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8 San Diego Actors Share What Makes the Local Theater Scene Unique

How did you get your start in the San Diego theater community?

Stephenson: I started here in 1981 in the San Diego Rep’s production of A Christmas Carol—I think we were six, seven actors playing 66 roles. And this was before Horton Plaza, in the old Lyceum, which isn’t around anymore. And I kinda set to work after that: Got a full-time job to pay the bills, and worked at Lamb’s Players and the Rep, and that was enough to keep me busy at the time.

Bowman: I was the angel in the Nativity show every year in grade school… but I did my first professional show at The Old Globe when I was 12, and that’s when I got the bug. I’ve been acting ever since.

Reynolds: I was in northern Wisconsin and saw a magazine about The Old Globe; that’s what prompted me and my husband to come here. I called Craig Noel at the Globe and said I’d like to audition. It was shortly after their theater had burned down, but still he invited me in.

Johnson: My start here was with Ruff Yeager at Southwestern College. We did a really cool production entitled The Bomb-itty of Errors. Hip-hop Shakespeare—need I say more?

Guerrero: I started acting in high school because I used to be deadly shy, but I felt like I had a voice. I always wanted to speak up in class, but there was something stopping me. To deal with the shyness I took a drama class, but I never really took it seriously until college. Then I looked at it as something I could do with my life.

VanWormer: I started professionally at 18, and because I’ve always looked younger than I am, for many years I was always cast as a teenager. That continued even into my late 20s, because it’s easier for a company to hire an adult who can drive and legally work than an actual teenager. As I was starting to push 30, I thought, You know, I would really like to play a grown-up once in a while.

What’s unique about San Diego’s theater scene that you might not find in other cities, like LA?

Johnson: I really admire the level of education and professionalism here. Los Angeles follows suit, but San Diego deserves recognition for being the home of top-ranking theatre programs in our nation, like UCSD and The Old Globe.

Bowman: Goodness. I love how everyone knows of one another. All the theaters support one another. I want to say it’s the same everywhere, but I can’t speak to that.

Chan: Sizable as it is, the community here is very intimate. You tend to see the same faces over and over again. Whereas up in LA, people are more pursuing television and film, adding in theater to cultivate their need for an “artistic outlet.” Actors here really do theater for the love and artistry of it.

Jones: People who create theater here go see other theater. The friends I’ve gained in this community have come to see my things, and I make it a habit to go see theirs. It’s almost like a reunion every time I see another show, and it doesn’t matter how big the show is. That is a real and very supportive community.

Guerrero: When I first started I lived in LA, because I thought that’s just where you go. LA is awful. There’s no theater there! It’s all film, film, film. Then I come back here thinking I won’t be doing film because I’m in San Diego, but lo and behold there’s stuff being filmed here too and there’s a big theater community. It’s awesome.

Stephenson: I heard somewhere that two percent of the general population goes to the theater. We’ve got a pretty thriving community. When I started in 1981 it seemed like there were less than 20 actors in town, and now—gosh, you go to the awards night and there’s what, 400 people there? Designers, directors, actors, it’s amazing. The growth has been remarkable.

Reynolds: In LA you live, eat, and breathe the business and can’t get away from that sense of anxiety. What’s the next thing? And actors have that anyway. But San Diego is a much more encouraging environment. The hardest thing I’ve discovered here is doing any production when it’s single-ticket sales. It’s a catch-22—theaters rely on subscriptions to finance their season, but sometimes they’re beholden to their subscription base. Musicals and comedies work every time. I’m always pushing theaters to do drama; sometimes they underestimate the interest their audience might have in something that challenges them. It takes a skilled artistic director to challenge your base without alienating them. A large part of it is “getting bums in seats,” to quote Shakespeare in Love.

What’s going on right now in local theater that you’re excited to be a part of?

