Preparing a young artist for the full mantle of artistic directorship is no easy task, but through a mentorship with TCG’s New Generations Program, San Diego Repertory Theatre artistic director Sam Woodhouse helped protégé Delicia Turner Sonnenberg fulfill her leadership aspirations. Woodhouse, who co-founded San Diego Rep in 1976, guided Sonnenberg through the process of co-founding a troupe called MOXIE Theatre—and discovered that their mentoring relationship ultimately invigorated his own work.
SAM WOODHOUSE: I think the thing that most attracted me to Delicia originally was the similarity of our situation. There are certainly many differences, of course: generational, gender, the fact that she is African American and I am Anglo. Those are all very important distinctions—I always like to hear from people who’ve followed a different road than I have. But I was most struck by the similarity of our situation. I started here [at the Rep] with basically nothing—me and a partner. When Delicia came to me, she talked about her desire to start a theatre. She was facing a similar challenge to mine, several decades later.
DELICIA TURNER SONNENBERG: When I moved to San Diego my baby was a month old and it was hard to take any kind of gig. I started working at San Diego Rep as a stage manager and began developing a relationship with Sam. The Rep really became a kind of theatre home to me, and one of the reasons that happened was precisely because Sam is interested in people who are different from him. Even before it was an official mentorship, he was mentoring me. I made it known that my dream was to become an artistic director and that I wanted to learn all I could from him.
WOODHOUSE: Trying to pass on something like artistic directorship or founding a company is in some ways very different from other types of mentorship. It requires extraordinary ambition, talent, drive and knowledge to found a company. There’s just so much you have to know, things that aren’t related to the artistic side of theatre at all. I think San Deigo Rep was the right environment for Delicia to acquire those skills. The set-up provided a great deal of on-the-job, on-the-firing-line, pedal-to-the-metal experience.
SONNENBERG: Sam was very good about always saying “Here’s something you haven’t done before. I’m writing a grant. Why don’t you help me?” He knew it was important for me to learn the administrative and producing sides of artistic leadership. Negotiation can seem like a scary, unreal thing for an artist, but you have to know it. By the time I left the Rep I had no problem negotiating anything. I can’t tell you how important that was for my theatre.
Over the two years I spent at the Rep, I became a real contributor to the artistic department. I went from scheduling auditions to running auditions, from making offers to negotiating contracts; from simply understanding the job of artistic director to really acquiring the leadership skills necessary to be an artistic director.
I think what I brought was a fresh point of view, a very different energy. I would always question everything, so it made senior management examine why they did things a certain way.
WOODHOUSE: “Why, why, why?” But that’s just what a director will ask an actor, what a dramaturg will ask a playwright. It was confrontational in the most artistic, productive way. I was absolutely struck by the rapacious need to understand and to challenge. It really helped me see things in a whole new light, and it really had an impact on my own artistic work.
SONNENBERG: Mentorship is a very special relationship. Sometimes it is sort of like lovers, sometimes it’s sort of like father and daughter.
WOODHOUSE: Delicia has her own company now—it’s her company, but it’s something I take tremendous pride in.