Sam Woodhouse
Sam Woodhouse. Courtesy San Diego REP

Sam Woodhouse doesn’t like to look back. Or forward. He prefers to live in the moment.

That’s not so surprising for someone who majored in religious studies for a time at UC Santa Barbara, with an emphasis on Asian religions, before switching over to theater and attending grad school at Cal Arts in Valencia.

But, after nearly a half-century at the helm of the San Diego Repertory Theatre, just as he’s about to step down as artistic director, he’s willing to survey the landscape of his colorful career.

“In 1976, when Doug [Douglas W. Jacobs] and I started the REP, San Diego was a collection of small towns,” muses the Coronado native. “There was no downtown to speak of, besides peep shows, porn shops and movie houses showing ‘Deep Throat’ and ‘The Devil in Miss Jones.’

“We wanted to be part of a new, contemporary San Diego, a modern metropolis that embraced diversity.”

His theater company was instrumental in making that happen.

“I feel very positive about our role as part of the downtown renaissance,” he allows.

Woodhouse and Jacobs first started a street theatre troupe and put on a series of plays at San Diego City College, then moved into the 6th Avenue Playhouse (St. Cecilia’s, a former funeral chapel), where they spent about a decade, before setting up shop and helping to transform downtown with the two Lyceum Theatres (located in the former Horton Plaza shopping mall, now undergoing extensive renovation to become a technology center).

“At St. Cecilia’s,” Sam recalls, “we had a secretary who was a devout Catholic. She insisted on an exorcism of the ghosts in the building. These days, I understand, it’s a high-end wedding-dress emporium. My niece recently bought a wedding dress there; now that’s a full-circle story!”

From the outset, what Woodhouse and Jacobs wanted to create was “a professional theater producing plays by living writers who were writing contemporary plays. We were the first to bring [the works of playwrights] David Mamet and Caryl Churchill to San Diego. [When we did Churchill’s ‘Cloud 9’], we’d sell out all the time. But the subject matter (homosexuality, etc.), was too much for some people, who would stream out, and others, waiting in line outside, would stream in. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. To me, it represented the changing culture of San Diego. It was a metaphor of the transition from a ‘50s consciousness to a ‘70s consciousness.”

The REP moved on to expand the city’s consciousness, decade by decade, staying ahead of the creative curve and featuring the voices of previously unheard populations. In fact, they’ve been, from the outset and ongoing, the presenters of the most diverse shows in town.

Over the years, the REP has produced more than 330 productions, including more that 50 world premieres and more than 50 Latinx plays.

Jacobs left the company in 1997, but they’ve stayed in touch, and Woodhouse has remained the sole artistic director ever since. He’ll retire in September, after directing one more play this summer (a musical version of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”). He plans to continue to direct periodically.

But why retire now?

“I’ve accomplished a lot of my objectives and goals,” he says. “I’m 72, and after 46 seasons, I don’t think there’s anybody else in the country serving as artistic director as long. A lot my age have retired, many in response to [the death of] George Floyd and ‘We See You White American Theatre,’” referring to the influential manifesto first signed by 200+ high-profile theatermakers demanding big changes nationwide in expanding BIPOC voices. (Black, Indigenous and People of Color), in the writing, performing and producing of plays.

“We’re absolutely going to look and reach out and seek qualified BIPOC applicants for the artistic director position,” he avows.

As for what he’d still like to direct or act in, he claims, “I haven’t lived my life with a pile of wish-lists. Also, I don’t have regrets. I’m sure there are people I could have treated better, or things I could have done. But that’s not the way I live my life.”

He does agree to consider some points of pride over the past decades.

“I am proud of all the Festivals we’ve initiated: our Latinx New Play Festival (now preparing for its sixth annual Labor Day weekend performances), the Black Voices Reading Series (second year starts March 28), The Lipinsky Family Jewish Arts Festival, and now, the Whole Megillah New Jewish Play Festival; and the “Hear Us Now” BIPOC commissions and New Play Festival. Also, the Nations of San Diego Dance Festival, which we birthed with several community partners, featuring short performances by about 12-15 different dance troupes, each from a very specific world culture.”

Woodhouse got an early head start on his multicultural awareness. When he was in his 20s, he “went around the world twice, visiting Pakistan, India, Nepal, Jerusalem, Hong Kong, Burma, Mandalay.” He was very interested in Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism.

“But I got lost in spiritual contemplation,” he admits. “I ended up in theater because it used my heart, body, mind and soul.”

And now, he’s ready to look back at some of the shows or performances he remembers most clearly.

With Doug Jacobs in “K2” in 1984

“’K2’ was special because Doug and I were the only two actors.”

The co-founders starred in the 1984 production of Patrick Meyers’ 1982 play about two American mountain climbers trapped on a ledge on the world’s second highest mountain.

“I had to fall every night,” Sam recalls, “about 20 feet. I’d climb up a ladder, crawl onto a platform and be bungeed in. People always screamed when I fell; I was so close to the audience. One night, he forgot to connect the carabiner, so when I fell, I lifted him 3 to 4 feet off the platform! The quest to reach the top in the face of impossible odds seemed to echo the challenges we faced in our early years at the San Diego REP.”

There were some other unforgettable “disaster” moments (every actor has ‘em).

