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Theater Notebook: Long-serving local theater critic, Pat Launer, retires after nearly 40 years, 5,000 reviews

Pat Launer
(Courtesy of Daren Scott)

Launer said she’s seen many changes in San Diego’s theater community over the past four decades

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For nearly 40 years, Pat Launer has been a mainstay in San Diego’s arts community as one of the city’s longest-serving theater critics. Over the years, she has written roughly 5,000 reviews and 500 preview features, and she has worked for 19 different news outlets, most prominently a 20-year tenure at KPBS Radio and TV.

Earlier this month, the Del Mar resident published her final review and officially retired from writing, though she still plans to attend theater as a fan in the years to come. In an email interview, I asked Launer about her life, her writing, her favorite shows over the years and her observations on how San Diego’s theater community has changed. Here are excerpts of her comments.

Q: When did you discover, and fall in love with, live theater?

A: Growing up in New York in a culture-drenched family, I was exposed to live theater from a very early age. I saw so many shows when I was young that I can’t even remember the first — but I’m sure it was a musical. My first exposure to the other side of the “footlights” came when I was cast as the lead in my class play. I was in kindergarten. And I was smitten. What do I love about theater? Everything! I love the excitement before the lights come up on the stage. I’m still fascinated by the behind-the-scenes “How did they do that?” of creating a theater world (with set, lighting, sound and costumes). I love sitting in the dark with a roomful of strangers, ready to be drawn into that world. And I love watching actors create believable characters that I can relate to, or empathize with, or loathe. My emotions run free in the theater.

Q: Did you ever pursue theater as a career?

A: I’ve been a whenever-I-can-fit-it-in theater performer all my life: in school plays, at summer camps, in a musical comedy repertory company in New York during my college years. I’m a character actor in general, but I was thrilled when San Diego Rep associate artistic director Todd Salovey tapped me to understudy the role of Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (a play and role I’ve always adored). Sadly, I never got to go on. When I founded Sign of the Times, the San Diego Theatre of the Deaf in 1980, I wrote the play for our inaugural, bilingual production, in collaboration with my assistant director, who was deaf. It was an exciting experience. But so far, I haven’t felt compelled to create another play.

Q: When did you move to San Diego?

A: It was 1979. My ex-husband and I decided to relocate here after his medical training and my graduate work. I was writing my doctoral dissertation on American Sign Language at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, which had one of the most prestigious sign language research labs in the world. By 1980, I was a professor at San Diego State University (in what’s now known as the School of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences). And I combined my passions to found the Theatre of the Deaf. Then I started reviewing theater here, and I knew I’d stay for a long time.

Q: Can you tell me about your other life as a speech pathologist?

A: My doctorate is from the City University of New York, in Speech and Hearing Sciences. For several years, while I was getting my master’s degree at the University of Buffalo, I worked at Buffalo Children’s Hospital. Child Language (and Language in general) have always been my areas of interest and expertise. When we moved back to New York from Buffalo, I became the head of the Speech and Hearing department at North Shore Hospital on Long Island, an affiliate of Cornell University. At the time, I was the youngest department head in the hospital.

As for my time at SDSU, I really enjoyed teaching; it’s theater. I always tried to be entertaining. Between my humor and my loud voice, no one ever fell asleep in my classes. I taught graduate and undergraduate classes, and supervised in the clinic for speech, hearing and language disorders. For seven summers, I ran a preschool on the campus, integrating children with speech/language problems with children with effective communication skills. In my 25 years at SDSU, I was thrilled to be named Most Influential Faculty seven times. After a number of years trying to straddle two careers (academia and theater criticism), I decided to drop one and stay with the other. I retired from SDSU 20 years ago. But I’m still in touch (and friends) with many of my former students.

Q: What (theater-related) accomplishments are you most proud of?

A: I loved writing and hosting “Center Stage,” the quarterly, live-audience TV show I had for two years at KPBS — and won an Emmy for. It focused on current and upcoming San Diego theater productions, and featured interviews with actors and directors, musical production numbers, even live telephone conversations with critics in other cities. Such fun! I’m also very proud of 13 years of the Patté Awards for Theatre Excellence, which I created to fill the gap when the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle was on hiatus for a while. The awards were only for San Diegans. I felt really good about that — and also getting three Emmy nominations for the glitzy, sit-down dinner event. It was a fantastic experience, and really spotlighted my love for theater and the San Diego theater community. For both shows, I was writer, host and co-producer, and I had to pinch myself that I was blessed with this amazing dream job. I’ve felt like that a zillion times over the past 40 years.

Q: What was the first theater production you reviewed?

A: In 1986, I went to see a subterranean, downtown Bowery Theatre’s production of “Bent,” an eye-opening 1979 play by Martin Sherman that concerned gay men in the Nazi concentration camps. The subject was revelatory to me, and the production was outstanding. I was very energized by it, and thought more people should hear about it and see it. My boyfriend at the time (I was already divorced by then) suggested that I write a review and take it to KPBS. That was kind of a full-circle moment; during my freshman year of college, I was, for a time a radio/TV major. I read my review at KPBS — and stayed for 20 years.

Q: How has San Diego’s theater scene evolved in the years you’ve been reviewing?

A: The local theater scene has gone in waves over the years — larger, smaller, more or less edgy or risk-taking. Our national profile is certainly higher now. Many theater-makers of renown come here to try out new work, and we’re one of the major exporters of shows to Broadway. The theater work here is of very high caliber. I just wish it were a little more stylistically and thematically provocative, as it has been, at times, in the past.

Of course, since the pandemic shutdown, theaters are scrambling just to get people to return and fill seats. That’s not very conducive to risk-taking; it fosters safer, more populist fare. I miss some of the really edgy theaters (The Fritz Theater, Ion Theatre, Sledgehammer Theatre), and hope more of those types of theater firebrands come forward to set up shop in San Diego. Right now, attention is more on diversity than provocation, and that’s certainly a good thing, but I hope they don’t remain mutually exclusive.

