Other critics might ring in the New Year with a Best of Theatre Top Ten List -- but we here at the Wicked Stage take our moniker seriously: we're bad to the bone. And just when we were looking for a chance to post something appropriately Grinch-like to the blog, behold! manna from heaven: a press blurb from the San Pedro Playhouse describing the cancellation of its only main stage play of the last two years, A Streetcar Named Desire, along with the substitution of — egads — My Fair Lady. The following sound byte is from Artistic Director Frank Latson:
“The move comes in the interest of continued economic growth and a move closer to family friendly programming in its Russell Hill Rogers Theater."
Let us first observe this statement with a moment of stunned silence. Now we don’t doubt that the Playhouse is having financial difficulties — cancelling a production is not a decision to be made lightly — but if the Playhouse is hemorrhaging dollars, it’s certainly not because they’ve strayed from “family friendly programming.” Shall we review the last six or seven productions? A Christmas Carol, the Musical. Xanadu. The King and I. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The Light in the Piazza. Mame. And back to ... A Christmas Carol, the Musical.
Here's my worry: if the SPP actually thinks its financial woes are caused by family un-friendly programming — and it’s not like Streetcar is Theater of the Grand Guignol — then we're totally screwed. Seriously, if you add in this spring's Oklahoma and the now-announced My Fair Lady, there isn't a more family-friendly (or unexciting) season in all of Texas.
No, my friends, the troubles run deeper, and unless the SPP wakes up to the theatrical realities of San Antonio, it's never going to pull out of its tailspin. The fact is that the SPP — and to a lesser extent, the Josephine — used to be the only game in town for "family-friendly" musicals, including eternal revivals of Hello Dolly, The Music Man, etc. But the competition is heating up: the Cameo's aggressive Groupon campaign is clearly paying dividends and the Woodlawn is programming hipper musicals, like Avenue Q, that are capturing a younger demographic. Audiences are voting with their feet and seeing musicals elsewhere.
The problem with the SPP, then, isn't (just) its programming but its variable quality, which has always been an issue, but surmountable (or at least tolerable) when it held a virtual monopoly on main stage shows in SA. But now patrons who are interested in innovative and quality programming skip the SPP (and often skip town, like to Austin) because the best work is usually at the smaller theaters (the Classic, the Attic, and the Vexler). And if you really need to see a big, family musical, well, there's the Woodlawn. And the Cameo has a full bar.
The solution? Here are some ideas. The main stage auditorium is a problem — it’s too cavernous, with problematic acoustics. Converting it into a smaller space might take money, but it would certainly make for a happier viewing experience. Resources currently channeled into hiring community actors — the Russell Hill Rogers Fund — should instead be pooled for hiring professional actors; indeed, the SPP should attempt to negotiate an Equity contract. (That would distinguish it from its competitors, a move it desperately needs.) In addition, the main stage should occasionally program hot, family-hostile works that might get serious theater-goers back to the Playhouse: it boggles the mind that the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County (which has already played theaters all over the country) wasn't programmed for this season. (It's funny, it's juicy, it's prize-winning, it has plenty of parts for women, and patrons might actually go. I mean, the over-programmed Streetcar was just mounted at the Rose Theater last year.) Advertising for the Playhouse needs to be improved and augmented — at the very least, the website needs a total makeover.
In the meantime, future competitors are wasting little time. Mark Richter has already announced a full season at what he hopes will be a rejuvenated Josephine Theatre, including intriguing choices like Side by Side by Sondheim. If the venture floats, it will further siphon off patrons from the Playhouse.
So: the SPP is already losing the battle for “family” audiences, and it's not a battle, to be frank, that’s worth fighting. In the year of its centennial, the SPP needs to reinvent itself if it is to make it another hundred years.
— Thomas "Lumps of Coal" Jenkins, Current Theatre Critic