Circle Circle Dot

The company opened its doors in 2011 with a mission statement: “Use true stories from our community as an inspiration for original productions.” Led by artistic director Katherine Harroff, who has written several of the scripts, they’ve done just that, often providing glimpses into rarely seen aspects of San Diego: roller-derby women, drag queens, street artists. Along with producing more original work than any other local theater, Circle Circle has earned reputation for its design work: imaginative sets, vivid lighting, and expressive costumes, and all on a budget that is modest at best.

Delicia Turner Sonnenberg: Most Moxiest of the Moxies

One of the most in-demand of local directors, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg heads the always venturesome Moxie Theatre. Her work has been so consistently outstanding, there’ve been times when the Craig Noel Awards ceremony for theater looked like “The Delicia Show.” In 2006 — the year she directed five productions at four different theaters — the San Diego Theater Critics Circle gave her the first Des McAnuff New Visions Award. Named for the original artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, the honor was for her “spirit of risk and innovation.”


What do Brian Stokes Mitchell, Dennis Hopper, and Raquel Welch have in common? All were students at San Diego Junior Theatre — along with Christian Hoff, Victor Buono, and, albeit briefly, Annette Bening, among many others. In 1947, Craig Noel, artistic director of the San Diego Community Theatre (later the Old Globe), asked Irma Fraser MacPherson to develop a “Junior Theater Workshop.” Founded in 1948, San Diego Junior Theatre is “the oldest continually operating children’s theater in the U.S.” Today, San Diego offers many quality programs for the young. Others include the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, the Coronado School of the Arts, and Canyon Crest Academy.

Seema Sueko: The Chance to Say Goodbye

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey feels he made no difference to his community. Frank Capra’s movie shows that he’s been an invaluable member all along. It’s too bad Capra couldn’t make a movie about how much Seema Sueko has meant to San Diego. She co-founded Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company in 2004 (“m' olelo” means “story” in Hawaiian). She’s not only been its artistic director but a vital community leader raising awareness of key social issues on and off the stage. On January 6, 2014, she became associate artistic of the Pasadena Playhouse. I take it back: Capra may need more than one movie.

Craig Noel: The Spirit Lives On

Anyone new to local theater has probably heard this name and wondered who he was (and why the theater critics named their award for him). Craig Noel (1915-2010) founded the Old Globe Theatre, and, wrote the New York Times, “He helped to transform it from an insular community group to an influential powerhouse among regional theaters.” He captained the Globe for 60 years. In 2007 he received the National Medal of the Arts “for his dedication as a pillar of the American Theater.” His wise sayings survive as well, especially “a hit show’s a plus for every theater in town”; and, when asked what his dreams and aspirations were, he replied, “to do good work.”

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Claudio and Glenn are shamans of theatre

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