I really like small, intimate theaters. One of my favorites right now is the 60-seat, storefront OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista, helmed by James P. Darvas, a formidable producer and director. He likes choosing politically relevant and thought-provoking plays, and I admire that. I also admire the La Jolla Playhouse for taking the risk of producing several seasons of only new work. It’s impressive how much San Diego audiences like seeing something from its inception, even putting their two cents in during talkbacks, and following its progress over time.

One of my joys has been following young performers as they evolve. In looking back, I was very pleased that, when I listed “Faces to Watch” in 1995, one of the ones I chose was Jefferson Mays, now a Tony Award winner, currently back on Broadway. Other local actors I called out that year are all still making theater here: Deanna Driscoll, Bets Malone and Walter Murray. I used to see a lot of youth theater, and loved watching those talented young performers come up through the ranks.

Right now, I’m also following the careers of some gifted freelance directors, like Delicia Turner Sonnenberg (co-founder and former artistic director of Moxie Theatre); Rob Lutfy (former associate artistic director at Cygnet Theatre) and Lisa Berger, who teaches at the University of San Diego, and like the others, is a marvelously inventive, visionary director. I look forward to seeing their work in a variety of venues.

Q: Do you have a favorite playwright or a favorite play (and why)?

A: I don’t have all-time favorites, because my tastes change over time as new voices and plays emerge. Right now, I always look forward to new work by three accomplished women: Lauren Yee (an alumna of UCSD’s MFA program in playwriting), Sarah Ruhl and Martyna Majok. And I’m a big fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda; I can’t wait to see whatever new project he takes on next.

Q: Can you name your top five favorite San Diego theater productions?

A: Oh boy, that’s such a hard question. The best I can do is set up some categories.

Taught me the most: “Bent” (Bowery Theatre, 1986) — chilling story of the Holocaust ... and, it made me a theater critic! “The Ballad of Emmett Till” (Ion Theatre, 2017) — horrific true tale of American racism, told in a lyrical, poetic way. Two shows set in a harrowing Afghanistan: “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (The Old Globe, 2018) and “The Boy Who Danced on Air” (Diversionary Theatre, 2016). Enlightening tales from Asia: “Cambodian Rock Band” (during the era of the Khmer Rouge) and “Wild Goose Dreams,” a sort-of love story from North and South Korea), both from La Jolla Playhouse (2019, 2017).

Most unexpected setting: “Tempest on the Beach” (independent production, directed by Sean Murray, 1995); set outside the Hotel del Coronado: Ariel running across the sand! Caliban perched on the jetty! And … it inspired the setting of my wedding (to John Pryor) the next year. “Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream” (La Jolla Playhouse, 1993) — based on a favorite film of mine, with half the show staged outdoors, at the loading dock. “The Car Plays,” set in the back seats of cars (La Jolla Playhouse WOW Festival, 2012, 2013).

Kimberly Marable as Persephone in "Hadestown," now playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre.
(T Charles Erickson)

Myths fantastically reconfigured:Eurydice” (Moxie Theatre, 2010) turned a familiar myth inside-out, focusing on the young woman, torn between her new husband and her beloved father. Same goes for twisted myth, in the dark but delectable musical “Hadestown” (on tour, 2022).

Great American stories: “Ragtime” (Moonlight Stage Productions, 2002), a terrific musical based on the wonderful E.L. Doctorow novel about America’s subcultures; “1776 “ (Lamb’s Players Theatre, 2003), an inspiring musical that shows our Founding Fathers, warts and all. A clear forerunner to “Hamilton” (on tour in L.A. and San Diego … and I saw it in Puerto Rico, too, with Lin back in the lead). And though it’s set in Canada, not the U.S. (Gander, Newfoundland, to be precise), there’s no more stirring and unforgettable show than “Come From Away,” a foot-stomping musical based on the true story of truly goodhearted people (La Jolla Playhouse, 2015).

Blew my mind: Out-of-the-box stories or productions: “Shockheaded Peter” (Cygnet Theatre, 2017); “I Am My Own Wife” (La Jolla Playhouse, 2005); “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (Cygnet, 2003); “The Laramie Project” (1998) and “Here There Are Blueberries” (2022), both at La Jolla Playhouse; “Macbeth” — Jack O’Brien’s amazing, small-scale, I Ching staging at The Old Globe, (1983).

Grant James Varjas, left, and Charlie Thurston in La Jolla Playhouse's "Here There are Blueberries."
(Rich Soublet II)

Q: Why did you decide that now was the time to retire?

A: My husband, John Pryor, and I spent two months in Spain this fall, and that trip had a profound effect on us. The laid-back lifestyle (particularly in Valencia), the focus on socialization rather than work or money, the general kindness and consideration — this was all very seductive, and made us re-examine our priorities and lifestyle choices. As John puts it, we want fewer “gottas” and “haftas,” and more “want to’s” and “get to’s.”

Forty years of covering the San Diego theater scene is a nice even number, and has taken up a good chunk of my life. I think it’s a perfect time for me to step away. John and I have traveled a great deal, and we hope to do more, for longer periods, like our Spain trip. I’ll also be painting more and tap dancing more. He’ll be playing bridge and doing more photography.

We’ll still go to the theater, of course; it’s my passion. But I don’t want to feel compelled to see 200 shows a year, as I was doing before the pandemic (John and I had a deal, that I wouldn’t ask him to go to more than three shows a week; that’s still a lot!). During the COVID shutdown, I got used to not going out four to six nights a week.

Kragen writes about theater for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Email her at pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com.


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