Fast-rising Intrepid Theatre on the move


Some young theater companies burst onto the stage scene in a roil of raw ambition and energy. But Intrepid Theatre — as has become its style — did things a little differently. Seven years ago, it showed up in San Diego more or less literally in the middle of the night.

The occasion was a midnight staging of “Macbeth,” a debut show that signaled both the company’s early devotion to the Bard (its original name was Intrepid Shakespeare) and its classical-meets-contemporary sensibilities.

You won’t need a flashlight to find Intrepid now. In one of the more extraordinary stories in local theater, this company founded by two now-married actors, Christy and Sean Yael-Cox, has put together a string of exquisitely realized shows that have pulled in audiences and wowed critics, particularly in the past three years.

In February, Intrepid pulled off an impressive feat for a small theater company: It won the annual Craig Noel Award for outstanding dramatic production for the second year running. (The awards are presented by the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle, of which — full disclosure — I’m a member.)

That’s especially remarkable when you consider that the honors — for “The Quality of Life” in 2015 and “All My Sons” the previous year — came in competition with shows from comparatively huge, nationally renowned institutions in this theater-rich town.

As Intrepid has risen to a new plane of recognition of success, it also has outgrown its all-Shakespeare mission (although the company still tours the Bard’s plays to schools as part of its extensive education program).

But one thing about the company remains the same: It still has no permanent performance home.

That looked due to change starting last year, when the city of Encinitas (where Intrepid has frequently produced) announced it had entered into negotiations for the company to build a new theater on a long-vacant plot designated more than 20 years ago for a performing-arts use.

Now, though, the price tag for even the small “starter” facility Intrepid originally proposed (and was planning to pay for) has risen to about $2.5 million, Christy Yael-Cox says. That’s some five times the original estimate.

That cost, she says, makes it impossible for Intrepid to continue pursuing the project, at least for the time being.

So Intrepid is now set to announce that it will sign a lease to produce its next season of shows at the Horton Grand Theatre, now operated by Coronado-based Lamb’s Players Theatre as its second space.

That’s where Intrepid’s two most recent productions (a vibrant revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the current staging of the musical “Woody Guthrie’s American Song”) have gone up in a guest residency with Lamb’s.

The lease will be for one year, at least initially.

“I have mixed feelings about this, because I love Encinitas,” Yael-Cox says. “All of our programming has been up there, all of our education programming is up there, all of our camps are up there.

“I really want to see that happen for Encinitas, because I love the city of Encinitas, and I love how vibrant and diverse a community it is.”

But “the big challenge is there is no facility for us there right now. We have to produce somewhere in order to stay alive as an organization, and we have bounced around the county.”

At the same time, the Horton Grand is “a great space for us, in a great part of town. And we’re not in a position to (sit still).”

Catherine Blakespear, an Encinitas City Council member who is now running for mayor, was part of a two-member subcommittee (with Mayor Kristin Gaspar) delegated to work with Intrepid.

The effort represented at least the fifth serious bid to build a theater at the Encinitas Ranch Town Center site since a prospective performing-arts space was incorporated into the mall plans in 1994.

But the meetings petered out “after it became clear they weren’t going to be able to build a theater that would suit their needs and that would be compliant with all the various regulations the city would have,” Blakespear said. (A potential partnership with the center’s owner also had its complications.)

“It was never unpleasant, and we never had anything fall apart. It seemed what happened was just the realities of the cost, and their fund-raising abilities.

“But we would love to have them in our city. I was really enthusiastic about it, and I hope it does still come to fruition.”

Yael-Cox, too, remains hopeful: “I think there are ways for this city to find a way to get it done, if they really want to get it done.”

Hearing the music

Meanwhile, Intrepid’s mission continues: The company is planning to announce its next season later in June.

Although Intrepid collaborates with a wide range of local theater artists, a common denominator of some of its most successful shows is the identity of their director: Yael-Cox herself.

She directed both “The Quality of Life” and “All My Sons,” as well as this year’s revelatory “Virginia Woolf,” which starred another married couple — Robert and Deborah Gilmour Smyth, principals at Lamb’s Players.

There’s a certain truth and authenticity that’s hard to put one’s finger on but has come to feel radiantly clear in shows staged by Yael-Cox, who began acting in Shakespeare as a child in Toronto but had not directed until Intrepid’s 2010 production of “King John.”

She talks of how that comes from embracing a collaborative spirit with her cast.

“I’ll just sit there ask them a million questions — about the story but also about the words. I trust language, so I know that the story is in the words. You go back to the words. Because that’s all we have — that’s the heart of what we have in this form of storytelling.”

Kathy Brombacher, the founding artistic director of Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista and a former Intrepid board member, is among admirers of her approach.

“I love the brilliant way that Christy interprets the text,” says Brombacher, who also praises the acting of Cox (a Rancho Bernardo High grad) in such works as “Hamlet.”

“Christy has an amazing ear for excising anything that isn’t truthful, and really coming from understanding and a human point of view. People are really excited to work with her because of that.”

There’s another level to Yael-Cox’s relationship to dramatic text, though, and it’s one she hesitates to talk about because it feels so personal. But it also has come into more clear focus thanks to the couple’s young son, who is on the autism spectrum.

“I think one of the great insights and joys for me about having a child on the spectrum is looking at myself in relation to my child, who has auditory processing (issues). And being able to identify my own auditory-processing things that I think I’ve had my whole life.

“This is a funny thing to talk about, but for me, I hear the words like music. The way my son hears loud noise, sometimes, like music.

“I hear language musically, so I can hear when the notes are wrong. I know when the notes are wrong. I can tell that it’s wrong, but I don’t know why.

“I started in theater at such a young age working on Shakespeare, so that was probably part of why I liked it so much. If you play the ‘notes’ right in Shakespeare, then it magically comes to life and makes sense — this strange language.

“If you don’t play the notes right, it turns into gobbledygook, and nobody understands what you’re talking about.

“I think that’s why I fell in love with theater so much, is because I could hear it. I could hear the music of it. And that was really exciting.”

That singular talent for finding the song in dialogue promises to continue wherever Intrepid calls home. And San Diego theater audiences will be listening closely for what comes next.

James Hebert is The San Diego Union-Tribune’s theater critic.