Chan: Bold, nontraditional casting choices, and doors opening for actors of color. Specifically, if you look at my résumé—I don’t know how this happened, but with the exception of Miss Saigon I’ve never played an Asian. Which I’m rather proud of. I hope that trend continues, because it’s breaking down a lot of barriers that I’ve experienced coming up.

Jones: As an African American woman, I’ve gotten very good at trying to figure out how to make myself safe. I even change my hair depending on what theater or what role I receive, and I’m super excited to see the acceptance of what I come with. In Voyeurs de Venus I was able to wear my natural hair. It was a uniquely black story; it was bold and unapologetic, not sugarcoating or trying to make black culture or black experience safe. Sometimes it’s raw. It’s scary, and this is truth.

Bowman: A lot of theaters are doing work by new playwrights and new composers, and that’s exciting, especially if they’re from San Diego. Years ago, there weren’t five theaters; now a lot of new ones have started and people are taking chances, going out on a limb.

Johnson: A whole lot of August Wilson plays are coming to our town in upcoming seasons, in some pretty major theaters. I’m excited to see those produced (if not fortunate to be cast).

Guerrero: San Diego does mostly musicals, and I hope they start doing plays that are a little grittier. San Diego doesn’t tend to challenge the audience. I wish they would balance it out.

VanWormer: About 15 years ago there was a whole crop of new companies—New Village Arts, Cygnet, Moxie—that popped up within the same few years of each other, and it’s really cool to see the longevity they’ve had, how they’ve rooted themselves to make room for newer folks like Backyard Renaissance and the Roustabouts and New Fortune.

Who has been your favorite role to play so far?

Bowman: That’s like asking who your favorite child is! You know, for me the most challenging were the most gratifying. When I played Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, that was terrifying. Playing someone who’s such a legend, and was so specific in how she looked, moved, and sang. I thought the pressure might be too much. Sometimes I would come home from rehearsals and just cry. You can only do your homework so much, and then you just hope.

Chan: I got to play Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar; that had always been a bucket-list role for me. And I believe I’m the first Asian American to play Lonny in a professional Equity production of Rock of Ages. Hats off to Sean Murray, the director; I don’t think I would’ve gotten the opportunity without him.

Reynolds: Mary in Long Day’s Journey into Night is one of the most amazing things I did. There’s such an overarching theme of despair. O’Neill’s writing is operatic; he has these long riffs of dialogue that you’ve just got to run with; you can’t break them up. And The Glass Menagerie, for similar reasons. Tennessee Williams is a poet, so to submerge yourself into that musicality and roll with it is amazing.

Guerrero: Nelson in Cloud Tectonics at New Village Arts. He’s a crazy, war-torn kid who’s brash, rude, but also has compassion. So it was nice playing both sides of that character. He jumped from one end of the spectrum to the next in a matter of two lines. I also enjoyed playing Abel in Fade. His arc wasn’t as intense as Nelson’s, but he had a really intense backstory. The character was very similar to me, so it was easier to bite my teeth into him.

Jones: In high school, I was fortunate to do a production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. I did not know how my 17-year-old brain would wrap around playing Lady in Green. Not the most dramatic or traumatizing character in the show, but still, stepping up to the plate with other powerful women was a huge feat for me. That was the moment when my family accepted—and I myself accepted—that this was going to be what I do for my life.

Johnson: I played multiple characters in a two-man production called Blue Door, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. And to be challenged in that way, finding all those guys, telling all their stories truthfully, was a task that made me grow as an actor. I really appreciate Delicia; she’s always giving me roles that teach me how to be a better man.

Stephenson: This is my eighth year doing Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Cygnet. I may be painting with a broad brush, but Scrooge is on every actor’s bucket list. It’s such a great opportunity.

VanWormer: Many years ago, when Cygnet was in Rolando, I played Thomasina Coverley in Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, which Sean Murray directed. That role is a 13-year-old, and it’s one I might be ready to tackle now. She’s a math genius in the Jane Austen era, when intelligent young female people were not even acknowledged. She’s a genius and a child at the same time; you see that a kid can be a kid and understand more than we give them credit for; that doesn’t mean they’re not childish, and doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant.

When a role requires you to summon huge, even traumatic emotions night after night, how do you leave those feelings at the stage door when you go home? Or do they follow you?

Reynolds: It does follow you. When I played Mary, I lived a very eccentric life; my husband and daughter were in Wisconsin, so I wouldn’t get to bed until three in the morning and my indulgences certainly increased. Generally, there’s a wonderful sense of escape, going to the theater and for two hours being somebody else so completely. I do a lot of work finding their emotional range and balance, but I’m not digging up my own personal experiences. Some actors do, and good for them. I can’t substitute my own life experiences into this character’s, because it’s not the character. It’s powerfully cathartic to have that much pain onstage, so that when I’m done I actually feel pretty good. It’s not me going through that; I’m a conduit. Sometimes you cry and sometimes you don’t; I can’t anticipate it. But if you’re truly in your character’s experience, then it’s spontaneous that certain moments move you to tears or to rage. There’s always nights when it feels flat. Then you don’t push it. Anyway, only a very small portion of the audience sees tears. The objective is to make the audience cry, not you. There are many ways you can suggest to the audience what a person is feeling even if you’re not feeling it. Gesture is tremendously important. As humans, it’s built into us to recognize what another person is feeling by their physical actions.

VanWormer: I do very much leave the show at the theater. Not that it isn’t on my mind, but for the sake of sanity, health, relationship, and day job, it’s important to have a strong emotional delineation between life and stage. My main goal when presented with a new character is to first understand before feel. If I can understand where a character’s coming from, from an objective point of view, then it’s much easier for me to do it.

Bowman: You know, it’s never been an issue for me. Judy Garland was as traumatic as you could get; she deals with everything at a 25, and I try to keep things calm and positive and happy. Sometimes your body doesn’t know the difference. I would feel exhausted physically.

Stephenson: I don’t believe they follow you and I do. I see the work as work, and don’t carry much around that I’m conscious of. I just try to ride the roller coaster of their emotions in the story as it goes.

Chan: Learning how to separate that comes with experience. To make those moments real, you have to bring in something very personal to yourself—then you have to learn the coping mechanisms to get back to zero before you go home. I know when I did This Beautiful City, putting on Mikey Weinstein’s skin was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, because he was so angry. I would walk offstage and have to take, like, five cleansing breaths just to get him out of my system because I would be shaking. All of the actors backstage knew to leave me alone for that moment. It’s definitely a skill you learn.

Johnson: That might actually be the part I enjoy most. But it’s also the hardest task. Summoning a character’s emotional state takes a level of spirituality that I consider an accomplishment if you get there. I’m usually really thankful if I’m used as a channel. I usually shed by just being social. My friends and I are pretty honest with each other, so I rely on them to tell me if I’m trippin’ after a particularly heavy role. Because sometimes your perspective is changed on a lot of things because of what you’ve been studying or portraying.

Guerrero: There’s an exercise you practice in acting school called the “magic what-if.” In Fade, for instance: I’ve never had to punch a woman to protect my daughter, but what situation in my life evoked the emotions I needed to get to that place? So I replace it. I only use it at the beginning; once I get there and I know the feeling, I don’t think about it anymore.

Jones: Saartjie Baartman in Voyeurs de Venus—she took me through it. I had to. She was a real person and I wanted to honor her story the best I could. My grandmother told me to let God protect Joy and fully let Saartjie step in and have this vessel. One of the first things my teacher in high school taught me, Ms. Jennings, was that when you’re done with the show, you have to step away and say, “I am Joy; I am not Saartjie. I have to leave you here at this theatre; I will come back tomorrow.” But you do take certain things. There was a lot of physical contact in the show, so in my personal life, I was very aware how people touched me. If I didn’t know you or didn’t know the intentions behind your touch, it made me very uncomfortable. Onstage if Joy was upset with how someone touched me, I can’t respond with however Joy would; I have to respond with how Saartjie would. So I would become more sensitive to that in life, because I have the agency to say, “Don’t touch me.” She did not.

Tell me about your other creative pursuits or side gigs. Do they inform your acting in turn?

Jones: All of it does. I started modeling when I was eight years old. Once I got into Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, I realized I wasn’t being artistically fulfilled by modeling alone; I wanted to do more. I created this silly character every time I hit the runway. The little things I brought to modeling, I got to expand onstage, because I’ve always said it’s not Joy doing these things, it’s my character. Once I got married, the opportunity to perform was not as frequent. I had all this creative energy pent up and I started writing. I’m working on putting my great-grandmother’s stories into a show now.

VanWormer: I make my living gig by gig, and I’m fortunate that there are enough arts organizations in San Diego that I’m able to make almost all of my income in some capacity from the arts. I do show camps in Solana Beach with 8-to-12-year-olds; I work for North Coast Rep, teaching; I do the coordination every year for the California Young Playwrights Contest. I also do a lot of work with Write Out Loud; they’re a theater company that performs literature read by professional actors. We go into schools with poetry and literary and public speaking programs.

Chan: Before I became a full-time professional actor, I was a sound design guy. I also arranged music. I got to meet Rick Dees—this really big radio DJ personality—and he said, “Everyone is built to do something.” It feels like all of my experiences have built me to do what I do onstage. If for some reason I wasn’t able to do this, I think everything I do would be related to it.

Guerrero: I’m also a musician; I’ve been playing music for far longer than I’ve been acting. I use it a lot in my acting—for me a play is like a song. An arrangement with ups and downs, times of calm, and there’s almost a meter in my head while I’m doing a monologue. Like a beat; it comes out in a rhythm.

Reynolds: I’m lucky to be acting and directing, because one informs the other. As an actor I know what I want out of the director, so I try to apply that when I’m directing—encouraging actors without telling them exactly “I want you to do this.” I try to give them room but also gently guide them where I want them (and hopefully make them think it’s all their idea). Manipulative? Sure. But in a gentle way. Actors can be very indulgent. They love to cry, to wail, to be angry. Those are the easiest emotions to do, because it’s juicy and it feels good. They’ll come up with stuff that doesn’t fit the big picture. You have to find a balance with everybody. But it’s the nuances of humanity and the unpredictable elements you want to bring out. You have to let the audience do some of the work.

Bowman: I’ve had a dog walking company for six or seven years because I love animals so much. I do that and I do my acting. I don’t really have time to do anything else! Having a job during the day helps with my nervous energy. There’s nothing better than knowing you get to perform that night, and there’s nothing worse than sitting at home going, “I have seven hours before I have to go to the theater; what am I going to do?”

What’s your advice for someone just starting out in this field?

Stephenson: Training is good, experience is good. Training and experience is best. Denzel Washington’s advice to actors is “be prepared, be prepared, be prepared.”

Guerrero: First, get good training. Before you audition, you should know what you’re doing. That’s the most important thing. I’ve seen a lot of people who are so in their head about everything—caught up thinking about their next line, where they should go next, what they look like—but good acting calls for letting go of all that, being focused on the people you’re acting with and delivering the lines as truthfully as you can.

Chan: Learn that rejection is not personal. There will be a thousand reasons why you won’t get cast in something, and it’s not because of you. Just brush off the rejection and move on to the next thing; that’s the best skill you can learn.

Jones: Be kind to yourself. Learn from your failures. And—you’re invincible! Honestly, that’s the biggest thing. Don’t be afraid of going for the big stuff. Do it!

VanWormer: The best advice I ever got was “do plays.” Find a way to do the thing you want to do. Which means persistence, showing up to every audition, every open call, signing up for workshops, for classes, reading, educating yourself as much as possible. And always recognizing that you have room to improve and grow. Work hard, show up, represent yourself as best you can.

