“Our job is to create art,” said Sam Woodhouse, cofounder and codirector, with Doug Jacobs, of the San Diego Repertory Theatre. What started out as two scruffy performers calling themselves Indian Magique has, after two decades, evolved into the source of nationally recognized productions and earned more than 100 Critics’ Circle and Drama-Logue awards. The harder part of that job, though, is creating art that sells tickets, attracts donors, and complies with foundations’ grant demands.
The Rep’s annual budget hovers around the $2 million mark, a respectable number for regional theater, supporting six to eight productions a year. However, the Rep has remained a $2 million operation for the last nine years — almost half its existence — and needs to move up to the next rung. The hundreds of San Diegans who have sat on the Rep’s board of directors or volunteered their services or otherwise advised the group have wrestled with this need, as have the founders.
“Once we got through the beginning, we knew we knew how to do plays. But building and maintaining a theater company is a far greater challenge,” reflected Woodhouse. “Always, always, we’ve had dreams that exceeded resources, but I guess that’s what happens when dreams ... are far enough ahead of reality.”
“We’ve spent a long time learning how to operate within a stable budget,” agreed Jacobs. “We need to grow beyond that. Whether that means we grow and take in more hard dollars or whether it’s a change in the sophistication of how we use those dollars, it’s hard to say.
“It’s a complicated process,” Jacobs explained. “You’re creating something new every couple of months, hiring new 1 teams of workers each time, hoping, but not really knowing,that they can work together; marketing this product extensively. From creation to marketing, your window of opportunity is two or three months, so timing is critical.”
A few months ago, Woodhouse and Jacobs distributed their “Rep 2001” talking paper to the theater’s board members and staff. Among the suggestions to explore are the commissioning of new plays, rebuilding and reinvesting in a resident acting company, as well as expanding the organization to the $30 million-plus level.
The business strategy for any enterprise will have known and unknown elements, but theater exists in a world of its own. Few businesses do as much new-product development every year, then market it, then watch it expire, like crafting an ice sculpture or sandcastle. Here is what it has taken to get the Rep to the 20-year mark.
Selecting a season’s worth of productions is part art, part craft, part basic accounting. Starting 9 to 18 months before opening night, the codirectors and staff read new playwrights, attend a lot of theater, keep their eyes and ears open for new artists or new products, and immerse themselves in the work of old friends.
Then, play by play, the staff has to pencil out the costs — two-actor plays versus full-blown musicals with an ensemble of actors plus musicians are at opposite ends of the financial scale. Expected costs in hand, they move to the balancing act. A lesser-known writer and play won’t bring in the all-important single-ticket sales unless the word-of-mouth excitement, the “buzz," is right. But if it’s a risky production the staff feels especially committed to doing, then it needs the counterweight of a sure-fire revenue raiser.
“The standing joke [whenever the board of directors questioned the revenue-generating ability of a particular production] was to sidle up to Sam or Doug during these play-selection sessions and ask, ‘So, when are we going to do some Neil Simon?’ ” recalled long-time marketing entrepreneur Jack Berkman, who sat on the Rep’s board for more than a decade. “As board members, we’d ask questions about costs and what kind of revenues we could hope for from each of the play selections, but Sam and Doug made the decisions.”
The current 1995-96 season is a good case study of the balancing act of choosing an artistic calendar. Because it is the Rep’s 20th anniversary season, productions had to have pizzazz and showcase the theater’s achievements; but at the same time, they had to accommodate the realities of 1990s theater economics. But after 20 years, there is at least one constant in the Rep’s programming: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (as adapted by Jacobs) in its blessedly predictable day-after-Thanksgiving-through-Christmas Eve slot.
The Rep first offered A Christmas Carol in 1977, when Jacobs decided the Rep should be the catalyst for a return to tradition in the city’s downtown core. So he reached for a traditional vehicle. A Christmas Carol is now the show people pay to experience year after year. It is a solid moneymaker near the midpoint of the Rep’s calendar every season. In 1994 it brought in a record quarter of a million dollars; 1995’s production net was closer to $225,000.
The tougher part was deciding what to package around it. The codirectors, staff, and board elected to resurrect the Rep’s 1987 hit Suds: The Rocking ’60s Musical Soap Opera to kick off the season in September, a perfect blend of sure-fire box-office revenue, a sentimental sense of history, manageable overhead with a four-person cast, and a showcase for homegrown talent. Suds had been created at the Rep, with subsequent stops at the Old Globe (when a Gershwin musical dropped out), off-Broadway, and throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The staff also scheduled the West Coast premiere of The True Story of Coca-Cola in Mexico, a high-energy political satire. (Happily, the production generated strong word-of-mouth in November, enabling the Rep to extend the two-man comedy.) A Streetcar Named Desire filled the role of Pulitzer Prize-winning, passionate drama that is familiar to audiences, yet ripe for adaptation, and took its place on the calendar through February.
In a seemingly prescient move, and long before popular media went nuts over the Beatles this winter, the Rep selected Lennon to be staged in March 1996. It was billed as “a cheeky portrait of the most famous Beatle,” featuring 40 classic rock masterpieces. Lennon was added to the schedule before it was completely locked down. While the rights to the play and some of the music were contracted, a number of critical songs were solely the property of John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono.