The Rep, like cross-town rival La Jolla Playhouse, is a member of the TCG and has participated in these lengthy economic reviews every year, which helps to benchmark its own fiscal performance. While the Rep faces the same dispiriting challenges as the rest of the industry, in some ways, it has performed somewhat better than its peers. While it is running a deficit, that $110,000 is a number that is closer to 5 percent of budget than the nprm of 10 percent. And that deficit has been reined in, contained in two packages — one loan that gets bought down a bit each month, as does a note to a patient rehearsal-space landlord.
The Rep differs from its peers in a couple of interesting areas. For one thing, 75 percent of its expenses are paid with earned (not contributed) income; the TCG sample groups showed earnings covered just 58.6 percent of expenses, the smallest proportion in the five years of the study. (To be fair, 14 percent of that earned income comes from the Rep’s theater management fees, where it aids other arts groups using the Rep venue. Few regional theaters have access to that income nor shoulder that responsibility.)
Too, the Rep’s single-ticket sales are stronger, percentagewise, than its subscription base, in direct opposition to the TCG findings. In fiscal 1995, ended July 1, the Rep box office totaled $673,295, down about 5 percent from fiscal 1994, but single tickets made up 57 percent of the total. TCG’s sample group’s average was 37 percent for single tickets.
Recent studies from the National Endowment for the Arts and others have found that recession, increasing costs, and a decrease in government support is only the prelude to a more insidious threat to arts organizations: the aging of their audience and donors. Despite higher incomes, younger Americans are unlikely ever to attend classical music, opera, or musical or dramatic theater. And those who do attend and donate are giving 11 percent less than their graying predecessors.
Organizations nationally are scrambling to pull in youngsters, hoping to hook their interest after they leave school. And those who do attend, studies have found, consider theater “something that’s good for you” rather than entertainment. Only those arts organizations with deep community involvement and identification show signs of bucking that trend.
The Rep staff takes these findings calmly. Its surveys show its audiences are younger, by an average of 6 to 12 years, than the regional norm, which doesn’t include its Project Discovery program that has hosted more than 10,000 school-aged children at Rep performances. Because of its own multicultural offerings as well as the productions of other companies that use the Rep’s house, approximately 30 percent of its audiences are persons of color, a heretofore tapped, but undeveloped, market. “Sitting where we are, we think we are ahead of that curve,” said Bernhard.
For the first ten years, the San Diego Rep led a seminomadic existence. For a short time, through a good word put in by an admirer, the underused theater facilities at San Diego City College were made available to the small troupe. Then, a former mortuary was converted into the Rep’s 200-seat playhouse on Sixth Avenue, where a patient landlord worked with the small troupe through artistic and monetary highs and lows.
“I loved working in that space,” Jacobs reminisced. “When we first landed there, we felt whole. Small companies usually have problems with bad leases, but Mrs. Robertson was wonderful to us. Periodically, when we were tight on money, we at least knew that we wouldn’t be on the street, because she’d let us work it out. And we were very religious about paying her.”
The old Lyceum Theater on F Street, downtown, was home to burlesque queens, bad comics, a few traveling shows, and, for a few years, a soft-porn movie theater, with the venerable Bob Johnston’s Sports Palace bar next door. That dilapidated block was within the footprint for the Horton Plaza shopping center and therefore was to be razed in 1982. After walking past the semishuttered theater one day, Woodhouse and Jacobs worked out a deal with the Centre City Development Corp. to use the creaky 400-seat theater until the city was ready to demolish it. As recalled by the CCDC’s David Allsbrook, “We said, okay, go ahead. But we don’t want to hear from you. Take care of it yourself.”
Two venues — at Sixth Avenue and the Lyceum — opened up all sorts of possibilities for the Rep. The hit show Working was moved to the larger theater, and despite its south-of-Broadway location, it brought in thousands of playgoers. What’s more, they ate and drank before and after the theater. “Our credibility started to go up then and there,” said Jacobs. “We proved that a midsized house could work downtown.” It also proved that the theater company had to turn its fires up, and its budget doubled to $800,000.
The Rep’s success on the site increased the political pressure for a theater within Horton Plaza itself. This was at a time when the city was batting away a protest a week from preservationists and other interest groups. In order to move the behemoth retail center along—and with the staunch support of then-Councilman Mike Gotch — developer Hahn Co. agreed to provide theater space within Horton Plaza. And a “space” it was — simply a hole, four walls, some columns, and steps would be the (estimated) $ 1 million contribution. Anything more would have to come from other sources.
The Centre City Development Corp., overseer of Horton Plaza and redeveloping environs, spent about $8 million inside that hole with four walls, building two performance spaces, setting up computer and office systems, equipping it with lighting and sound systems, and furnishing it.
“It was a very difficult construction project,” said Allsbrook. Because of the configuration of the space — completely underground,, with a drugstore already built above it—the project took on a ship-in-the-bottle feel. Steel girders had to be cut outside, wedged into the service elevator, then welded back into longer pieces underground. With no appreciable height to work with, the theater couldn’t accommodate a flyloft, a virtual necessity for handling scenery and lighting. Dressing rooms and other actors’ areas are cramped. But two separate theaters emerged — the 550-fixed-seat main stage and a space that could manage 250 movable seats.