After 46 years at the helm of San Diego Repertory Theatre, Sam Woodhouse stepping down

Forty-six years ago this spring, actors Sam Woodhouse and Doug “D.W.” Jacobs decided to start their own theater company for a San Diego that didn’t exist at the time.

“We imagined a San Diego that was a cosmopolitan company with multiple voices that weren’t being heard and a San Diego that had a vibrant downtown,” Woodhouse said. “And we wanted to be part of building a new San Diego that transcended the collection of small towns that it was at the time.”

Their creation was San Diego Repertory Theatre, which launched in May 1976 with a three-play season at San Diego City College that sold just enough tickets to pay off a $4,000 loan, with $200 to spare in the bank.

In the years since, San Diego Rep has produced more than 330 productions, including more than 50 world premieres and more than 50 Latinx plays. Jacobs left the Rep in 1997, but Woodhouse has carried on as artistic director ever since.

Woodhouse said he’s proud of what the Rep has achieved and how it has become an integral part of the cultural renaissance of downtown San Diego. But now he’s ready to pass the baton to the company’s next leader.

In September, he will retire after directing one more show this summer and helping search for his replacement. The Bay Park resident said he has plans to direct more plays in 2023 and 2024, so while he’ll be gone from San Diego Rep, he won’t disappear.

“I’m not sad, and I’m not excited. I’m just curious about what life I can lead when I’m not working so hard,” he said.

Sam Woodhouse, left, photographed with assistant director Maria Patrice Amon at rehearsals for "Sweat" in 2019.

Sam Woodhouse, left, photographed with assistant director Maria Patrice Amon at rehearsals for “Sweat” in 2019.

(Peggy Ryan/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At 72, Woodhouse said he remains “continually renewed by new challenges and new dreams,” but he no longer has the energy and stamina the job requires. And as a White man, he feels the time is right for the Rep to have more diversity at the top.

“With the call for social justice and reckoning that happening in summer 2020, I recognized the need for the sharing of power and the creating of opportunity for more BIPOC voices to be at the table in positions of authority.”

Two of the Rep’s longest and most generous supporters are Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan, who started attending Rep shows in the late 1970s and continue today as major sponsors. Irwin Jacobs said he admires what Woodhouse has done to grow and diversify the Rep’s programming and audience, and he supports Woodhouse’s decision to step down.

“Sam has done a really good job. I think the theater has come a long way, and it still has a further distance to go to build a very diverse audience,” Jacobs said. “That takes time and effort, and I hope they bring in someone who is able to attract a broad audience and continue with the quality that Sam has achieved.”

Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley said he has learned a lot from Woodhouse about how to run a theater since arriving in 2007 as artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse.

I can’t imagine San Diego theater without Sam Woodhouse,” Ashley said. “He has inspired a generation of theater makers, myself included. His exceptional stewardship of the Rep for more than four decades, along with his unflagging support of new and diverse voices, have made a deep and lasting legacy for our community.”

Sam Woodhouse and Doug "D.W." Jacobs at the original Lyceum Theatre in 1982.

San Diego Repertory Theatre co-founders Sam Woodhouse and Doug “D.W.” Jacobs in 1982 at the original Lyceum Theatre in downtown San Diego.

Humble beginnings

Born and raised in Coronado, Woodhouse started performing theater in high school, then studied the craft — alongside fellow student and new friend Jacobs — at UC Santa Barbara and Cal Arts in Valencia. By the early 1970s, Woodhouse was back in San Diego in the street theater troupe Indian Magique, which performed skits and circus acts at Zoro Garden in Balboa Park for spare change.

When the troupe dissolved, Woodhouse and Jacobs launched San Diego Rep in a former funerary chapel they named Sixth Avenue Playhouse at Sixth Avenue and Cedar Street in downtown San Diego. Their goal was to produce emerging works that reflected the times.

“We were attempting to create a theater that spoke to contemporary America by doing plays by playwrights who were alive,” Woodhouse said. “We were the younger 1970s generation of people who grew up not trusting anyone over 30. We wanted to be in charge.”

In the Rep’s early years, the duo championed the work of David Mamet, Sam Shepard and Caryl Churchill, and it paid the bills with annual productions of “A Christmas Carol.” Whoopi Goldberg was a regular on the Rep stage in its early years.

