SAN DIEGO — "Empire," a musical soap-opera spoof, may not seem like standard fare for the grittily realistic Bowery Theatre. But Ginny Lynn-Safford, co-author of the musical and new associate artistic director of the Bowery, suggests with a smile that in a deeper way it is.
Just before the theater's founder and artistic director, Kim McCallum, left to assume his duties as artistic director of the New Mexico Repertory Theatre, Safford talked with him about his goals for the Bowery.
While McCallum did say that "Empire" was not the sort of production the Bowery is known for, the bottom line for him, Safford said, is that the theater should give people "an opportunity to grow and learn."
Safford sees two ways to accomplish that: to take chances with new work and to do more work.
"We've had a lot of people come in here and go on to do bigger things. People get exposure because the press comes to all our shows even though we're not an (Actors) Equity house. . . . I want to take advantage of more talent and the way to do that is to do more shows."
Consequently, "Empire," which premiered Monday, will be playing Mondays through Wednesdays in repertory with "Independence," the San Diego premiere of a Lee Blessing play that inaugurated Safford's management of the Bowery.
In addition, Safford is adding two one-act comedies, which will open Nov. 27 and run Fridays and Saturdays at 11 p.m. Written in the early 1920s by Eliot Crawshay-Williams, "Rounding the Triangle" and "Grensal Green" were brought to her attention by Mickey Mullaney, who will direct them.
Safford, who directed "Independence" and is directing "Empire," said she is looking forward to bringing in more directors as well as set, lighting and sound designers for her next batch of shows.
"In the future," she said, "I'm not particularly interested in running myself ragged."
Then she segued into her ambitious plans for the Bowery's spring season, which she wants settled far enough in advance to sell subscription tickets. This would mark a first in the Bowery's five-year history. And, though her appointment only extends to the summer of 1988, when McCallum is expected back, Safford is already making plans for the Bowery if McCallum asks her to return when he leaves again next fall.
After seven years as a visiting actress/director/teacher in various theaters and workshops around San Diego, Safford, 38, has clearly found the place she wants to be.
It's quite a leap from 1980, when she left Denver (where she had earned a master's degree in theater) for San Diego to have a warm but temporary resting stop where she would decide whether to settle in Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas or Seattle.
"I never considered moving here," she said. "Then things fell into place."
She quickly tapped into what was then the exploding San Diego theater community. She met McCallum when she landed a part in "Father's Day" at the Bowery in 1985, but her first acting assignments came in 1981 at the Old Town Opera House, which has since become The Theatre in Old Town.
She performed in soap opera parodies at the Gaslamp Theatre's "Lunchtime Theater" in 1981/1982 and began learning to direct in 1983, when for a time she expanded her acting workshops to showcase her students' talents. Those credits helped her at the Bowery, where she co-directed "The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds" with McCallum and later directed last year's highly acclaimed "Bent."
Safford also brought with her a business she had started in Denver in which she taught acting to lawyers and business people. Within two days of writing to the California Trial Lawyers Assn. about her work, they asked her to come to Sacramento for a convention they had been planning on just that subject.
Her business and acting led Safford to husband-to-be, Paul Bedington.
Three years ago, Bedington, an architect, had come to a presentation Safford gave in La Jolla teaching artists how to present themselves effectively. She told him that she was appearing in "Agnes of God" at the North Coast Repertory Theatre. He went to the show, asked her out and, eventually, they became engaged.
Bedington has since taken some time out from his own business to design the set for the production of "Just Between Ourselves" that Safford directed for the North Coast Repertory Theatre this year. He also took the slides that will be used for the television screens in "Empire."
"Empire" is a pet project that Safford started working on when the Bowery was born in 1982. She had just finished acting in the San Diego Repertory Theatre's 1981 "A Christmas Carol." Jonathan Sacks, who had composed music for the production, asked her if she was interested in working on an original musical.
After a year of Friday afternoon meetings, they developed the "Empire" script, which is a series about actors playing characters who are going through parallel on- and off-stage crises. Sacks, who now lives in Los Angeles, worked with Jill Stevens on the lyrics.
Safford sees the show as more than a parody. She describes it as being "about people who have to grow and have to make changes and about how we fight changes."
Unlike her characters, Safford looks forward to change.
"This is a nice time. It seems like anything is possible. I feel like I've got the maturity to have faith enough in myself to do things I might not do otherwise."
"Creating new works that can go other places like New York or London. And I'd love to have a sister relationship with theaters in other cities. And . . . "
Safford has no shortage of plans for the Bowery Theatre.