Theater is my passion. It’s my happy place, my safe-space, my escape hatch. Also, my teacher, entertainer and provocateur.
Theater has given so much to me, and I’ve tried to give back.
For 40 years, I’ve been a professional theater critic and arts writer, covering the San Diego theater scene in every possible communications medium: Radio, TV, Newspapers, Magazines, and online. Nineteen media outlets in all, landing 8½ years ago at the warmly welcoming TimesofSanDiego.com.
How Did this Love Come About?
It began when I was cast as the Ringmaster, the lead role in my class Circus presentation. I loved the costume (playing dress-up was my favorite childhood activity), as well as the feeling of power, the sound of applause. I was in Kindergarten. The bug had bitten.
Not long after that, my mother taught my sisters and me to sing in three-part harmony (amazing, since she was tone deaf) and took us around to various women’s groups to perform our little variety show. My chubby-6-year-old imitation of Marilyn Monroe brought down the house.
Theater has always been a part of my life. I was lucky that the era when I grew up in New York was the Golden Age of the American Musical. I attended so many Broadway shows when I was young that I can’t recall the first one I saw, but I’m sure it was a musical.
I was goggle-eyed when I watched the original casts of “West Side Story,” “The Music Man,” “The Fantasticks” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
In high school, I’d cut out on a Wednesday afternoon and catch a Broadway matinee, which was affordable then. I saw the first productions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Cabaret” and “Hello, Dolly!” (with Carol Channing and the all-Black production starring Pearl Bailey), and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” among others.
After my Ringmaster debut, I continued to appear in productions through my school years, and during college, I was in a musical comedy repertory company, where I played Winifred in “Once Upon a Mattress,” “Golda in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and more.
For a while, my education took precedence. When I moved to San Diego in 1979, I was working on my doctoral dissertation on American Sign Language at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. Signing with deaf people every day inspired me to put together my three obsessions: theater, ASL and Language in general. I formed Sign of the Times, the San Diego Theatre of the Deaf, serving as artistic director, development director and writer/director of our well-received inaugural, bilingual production.
But, in order to finish my dissertation, I had to put the theater on what turned out to be a permanent hold.
By this time, I was a professor at San Diego State University, in what’s now the School of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. During my 25 years teaching there, I was thrilled to have been named Most Influential Faculty member seven times.
Through it all, I’d taken classes: in acting, stage movement, commedia dell’arte, tap dance and critical writing. I attended local and national conferences. Giving talks around the county, I was kind of a theater ambassador, talking about what a major theater city this is, with very high-caliber productions, and how San Diego is one of the country’s leading exporters of shows to Broadway.
Periodically, I’d get back onstage, as smother-mother Mae Peterson in “Bye Bye Birdie,” at the Coronado Playhouse and as understudy for the role of Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. And I played a Theater Critic (I know, big stretch) in the musical, “Ruthless,” at Moxie Theatre. Ironically, my solo number was “I Hate Musicals” (so not true!). It was also fun to participate in Readings which are under-appreciated; they distill a play down to its essence: no set or costumes; just the language, characters and relationships.
The Play That Made All the Difference
One San Diego theater memory stands out, because it changed the course of my life.
It was the early 1980s, and I had gone to a production in a small, subterranean space. The company was Blackfriars Theatre (which, sadly, ceased operations in 1995). The director was the late Glyn Bedington. The play was “Bent,” by Martin Sherman, an intense drama about gay men in the Nazi concentration camps (they had to wear pink triangles, and were considered even lower than the yellow-star-wearing Jews).
Deeply moved, I felt that this important piece of work deserved a much larger audience. So I wrote a review and took it to KPBS radio.… and stayed for 20 years, airing weekly theater reviews.
I lucked into working on the TV side at KPBS, too. First, I was writer/host of a quarterly show called “Center Stage,” filmed in front of a live audience. It showcased San Diego theater: what was onstage and what was coming up. I conducted interviews with actors, directors and designers. We had a house band and singer, and performances from local productions. It was a fantastic experience, and it won me an Emmy Award.
Wanting to continue to honor local talent, in 1996 I inaugurated The Patté Awards for Theater Excellence (“cause you ain’t chopped liver!”). It started out small, but grew to be a huge TV production (I made two outfit changes during the evening — still playing dress-up!). Four hundred people came for a sit-down dinner and a glitzy awards event, interspersed with costumed-and-choreographed musical production numbers from local shows. The audience was live; the awards were strictly for San Diegans.
The most intoxicating part of the event tapped into my penchant for writing doggerel. Every year, I created a poem that included the names of all the Patté Award-winning shows. Then, in a one-day video shoot, I dressed up like the characters in each of the shows (about 20 costumes — plus makeup and wig changes) to accompany their mention in the poem. It was my favorite day of the year.
The Patté Awards lasted 13 years (I dubbed the final show its ‘Star Mitzvah’). By then, there was a newly reconstituted Critics Circle, and I joined that, having also become a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
One night, at around 2 a.m., I was grading student papers or writing a review. I was exhausted, and I asked myself, “What’s wrong with this picture?’ I finally said “Enough!,” and made my choice. I retired from SDSU 20 years ago. I chose to stay with my First Love.
Speaking of which, it was theater that brought me the love of my life.
It was the 1990s, I was divorced, and I had fixed up a divorced friend with several women. Finally, I asked him to fix me up with someone.
He replied, “Well, there is this guy at work (in IT) and sometimes, he quotes Shakespeare at meetings.”
To this day, 28 years after we met, John Pryor and I celebrate our first date. It was, of course, to the theater.
Theater (and Shakespeare) also played a role in our wedding. In 1995, we watched a stunning Shakespeare production called “The Tempest on the Beach.” We both adored the location, on the sand outside the Hotel del Coronado. The next year, that’s exactly where we had our ceremony (formal attire, no shoes).
Over the years, I’ve attended thousands of productions (before the pandemic, I was regularly seeing upwards of 200 San Diego performances a year. For magazines, I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews, with local, national and international luminaries. Some standouts were Carol Burnett, Matthew Broderick, Chita Rivera, John Goodman and Nora Ephron, with whom I had a delightful dinner.
Outdoor performances are great, but there’s nothing I like better than sitting in a theater as the lights go down, John holding my hand (my other hand grasping a pen and reporter’s notebook), waiting with a roomful of strangers for the stage lights to come up, so we can enter another world together, sharing the amazing experience of live theater — laughing, weeping, gasping and learning, as one.
I feel so blessed to have fallen into this exciting career. Now it’s time for my next act. So at the end of 2022, I’m bowing out.
John and I have traveled the world — from Egypt to Easter Island, Botswana to India. We’re jazzed about planning more far-flung trips — and we’ll continue to see theater wherever we are, especially in San Diego.
Real passion runs deep.
Note: Part 2 of my retrospective that publishes on Saturday will highlight the theater people, places and productions that have stayed in my memory over the 40 years I’ve been a critic.
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 will remain at patlauner.com.