Jeff Smith, who served as theater critic for the San Diego Reader from 1980 to 2019, said Woodhouse stands alone in this region for his achievements.

“There’s no yardstick large enough to measure Sam’s achievement,” Smith said. “With curiosity as his guidepost, he made the Rep a magnet of inclusion and taught San Diego to appreciate its rich diversity.”

Doug "D.W." Jacobs, left, and Sam Woodhouse in San Diego Rep's 1984 production of "K2."

Doug “D.W.” Jacobs, left, and Sam Woodhouse in San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 1984 production of “K2.”

(San Diego Repertory Theatre)

In 1984, Woodhouse and Jacobs co-starred in Patrick Meyers’ “K2,” as two American mountain-climbers trapped on a ledge on the world’s second-highest mountain. The production wowed the Jacobses, and it blew the socks off Osborn and Dea Hurston, who would go on to become San Diego arts industry leaders, philanthropists and advocates for diversity.

“When we saw ‘K2,’ we couldn’t believe the production and the play and their acting. That was the first subscription to a theater we ever purchased,” said Dea Hurston, who later served for eight years on the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture. “To us, the Rep was always San Diego’s neighborhood theater. They’ve always been adventurous about programming, and they were very committed to the community, particularly communities of color.”

In the early 1980s, the Rep moved downtown to the original Lyceum Theatre on F Street. Then, when the theater was razed to make room for Horton Plaza mall, a new Lyceum was built in the shopping center’s courtyard. In 1986, the Rep became the new Lyceum’s resident manager, where it produces its own seasons and books hundreds of other arts organizations’ events each year.

At the time, no one was sure whether theatergoers would venture south of Broadway after dark to see a play. But the Rep proved skeptics wrong with productions like its 1987 staging of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” set to an original score by jazz drummer Max Roach.

“It had a very diverse company, and it was among the many things we were trying to do to embrace multiple art forms in our work and host the giants of the performing arts world,” Woodhouse said.

Sam Woodhouse in the early 1980s with Whoopi Goldberg

Sam Woodhouse in the early 1980s with Whoopi Goldberg, who performed frequently at the Rep in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

(San Diego Repertory Theatre)

Reflecting San Diego

After finding a permanent home, Woodhouse said, the Rep’s mission became focused on creating theater that reflected the local ethnically mixed population: “We considered ourselves citizens of San Diego and always wanted to be a theater that makes theater for the people.”

In 1987, the Rep produced Luis Valdez’s “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges.” It was the first of more than 50 plays by Latinx playwrights that would be presented through the company’s Teatro Sin Fronteras (theather without boundaries) program.

Over the years, the company has hosted artistic residencies by Valdez, Amiri Baraka, Culture Clash, Yehuda Hyman, Marion J. Caffey, Randal Myler, Octavio Solis, Maria Irene Fornes and, at present, Herbert Siguenza. And in 1996, the Rep launched the Calafia Initiative, which produced more than 20 binational multidiscipline works on both sides of the border, including the 2003 world premiere play “Nuevo California,” which imagined a unified San Diego-Tijuana city-state.

Valdez, who is known as the father of Chicano theater in America, has had six plays produced at the Rep, including an acclaimed revival of “Zoot Suit” in 1997. He said Woodhouse has made the Rep “the cornerstone of the new consciousness.”

“Sam as an artistic director has managed to evolve a company that speaks really well for diversity in the American theater,” Valdez said. “We need the San Diego Rep to be the company that Sam made it and it needs to move forward under the same philosophy.”

In the 1990s, the Rep also began launching the first of many festivals to showcase a diversity of voices, including the Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival, Kuumba Fest, the Latinx New Play festival, Black Voices Reading Series and the Whole Megillah Jewish New Play Festival. In 2006, the Rep received a special Craig Noel Award from the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle for “30 years of artistic dedication to downtown and diversity.”

‘Huge impact’

Another area where Woodhouse has received praise is his effort to mentor young artists, many of whom have gone on to successful careers in theater nationwide.

Back in 1980, Woodhouse gave fledgling San Diego actor Sean Murray his first professional job, the title role in “The Elephant Man.” Then 20, Murray went on to join the Rep’s short-lived acting company and then to drama school in North Carolina before returning home to act, direct, run North Coast Repertory Theatre and, in 2003, co-found Cygnet Theatre.