“Then there was the time I played the gravedigger in ‘Hamlet,’ starring Jefferson Mays [now a Tony Award-winner]. I had to roll in on a dolly like a surfboard. I was supposed to arrive with the skull. One night, I was late, and I heard Jefferson improvising — in Shakespearean English! — about the gravedigger. I threw the skull up from below, he caught it, and he could go on with the ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ part.

“The strangest thing I ever did was play Elvis Presley” (“Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” 1989)

“Probably my most unforgettable performing experience was playing King Lear. It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. It was exhausting. Every night, I would be so grateful when I died!”

Sam Woodhouse as “King Lear” with Armin Shimerman as The Fool

Sam’s most recent performance was in 2009, in Conor McPherson’s 2006 Dublin-set play, “The Seafarer.”

“I played Mr. Lockhart, the Devil in a business suit. He gives the most terrifying speech about descending into Hell I ever had the pleasure of delivering.”

There were other standout memories, offered here in no particular order (memory is like that):

  • Opening night at Lincoln Center Theatre (1999) of “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues,” a musical revue that was first seen at the REP [in 1998] and was ultimately nominated for a Best Musical Tony Award: “That was OUR production!”
  • “The Who’s Tommy” (2011) – “with a bona fide rockstar [B Slade] in the lead.”
  • “The jazz opera world premiere, ‘Burning Dreams’ (1994) that I commissioned and developed with amazing artists, that featured an avant-garde jazz band center stage. I also remember the impact on audiences of the authentic Tibetan horns played live in ‘The Oldest Boy’ (2015), and the impact of a live Harley Davidson motorcycle and classic cars entering the outdoor playing area for ‘El Henry’ (2014). Jaw-dropping.”
  • “Federal Jazz Project” (2013), a world premiere collaboration between Culture Clash co-founder Richard Montoya and acclaimed San Diego jazz trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos. “I’ll never forget the film noir moment featuring Montoya as poet and Castellanos as the musical poet, standing side by side in film noir lighting as Gilbert played his horn and swept me away.”
  • “One of my favorite shows was ‘In the Heights’ (2013), which featured high school dancers from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, along with our high-flying adult performers. It was a favorite because it’s filled with desire, ambition, heartache and the fear of or longing for change.”
  • “Something extraordinary was the scenic design by Ian Wallace for the world premiere play, ‘Tortilla Curtain’ (2012), which was a walkable sculpture that looked like a 15-foot breaking wave. At the end, we staged a full-on L.A. canyon flood!”
  • “I clearly remember the three distinctive world premiere productions I directed, sponsored by the Calafia Initiative, a 10-year initiative aimed at fostering unlikely partnerships, which led to new productions of theater, music and dance that spoke to our binational region. These three  plays were based on interviews with hundreds of people on both sides of the border: ‘Nuevo California’ [2003, by Bernardo Solaño and Allan Havis], what I call a whopper of an idea for a play, set in 2028, in a post-earthquake L.A.; ‘Restless Spirits’ (2006) by Allan Havis, with a final scene on the Coronado Bridge, a feat of architecture my Dad opposed decades ago when he was President of the Coronado Historical Society; and the first, ‘Culture Clash in Bordertown’ (1998), when a crying blonde woman in the back row told me, ‘I never knew the place I live is so interesting.’ This was very meaningful to me, as a native of the region, and a producer who had the goal of raising the self-esteem and community pride of San Diegans about the place we call home.”
  • “Also part of the Calafia Initiative was the first new play in 20 years by the Father of Chicano Theater, the world premiere of ‘Mummified Deer’ (2000) by Luis Valdez, who directed. Also by Valdez was the REP-staged first professional revival of ‘Zoot Suit’ in 20 years” (2012).
  • “Also great: the six-year Playwright in Residence tenure of Culture Clash co-founder Herbert Sigüenza, and the production of his exciting works: ‘A Weekend with Pablo Picasso,’ ‘El Henry,’ ‘Manifest Destinitis,’ ‘Bad Hombres/Good Wives,’ ‘Steal Heaven’, “Beachtown,” and coming later this year, “Grand Master Funk.”

Among his recollections, Woodhouse keeps coming back to his push toward diversity.

“In 1988, we started Teatro sin Fronteras, co-founded with Dr. Jorge Huerta. We began with the production of the Luis Valdez play, ‘I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges.’

“I’m proud of our ongoing commitment to the production of plays by Latinx writers or plays with Latinx themes or stories. Last fall, we produced ‘Mother Road’ by Octavio Solis, which was, I think, the 55th mainstage production under this initiative.

“In November 2020, we announced the details of a 5-year ‘Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Action Plan,’ with the goal of making meaningful changes toward equity for all, across all departments and programs of the company. The aim is 50% BIPOC representation and gender parity in all areas, from the Board to backstage. The goal of the plan is to transform San Diego REP into a truly equitable, fully inclusive, expansively diverse, anti-racist organization.

“I’m proud that, for most of the past 15 years, we have been producing seasons in which BIPOC actors are featured onstage in more than 50% of the roles. This has been my quest.”

One personal reminiscence: “My father died when I was in rehearsal for our first production of the musical, ‘Working’ (1981). I dedicated the production to him because he taught me the value of hard work and how to put your nose to the grindstone and never surrender to the forces that want to stop you from rising.”

His father would be proud of what his teaching produced.

Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her features, previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.