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San Diego’s live theaters form alliance to support shuttered industry, expand diversity

Alliance
A Zoom meeting screen capture of the Ambassadors board for San Diego’s newly formed Theatre Alliance. Top row from left, Anthony Zelig, Kandace Crystal and Phil Johnson; second row: Susan Clausen, Kim Heil and Sean Boyd; third row: Cassiopeia Guthrie, Kimberly King and Yolanda Marie Franklin.
(Courtesy)

Fall virtual roundtables available to the public

What started in April as a grass-roots group of local theater leaders gathering weekly on Zoom to share ideas on surviving the pandemic has emerged this week as a formal and permanent organization with ambitions far beyond its original goal.

The Theatre Alliance, which was officially welcomed under the umbrella of the San Diego Performing Arts League in a Zoom board meeting on Monday, Aug. 31, has 44 member theaters, ranging from small all-volunteer community theaters to the city’s major regional theaters, the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse.

Besides building shared resources to help theaters reopen — a prospect unlikely before 2021 — the group aims to tackle some of the industry’s thorniest issues brought to light in the wake of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. The Theatre Alliance’s first public events this fall will be a series of online roundtable discussions dealing frankly with issues of diversity, inclusion and sexual intimacy and misconduct.

The Theatre Alliance began in the spring as “One Theatre. One Story.” Conceived by Moxie Theatre Executive Artistic Director Jennifer Eve Thorn, its aim was to collaborate on an audience survey and ways for theaters to support one another. That evolved into a series of weekly Zoom meetings led by Roustabouts Theatre Co. co-founder Phil Johnson. He said the organization evolved rapidly after theater artists nationwide and locally demanded better representation both onstage, behind the scenes and in the weekly Zoom meetings.

“All of us were going every week and there came a point where we got into BLM and the COVID part of it became dwarfed and something much more important took its place,” Johnson said, adding that since April a push has been under way to recruit more minority members. Today, the Theatre Alliance has five Black-run theaters and two Latinx troupes.

Last month, the group officially relaunched as the Theatre Alliance under the leadership of a nine-member group of “ambassadors” led by co-chairs Johnson and Kim Heil of San Diego Repertory Theatre. The group’s 44 members also voted to join the Performing Arts League as an official league program. The move will enable Theatre Alliance members to make use of the Performing Arts League’s marketing, education, networking, ticket sales and Theatre Week programs. The Theatre Alliance can also use the league’s nonprofit status for grant-writing opportunities, according to Susan Clausen, who is the Theatre Alliance’s communications chair.

The fall virtual roundtables are being overseen by Theatre Alliance Ambassador Kandace Crystal of Trinity Theatre Co. Held on the second Monday of every month, they will be moderated by non-biased staff from the National Conflict Resolution Center and will be available to the public. The first, at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 12, will reintroduce the Theatre Alliance under the Performing Arts League banner to the community. On Oct 12, a discussion on diversity and inclusion with a focus on the Black community will be led by Ron Christopher Jones of San Diego Musical Theatre and Yolanda Marie Franklin of Common Ground Theatre. On Nov. 9, a discussion on intimacy and sexual misconduct will be led by Amber Robinson of American History Theater and Matt Fitzgerald of Patio Playhouse. And on Dec. 14, a discussion on diversity and inclusion with a focus on the Latinx community, will be led by Bill Virchis of Teatro Máscara Mágica.

“This has a lot to do with the issues theater is seeing nationwide about how to bring diversity on stage,” Crystal said at Monday’s board meeting. “But we wanted to take it a step further to say that leadership here was committed to hearing out the community in accountability and affecting change in the future.”

Still to come is a mentorship program that will build close partnerships between small and large theaters. It will be led by Kimberly King of the diversity-minded Teenage Youth Performing Arts Theatre Co. Clausen said this program grew out of member discussions that small community theaters are too intimidated to contact big theaters like the Old Globe or La Jolla Playhouse for help.

“People who need outreach can learn how to do it. It’s creating this collaborative environment more than I’ve ever seen in this community,” Clausen said. “We’re making sure the conversations we want to happen are happening broadly.”

Johnson said he doesn’t think the Theatre Alliance could have happened if not for the pandemic, which idled theaters and led them to reach out to one another, and BLM, which was a long-overdue reckoning for the theater community at large.

“If not for COVID and BLM, we wouldn’t have the emotional buy-in that we do right now,” Johnson said. “Our greatest asset is our energy. These organizations have died out before because of apathy. But I think everyone in the room knows they’re doing something special. We’re coming together in a bad time for theater, but when it comes back, it will be a very different San Diego theater community.”

For now, all information about the Theatre Alliance can be found at sdpal.org/theatre-alliance.

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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