Liberty Station theater may signal trend in direction of local arts
by Martin Jones Westlin
Jan 24, 2013 | 5190 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The White Box Theater at Liberty Station is trying to capitalize on bolder, edgier work in a venue that is more conducive to that trend across San Diego. Photo courtesy Manny Rotenberg
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The smaller the live theater, the bigger the idea — or at least that’s what the local artistic directors like to say. Another way to put it is that seating tends to shrink dramatically in the face of bolder, edgier work, and venue size often signals a city’s trend accordingly, said backers. Chicago, for example, has 200 theater companies; about 140 of those play in spots with 99 or fewer seats. The proportion is about the same in Los Angeles, with its 220 troupes.

San Diego, eighth-largest city in the nation, has about 50 theatrical companies. That isn’t bad — until you realize it has a grand total of seven tiny spaces for all those quirky, gigantic dreams.

Does that make San Diego theater a lousy bet by comparison? Not really. It may mean that local audiences are simply unfamiliar with edgy performances, not that they reject them out of hand. The latest entrant on that skimpy roster of spaces was designed to make a difference in that part of the equation — and it sits in a cultural oasis, where postmodern ideas are a stock in trade.

It’s called The White Box Theater, located at 2590 Truxton Road at Liberty Station. It opened in May to the first of several dance events after having undergone a $31,000 renovation, which included the installation of a spring floor designed to absorb shock, a small but up-to-date sound system and 135 seats on three tiers. The seating is customizable for productions in the round and for arena staging. It’s also completely removable over the theater’s 2,600 square feet.

“It’s up to the artist to make of it what they want,” said Blythe Barton, San Diego Dance Theatre company member and manager of the space. “We’ve designed it as a live-arts space, and the small size makes it comfortable for edgy, clean, fresh material. It’s quiet and everybody … says they love the view.”

Plays and recitals by the cutting-edge Circle Circle dot dot theater group, which normally mounts its productions at Downtown’s 10th Avenue Theatre and Arts Centre and San Carlos-based Visionary Dance Theatre are upcoming for 2013.

Jean Isaacs, San Diego Dance Theatre (SDDT) artistic director since 1997, agrees with the size aspect of the formula. She blanched on learning of this city’s paltry small-venue inventory — if artistic growth is any indication, she said, little spaces should become de rigueur in San Diego’s near future.

“We may be a little bit ahead on big ideas,” she said of San Diego’s arts communities. “Since I’ve been [SDDT artistic director], there’s just been so much movement in dance and the arts, just constant moving, moving, moving, with more groups and more artists.”

Indeed, San Diego has seen an explosion in the growth of dance since SDDT’s founding in 1972, and those 50 local theater companies are up from virtually three as 1990 approached (moreover, two of those, The Old Globe and The Starlight theaters, are in the same locale).

But all those new groups would likely balk at the space’s biggest technical drawback. Technical directors prefer black curtains and walls because they contain no color, making them the ideal surfaces on which colored lights register. As of now, The White Box lives up to half its name — the walls are blindingly without color, making light design problematic.

“That’s if we leave them that way,” said Isaacs, whose SDDT is the space’s anchor tenant. “We can configure the seats. We can also configure black curtains to [line] the space. And this is only 135 seats, so the [project] wouldn’t be that big.”

For now, The White Box Theater is a space whose time has come. Four potential performance groups are headquartered at Dance Place San Diego, less than a block away. The second phase of the NTC buildout was completed in November, when eight buildings opened and 14 new tenants set up shop in Liberty Station’s arts and cultural district; the White Box had opened six months before to welcome them. Liberty Station is that much closer to completion and the White Box is a major addition to the breadth of artistic expression it represents.

For more on the theatrical venue, visit ntclibertystation.com, then click “Venue Rental” and “White Box Theatre.”
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