End of the San Jose Rep: Part II

“What went wrong?”

It’s a question I have been asked repeatedly regarding the demise of San Jose Rep, which filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy earlier this summer. People speculate about the quality of the plays or the selection of works for the stage. These have almost nothing to do with the theatre’s shuttering. It was more a case of the size of the patron and donor pools.

I think critical factors were beyond San Jose Rep’s control and are actually at work across our nation, threatening many resident professional theatres. While some of these factors were beyond the Rep’s control, they are instructive for whatever comes next.

The Rep had opportunities along the way to rebuild, regroup and change, but the changes were huge, way beyond what any board or artistic director or management expert could truly comprehend, as the evidence that follows will show.

The simple answer is San Jose’s population changed a lot in three decades and the Rep changed very little. There was also a behavioral change. It is a story being repeated throughout the American performing arts landscape.

When I launched San Jose Rep, the city’s first resident professional theatre, San Jose had a population of 692,242 that was well-educated and arts-friendly. The ethnic makeup of the city was 74.1 percent Caucasian, 22.3 percent Latino and a small Asian population. The median age was 27, my age at the time.

Today the 2010 population breakdown is 952,576 people with an ethnic makeup of 28.7 percent Caucasian, 33.2 percent Latino and 31.7 percent Asian.

Despite efforts over the past few decades to create a broader array of ethnic representation among theatres, in content and casting, the American theatre is still largely a European-based, English-oriented art form. Theatre is very much about language. Great playwrights are known for their use of words (e.g. Shakespeare, Shaw, O’Neill, Mamet, etc.)

Music helps to reduce the language divide, but the fact that just 44.6 percent of San Jose residents speak only English in their homes illustrates the challenge. I must add that every language brings a cultural context for people who speak that language, so it isn’t simply a matter of knowing definitions. Also, about 39 percent of San Jose residents were born outside the United States.

The behavioral changes are just as difficult. San Jose still has a young population. The median age has risen to 35, but most people under 40 have had little or no exposure to any theatre during childhood. Attempting to sell tickets to them is almost futile. The possibility of these young people buying a subscription is even more remote.

The number of San Jose theatre-goers, subscribers and donors has been shrinking. It doesn’t mean people didn’t love San Jose Rep. Tens of thousands did. It just means that sustaining the size and scope of the Rep has been a daunting challenge for many years.

The re-boot—which will surely come—must find a way to cultivate young people, adapt to these demographics and acknowledge that for the near future, a smaller scope of work is prudent.

However, there must never be shrinkage in imagination or effort to create the magic that can only happen on stage. I am optimistic because artists are resourceful and genius is creativity under challenging conditions. We have both.

James P. Reber is the executive director of San Jose Parks Foundation, a veteran nonprofit entrepreneur and experienced special event planner and producer. He can be reached at [email protected] or 408.893.PARK.

4 Comments

  1. These demographic trends are likely to continue. Does this mean that resident, professional theater will be even less viable in the future?

    In retrospect, wasn’t there anything the board and/or the artistic director could have done differently?

  2. Mr. Reber,

    The last sentence in your article, “End of the San Jose Rep: Part I” denotes the causation of the ignominious and foreseeable death suffered by the Rep and the unforgiveable loss of taxpayer monies to support your “pet project.”

    Let us review this poignant declaration you have hoisted upon the readership.

    “Unfortunately, by 2014, the Rep was an unwieldy debt-ridden theatre that couldn’t right itself.”

    The ultimate demise of the Rep was not predicated on the issues of ethnic demographics and or “shrinking patrons and donor pools” but, the finality presented itself via council’s cutting off taxpayer monies to further subsidize a congenitally mismanaged farce. The Rep never stood a chance of success without routine cash infusions from the Redevelopment Agency or financial gifts from city councils and finally, the Rep succumbed to its piss-poor financial structure.

    The lack of inclusion of the Redevelopment Agency’s massive infusion of cash from the Hammer administration through the last dispersal should have been integral to the obituary of the Rep you concocted. But, it hasn’t surfaced yet. Perhaps in “Part III” you can comment on it. While you are at it, explain the demise of the American Musical Theatre (herein AMT) another egregious waste of taxpayer monies. Then in “Part IV” compare the success of “City Lights” with the follies of the Rep and AMT.

    Lastly, now you are heavily involved with the Levitt Pavilion economic development plan for St. James Park. This is yet another egregious waste of taxpayer money. Care to comment?

    Item D (2): “UPDATE ON ST. JAMES PARK REVITALIZATION AND LEVITT
    PAVILION EXPLORATORY COMMITTEE”
    http://sanjoseca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/30625

    Who is going to “Pay for Levitt Pavilion?”
    http://sanjoseca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/24121

    And…

    Councilmember Liccardo’s Memorandum on Levitt Pavilion;
    http://www.sanjoseca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/23769 .

    David S. Wall

  3. I think there you make a great point, James, on how “most people under 40 have had little or no exposure to any theatre during childhood.” I’m 28 and know how lucky I am that my family exposed me to theater at a young age and I’m fortunate to get tickets from friends and family every few months or so.

    Yet, I’ve yet to take the leap and purchase my own season tickets to any theater.

    Why? I think it has something to do with our go-go-go culture in the Silicon Valley. The sense of guilt so many get when they aren’t working, including myself. The high demands of work, families, the home, etc. I feel like life for the average person is more jam packed than ever. Not to mention all of the time we spend on the computer, watching tv and netflix just trying to zone out and escape from day to day life in the easiest way possible

    So what of all of this? I’m not totally sure. But, I do know that there is something going for things like the SJ Art Walk, Cafe Stritch’s jazz nights, Japan Town, and Christmas in the Park.

    I hope that SJ Rep gets back on their feet and gets people like me out of their homes and in the theatre once in a while!

  4. I thought it would be interesting to share with community the beginnings of both the Mexican heritage gardens , and the Rep. I was asked to join the founding board of the MHC pre 1999. My focus was the Arts. After several years of working the puzzle. We were able to secure a foot hold only after we could show that we could effectively raise 3 million dollars to our cause. We selected an Architect, Joe Hernandez. We were on our way to secure the funding to build the plaza.
    It was during this time, that there was a lapse of meetings etc. I questioned the lack of response. it became apparent, when 6 months later, we were called to a meeting on the 15th floor of the RDA. There Richard Rios # 2 guy at the RDA spoke eloquently about our success in raising 3 million dollars. we were on our way!
    The RDA ontourage then left the room.
    Excited we continued to vote for accepting the terms before us. The chairman made the motion, that we build the plaza in segment that would take ten years.
    It was then that I realized what had been going on with the time lapse several months prior. Our own board had been in meetings with the building of the Rep.
    The motion was on the floor, and it was immediately seconded. the chairman called for the question. I demanded discussions.
    I took the floor and turned to the board and told them that the RDA had just left the room expressing confidence in us. I asked them why our Chairman would ask us to build our plaza over a ten year period. It was at this time that Blanca, who was sitting next to me, stood up and said, “I agree with Gil”. The second was retracted, and the motion failed for a second. We voted to build our Plaza in real time. Needless to say it hit the fan! The RDA took control there after, and got rid of Joe Hernandez, in Blanca’s office and built what appears to be a Spanish fort.
    Of course we all now understand what happened to the MHC and the Plaza and Gardens. Sometimes politics can be so insidious. The saga continues.
    We need both. Let’s hope we can save the ideas from dying.
    .

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