“He’s had a huge impact on my life,” Murray said. “He always had a vision for a theater that really served all the voices in San Diego. He was well ahead of the curve of that momentum. And as a director, Sam was about making big choices, really diving into it and going for it in any show. You don’t know if something will work unless you give it a try.”

Jessica Bird Beza joined the Rep staff right out of college in 2009 and spent a combined four years under Woodhouse learning the trades of casting, producing and fundraising. Today, she’s executive artistic director of the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco. She said Woodhouse likes to surround himself with people with differing viewpoints because he believes they make him and the Rep better.

“I felt like even though I was young, I was respected by Sam,” she said. “He placed a lot of faith and responsibility in me. That gave me the confidence to explore what I wanted to do and what I could be.”

Moxie Theatre co-founder Delicia Turner Sonnenberg started her tutelage under Woodhouse more than 20 years ago, when she joined the Rep, first as a stage manager, then an artist associate and finally as a director, the craft she’s focusing on now full-time.

“What I most value about Sam is that I can have an absolutely honest conversation about issues in a play or in the theater at large without fear of judgment or a censorship. This has been true from the very beginning of our relationship and his willingness to talk openly helped me grow,” Turner Sonnenberg said.

“My favorite image of Sam is holding my tiny two-day-old daughter in his big hands at the hospital 19 years ago. I think that image sticks with me because that is what he did for me. He held me steady in his big hands with care, without squashing my fire as I found my footing here in San Diego, and I will be forever grateful.”

Five favorite productions

We asked Sam Woodhouse to choose five of his favorite Rep productions from over the past 46 years and why he loves them:

Jeffrey Meek as Jack the Knife in San Diego Repertory Theatre's "Threepenny Opera" in 2009.

Jeffrey Meek as Jack the Knife in San Diego Repertory Theatre’s “Threepenny Opera” in 2009.

(Ken Jacques)

“Threepenny Opera” — 2009: “I’m a giant fan of Bertolt Brecht as one of the great thinkers and writers of the 20th century and got to work with my longtime collaborator Jeffrey Meek as Mack the Knife. It was a celebration of exploding the theatrical palette, the politics of Brecht and great fabulous music.”

Amanda Sitton in San Diego Repertory Theatre's "The Oldest Boy" in 2015.

Amanda Sitton in San Diego Repertory Theatre’s “The Oldest Boy” in 2015.

(Daren Scott)

“The Oldest Boy” — 2015: “Sarah Ruhl’s play was a whimsical and profound meditation on life in America in the late 20th century. It was about what happens when two Buddhist monks show up at your front door and say they think your son is the next Dalai Lama. It was a spin-your-head-around story about a mother asked to give her child to humanity. The play had puppeteers and a Tibetan actor and Tibetan instruments. It was very uplifting.”

A scene from San Diego Repertory Theatre's 2013 production of "In the Heights."

A scene from San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 2013 production of “In the Heights.”

(Daren Scott)

“In the Heights” — 2013: “Community is very important to me, and Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote this musical for the people of Washington Heights. This musical lives on the streets, and it was a thrilling and invigorating showcase of the students at San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts (who co-starred in the show). It wraps you in its arms and lifts you higher and higher.”

A scene from San Diego Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse's "El Henry" in 2014.

A scene from San Diego Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse’s “El Henry” in 2014.

(Jim Carmody)

“El Henry” — 2014: Co-produced by La Jolla Playhouse, this post-Armageddon play was staged outdoors on a vacant lot in East Village. “From the fertile and wild mind of Herbert Siguenza, this show had street combat, tension, lowrider cars, a drive-by shooting on a motorcycle, helicopters flying overhead and homeless people watching through holes in the fence. It was total immersion.”

Armin Shimerman and Sam Woodhouse in San Diego Repertory Theatre's  "King Lear."

Armin Shimerman and Sam Woodhouse in San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 2005 production of “King Lear.”

(San Diego Repertory Theatre)

“King Lear” — 2005: Woodhouse played Shakespeare’s mad king in a production directed by associate artistic director Todd Salovey. “It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, and it remains that. Many famous actors who have played Lear say they never got it right, and I don’t think I ever got it right either. It also required a discipline of breath control and power. I was so happy to die each night because I was so exhausted, and I knew I could now rest and not have to do it again until the next day. It was like climbing a very rocky mountain every night.”