THE YEAR IN REVIEW. A woman at a local mall, recently interviewed on TV, summed up 2007 with one look. Asked why Christmas shopping was down this season, she replied, “Well, we had these fires, and gas prices are through the moon, and…” — and as she continued, her eyes searched the reporter’s, as if to ask, “Where the hell have you been?”

In theater, 2007 should be remembered, first and foremost, as the year Craig Noel received the prestigious National Medal of the Arts. In a White House ceremony on November 19, Noel accepted the award “for his decades of leadership as a pillar of the American theater. As a director of hundreds of plays and a mentor to generations of artists, his work has inspired audiences and theater producers across the nation.”

Were the lifetime achievement award bestowed 20 years ago, when Noel was 72 and had already earned it, the nation might have wondered, “Craig who? San Diego what?” But since our theater community has expanded by leaps and bounds in the past two decades, and since Noel has been the constant, gentle force behind its growth — Obi-Wan in a Greek sailor’s cap — people around here say with civic pride, “It’s about time!”

Noel, who began as the Old Globe Theatre’s hat checker in 1935, became artistic director in 1947. In 1981, he stepped down, handing the reins to Jack O’Brien. On January 28, 2008, O’Brien will be inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame for his work on Broadway: Tony Awards for directing The Coast of Utopia, Hairspray, and Henry IV, along with five other Tony nominations (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Invention of Love, The Full Monty, Two Shakespearean Actors, and Porgy and Bess). On January 21, as part of the San Diego Theater Critics Circle’s annual awards ceremony, we will pay tribute to Jack O’Brien, who picked up the banner and carried it high.

For details about the ceremony, which we named for Craig Noel, go to sdcriticscircle.org.

A MARKER OF HOW FAR WE’VE COME. In 1983, O’Brien directed Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth at the Old Globe. One performance was televised, live, around the country. It was the first time San Diego theater received national attention, and I must admit, many of us were a mite provincial about the prospect. People all over town hoped the performance would go well, with no live glitches, and that we’d be good enough for such a showcase. Aided by Harold Gould, Sada Thompson, and Blair Brown, O’Brien did a masterful job. Reviewers raved, and “we” were a coast-to-coast hit.

About six months ago two producers sent me an email. They wanted to know a good place to try out their new musical.

“Why, here,” I replied with astonishment and civic pride, “of course! This year five shows announced themselves ‘Broadway bound’ even before they opened!”

“But that’s the problem,” came the reply. “San Diego’s become too well known these days. Critics from around the country attend your major world premieres. Everyone keeps an eye on you. We want someplace more quiet, less in the national spotlight.”

I recommended Puyallp, Washington, during apple-picking. They said “thanks.” I said, “Hey — anytime.”

ANOTHER MARKER. Seven theaters opened on December 1, 2007. Since few media have more than two reviewers, at least five shows got delayed notices. In the olden days we had three, maybe four openings a week, and rarely on the same night. Last year we had several bulge periods — April, late May through June, and a late-September/early-October stampede — when everyone opened at once. These periods not only dispersed regular first-night audiences, they prompted many critics either to see a preview, which can be iffy, or come back later in the run.

Two requests, one simple, the other apparently not. Press people: at or near the top of all press releases, please announce the official opening night, not the first preview, as many do, so we won’t circle the wrong date and have to uncircle it and reschedule later.

Second: back around the time of The Skin of Our Teeth, others and I suggested the need for a central calendar where all theaters presented their opening-night schedules long in advance. That way the smaller companies, who usually get bumped by the bigger ones, could choose free prime time nights, or even open weeks (late February, mid-August, late October through early November are often vacant), and plan accordingly.

For years, Bill Purves’s theater league fulfilled this function, and overlaps were few. Nowadays, and this is the downside of our bounty, they’re the norm. Ergo, a general calendar. Maybe at Actor’s Alliance?

A FRIEND AND (NOW) FORMER COLLEAGUE. For many years Anne-Marie Welsh has been the theater critic for the Union-Tribune. She has been an indefatigable advocate of theater, writing reviews and features (around 5000, she estimates), doing hours and hours of behind-the-scenes support work for the arts, and re-forming the theater critics circle. About two weeks ago, she accepted a buy-out from the paper and will no longer review for the U-T.

Anne-Marie told me she has several irons in the fire. I sincerely hope she continues to work on our side of the proscenium. I also hope that her departure (as many allege lately) doesn’t signal a new U-T policy of deemphasizing “soft news” (i.e., arts coverage), especially since it flourishes in this city as never before.

The U-T and other media contemplating downsizing of the arts should ask themselves: when Charles Foster Kane decided to start a newspaper, who was the first person he hired?

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