The San Diego Theatre Critics Circle had its genesis in 1983. San Diego Union critic Welton Jones had invited the American Theatre Critics Association to hold its annual convention in his city that year, and he called on fellow critics in town to help in the hosting.
Most responded, including Frances L. Bardacke of San Diego Magazine; Don Braunagel of the San Diego Tribune; Hillard Harper, from the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times; Jonathan Saville and Jeff Smith of The Reader; Christopher Schneider of the La Jolla Light; Eileen Sondak of the Heritage Press; and D. Larry Steckling of Drama-Logue.
Following the convention, which was instrumental in The Old Globe Theatre winning the 1984 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, the critics decided to continue meeting socially and discuss local productions.
Among the critics early members were William Fark of the Times-Advocate in Escondido; Gerry Davis and Carol Davis of Israel Today, San Diego; George Weinberg-Harter of the Oceanside Blade-Tribune; Kathlyn Russell of Variety; Nancy Churnin, from the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times; Patricia Morris of North Coast Newspapers; and Anne Marie Welsh of the San Diego Union.
The early ’90s saw San Diego sink into economic recession, and theater suffered as much as any sector. Several theater companies folded and others slid perilously close to bankruptcy. Publications disappeared as well. The L.A. Times ended its San Diego edition, and the San Diego Union and San Diego Tribune merged. The changes sent the Critics Circle into a tailspin, with fewer members and meetings less frequent. The group managed one more set of awards in early 1993, revising the rules to allow for multiple honorees, then mailing certificates to the winners.
Almost a decade of dormancy followed. Then, in 2002, thanks largely to Welsh of the Union-Tribune and Pam Kragen of the North County Times, the group was revived. Welsh believed it was time to reorganize the group in order to honor the legacy of Craig Noel, the then-87-year-old producing director of the Old Globe Theatre and widely acknowledged godfather of San Diego’s theater community. Welsh and Kragen were joined by Braunagel, now of San Diego Magazine; Davis; Weinberg-Harter, now of Backstage West; Charlene Baldridge of the La Jolla Village News and several other publications; Jennifer de Poyen of the Union-Tribune; and Jim Trageser of the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
On Jan. 27, 2003, before an overflow audience at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park, the group presented to multiple recipients in 20 categories the first annual Craig Noel Awards for Theatre Excellence. Honored productions were the Old Globe’s “Pericles,” La Jolla Playhouse’s “Wintertime,” North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Travesties,” and the musicals “1776” by Lamb’s Players Theatre and “Ragtime” by Moonlight Stage Productions.
Every year from 2003 until 2009, Craig Noel enthusiastically took part in the awards ceremony, sitting onstage and handing every plaque out to the award recipients. In a speech at the first year of the awards he said having San Diego’s theater awards named in his name was the greatest honor he’d ever received. On April 3, 2010, Craig Noel, at 94, passed away peacefully. We, along with the local and national theater community, will be forever in his debt.