Resten (Ben Ortega) and Alta (Deb Anderson) share a moment in City Lights Theater Company's production of "The Language Archive" by Julia Cho. Photo by Mike Ko / www.siliconvalleydesigns.com
Theater audiences all over the Bay Area went to see fantastic, thoughtful, hysterical, amazing shows and musicals last weekend. We came home looking forward to seeing the next shows, or acting or producing the next shows, and many of us contemplated our reviews of the weekend. And then we sat down Monday to do our work.
And at 10:30am we received the press release in our In-Box:
San Jose, CA. June 11, 2014 – San Jose Repertory Theatre announced today that it has ceased operation as of Monday, June 9, 2014.
This news came as a shock to most, even those of us who had heard whisperings and warnings, I mean it’s THE SAN JOSE REP, it’s been downtown for over thirty years, well longer than I would bet most of the valley’s employees have lived here. In Silicon Valley years, The Rep has been here FOREVER.
It was a heart break for me. I have years of history with The Rep. I have sat in almost every seat of their audience, I have played in the pit, I have introduced films and interviewed filmmakers and actors on the stage. I have brought dozens of dates to see shows and had a close group of friends I loved to share tickets with. I introduced my own children to theater at The Rep, and as adults I am proud to know that they attend theater on their own now, without being dragged by their mother. I have many memories of drunken shenanigans in and around the theater. The Rep did not always produce my favorite shows, but they were always my favorite theater.
But I had a review to write, one that was very difficult to write for many reasons. I had heard great things about City Lights Theatre’s production of The Language Archive and had really looked forward to seeing it. But due to a scheduled vacation, I had to see the Sunday matinee when our temps were in the 90s and the theater had no air conditioning. It was difficult to connect to the actors because the theater was so uncomfortable. I was able to pay attention to the show, but in a distracted way, and I could not drum up any excitement except for getting back to my air conditioned car. This is a terrible scenario in which to review a show fairly. So I found myself in the position of feeling sort of mediocre about the show, but knowing it was likely only due to one very hot day since my fellow reviewers loved it, and feeling my normal pressure to want to get people to the theater no matter what, now with the added pressure of knowing the biggest theater in town just went bankrupt.
At the same time, feeling like I was in mourning for a lost friend, and trying not to feel anger towards a very wealthy valley who I felt had let the Arts down.
The Language Archive, playing at City Lights through January 29, IS a great show. It’s about language and relationships and the care needed to keep them alive. I sat here thinking tonight how the character of Mary treasures her ages old sourdough starter. She told of how she had to feed it, pay attention to it, never forget about it or take it for granted, so that more warm, nourishing bread could be made from it, and it would never die. The show is about George, a linguist who documents dying languages. As stated in the show, any language needs more than one person speaking it in order to survive; if no one cares for them, the languages die. George’s marriage to Mary needed the attention that the sourdough starter received. When George could no longer speak the language that Mary needed to hear, the marriage died.
And sitting here thinking about that show I realized this is very much an allegory for the demise of The San Jose Rep, isn’t it. No theater can survive on ticket sales alone, many don’t realize this. Theaters require entire communities to not just attend, but to donate. The San Jose Rep had an operating budget of $5 million. I don’t have $5 million. You likely don’t either. But when you think of all the businesses in San Jose, all the wealthy businesses (who do indeed contribute money to our community), and the wealthy CEOs who live here (and also donate to the community)… Five million dollars seems like it could easily have been covered between allllll the businesses who reside here, don’t you think? San Jose simply cannot keep crying that no one knows who we are, where we are, that we are not a neighborhood in San Francisco, if we cannot even keep our own local Repertory Theater open. And like it or not, theater and the Arts really does fall on local businesses to survive, whether we’re talking about San Francisco or New York or a tiny middle America town. Or San Jose.
But the blame cannot just be put on our local businesses. Theater is a very complicated business, full of catch-22s and the need for good shows that cost money that doesn’t come without big shows that cost money. Karen D’Souza has written an excellent article for the Mercury News which points to several of the various factors that went into the closing, and wonders if perhaps San Jose isn’t just due for a different sort of Arts environment. I would never oppose different, as long as the Arts do not die altogether.
But San Jose does have many, many smaller theaters that many locals haven’t even heard of. City Lights is a great little theater and it somehow operates in the black. Hopefully that’s not just due to their lack of an air conditioning bill, LOL (I JOKE! I JOKE!). And they are one of many theaters that not only put on outstanding productions on a regular basis but are accepting tickets to The Rep’s canceled shows for their own shows. Theater is a community, and they support each other like a family no matter what. We should try to support them back. Like sourdough starter, the Arts require all of us to feed it, pay attention to it, never forget about it or take it for granted, so that it will never die.