Johnson: Have a lot of fun. Save your money! And in the words of my great mentor, Professor Segun Ojewuyi, head of directing at Southern Illinois University: “If you are here to be famous, leave.”

Who would play you in the Hollywood movie adaptation of your life?

Reynolds: That’s kind of sneaky, because whoever you choose is an interesting perspective of how you see yourself. For some reason I thought Judy Carne, who used to be on Laugh-In.

Guerrero: Maybe Andy Garcia.

Chan: That kid who plays Ned in the Spider-Man movies.

VanWormer: Meryl Streep. Why not? Or Judi Dench.

Stephenson: Well, the obvious answer is Brad Pitt. But that’s not gonna happen. Maybe a low-key Charles Laughton.

Bowman: A fabulous drag queen. That’s what I would want.

Jones: The easy answer would be Gabrielle Union in her Bring It On days. But the real answer is myself. I plan on keeping this face for the rest of my life.

Javier Guerrero

Local Bonafides

“I was born in Tijuana, and I’ve been living here pretty much my whole life.”

Recent Standout Role

Abel in Fade at Moxie Theatre* (2018)

Craig Noel Award

*2018 Outstanding Featured Performance in a Play, Male (nominated)

Where to See Him Next

Latinx New Play Festival at the Lyceum Space, August 30-September 1


Rachael VanWormer

Local Bonafides

“I have lived in San Diego my whole life.”

Recent Standout Role

Harper Pitt in Angels in America at Cygnet Theatre (2019)

Craig Noel Award

2008 Outstanding Featured Performance in a Play, Female

Where to See Her Next

Ring Around the Moon at Lamb’s Players Theatre, October 10–November 11


Tom Stephenson

Local Bonafides

“I started here in 1981.”

Recent Standout Role

Roger in The Hour of Great Mercy at Diversionary Theatre (2019)

Also Known For

Playing Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Cygnet Theatre eight years running

Craig Noel Award

2017 Outstanding Featured Performance in a Play, Male; 2014 Actor of the Year; 2014 Outstanding Lead Performance in a Play, Male; 2002 Performance in a Musical

Where to See Him Next

The Virgin Trial at Cygnet Theatre, September 11–October 6


Cortez L. Johnson

Local Bonafides

“I’m from Chicago originally. Been in San Diego five years now.”

Recent Standout Role

Chris in Sweat by San Diego Repertory Theatre (2019)

Craig Noel Award

2017 Actor of the Year, Male; 2017 Lead Performance in a Play, Male (nominated)


Eileen Bowman

Local Bonafides

“Born and raised here.”

Recent Standout Role

Lily Garland in On the 20th Century at Cygnet Theatre (2017)

Also Known For

Being the lead singer of the 61st Academy Awards opening act

Craig Noel Award

2012 Outstanding Featured Performance in a Musical, Female

Where to See Her Next

Roadshow by Off Broadway Live in Santee, September 7–October 20


Joy Yvonne Jones

Local Bonafides

“I’m from Houston, Texas; this is my second year in San Diego.”

Recent Standout Role

Saartjie Baartman in Voyeurs de Venus at Moxie Theatre* (2018)

Craig Noel Award

*2018 Outstanding Featured Performance in a Play, Female

Where to See Her Next

Dance Nation at Moxie Theatre, August 17–September 15

Victor E. Chan

Local Bonafides

With brief exceptions, “I’ve always been in San Diego.”

Recent Standout Role

Lonny in Rock of Ages at Cygnet Theatre (2019)

Also Known For

Originating the role of Crush in Finding Nemo: The Musical at Disney World

Rosina Reynolds

Local Bonafides

“I first came to San Diego from Wisconsin in… ’78? ’79?”

Recent Standout Role

Hannah Pitt in Angels in America at Cygnet Theatre (2019)

Craig Noel Award

2016 Outstanding Solo Performance; 2011 Outstanding Lead Performance in a Play, Female; 2007 Outstanding Lead Performance in a Play, Female; 2004 Outstanding Solo Performance; 2002 Direction

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