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. Non-critic Kathi Howard, a community coordinator, also assisted the group in convention preparations. Bill Hagen of the Tribune was listed as a member but attended only one meeting, then declined to participate.

Eileen Sondak and Don Braunagel at one of the Critics Circle’s early awards ceremonies.

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. From those sprang the idea to offer annual awards. That plan, over a few heated sessions, evolved into an Oct. 1 – Sept. 30 awards period; several categories, each with five nominees; and a ceremony to announce the winners.The first such occasion occurred Oct. 28, 1984, at Fat City Restaurant. There was no dress code, but the critics decided on formal garb, and attendees generally dressed in cocktail attire. As outstanding production, the critics chose La Jolla Playhouse’s “As You Like It.” The New Play awards went to writer William Hauptman for another Playhouse production, “Big River,” which went on to great success on Broadway and nationally. Des McAnuff, who had staged both, won the critics’ directing accolade for “As You Like It,” then a 1985 Tony Award for directing “Big River.” Hauptman also won a Tony, as did the writer of the “Big River” score, Roger Miller. Ironically, the San Diego critics did not honor Miller because they had decided, due to a dearth of nominees, not to offer an award for score that year.

For 1985, the Critics Circle expanded, adding William Fark of the Times-Advocate in Escondido; Gerry Davis of Israel Today, San Diego; and George Weinberg-Harter of the Oceanside Blade-Tribune. At the second annual awards on Oct. 27 in Pancho Wellington’s, a La Jolla restaurant, the outstanding production was deemed to be La Jolla Playhouse’s staging of Brecht’s “A Man’s a Man,” which also won for Robert Woodruff’s direction.

Logo designed by George Weinberg-Harter
The San Diego Theatre Critics Circle’s logo, designed by member George Weinberg-Harter.

In 1986, two more critics joined the organization, Carol Davis, co-critic with her husband, Gerry, of the now-named Jewish Times; and Bill Teague of the Gayzette. At the Reuben E. Lee restaurant on Oct. 26, the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s “Holy Ghosts” was named outstanding production.

In 1987, Kathlyn Russell of Variety/Daily Variety joined the group, but died suddenly just weeks before the Oct. 25 awards ceremony at the Abbey Restaurant. La Jolla Playhouse again took the outstanding production award for Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods.” One of the stars of that play, Michael Constantine, accepted his award as outstanding lead actor with a memorable quote: “I didn’t even know San Diego had a Theatre Critics Circle — maybe a semi-circle.”Sadness again haunted the 1988 awards on Oct. 28 at the Abbey: Gerry Davis had passed away during the year. New Members were 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. Braunagel was now also the critic for Variety/Daily Variety. The outstanding production honor went to San Diego Rep’s “Red Noses.”

The lineup and the location stayed the same in 1989, with La Jolla Playhouse’s “The Misanthrope” taking the outstanding production honor. Then 1990 brought major changes, with the awards period changed to a calendar year and, because of the added months in the transition season, six nominees per category. New members included Pat Launer of KPBS and Bob Korbett of Drama-Logue. The seventh awards ceremony, Jan. 28, 1991, at Tin Pan Alley restaurant, anointed the Old Globe Theatre’s “Hamlet” as outstanding production.

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. Outstanding productions were La Jolla Playhouse’s musical “The Who’s Tommy,” the Old Globe’s “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting” and San Diego Rep’s “The Women.”

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.

In late 2003, the Critics Circle debuted this Web site.

The second annual Craig Noel Awards were handed out on Jan. 26, 2004, at the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park in a presentation rated even more successful than the first. Named outstanding productions were the Old Globe’s “Blue/Orange,” La Jolla Playhouse’s “Fräulein Else,” and Renaissance’s “A View From the Bridge.”

With Jeff Smith rejoining the Critics Circle, the third annual Craig Noel Awards were presented on Jan. 24, 2005, again at the the Natural History Museum. In what everyone agreed was a fertile year, six productions were named outstanding. They were musical revivals “Bed & Sofa” (Cygnet Theatre) and “Sweeney Todd,” (Starlight Theatre); new musicals “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (The Old Globe) and “Jersey Boys” (La Jolla Playhouse); and resident productions “Don Juan” (The Old Globe) and “Kimberly Akimbo” (Sixth@Penn Theatre).

The fourth annual Craig Noel Awards, presented Jan. 30, 2006, were highlighted by a tribute to Des McAnuff, outgoing artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse, featuring a hilarious film and a thank-you by Christian Hoff, Tony winner for his performance in “Jersey Boys.” The critics inaugurated an Artistic Visionary Award named for McAnuff, and he also picked up a directing honor for “The Wiz.”

In major awards, the Globe’s summer Shakespeare presentation of “The Winter’s Tale” was cited in multiple categories, including outstanding production, Darko Tresnjak for direction and husband and wife Bruce Turk and Katie MacNichol for acting. In the musical categories, Moonlight’s “Big River” won for revival, Kirby Ward’s direction and Peter Musante’s acting. La Jolla Playhouse’s “Palm Beach” was named outstanding new musical. The gala evening, acknowledged as San Diego’s prime annual theater gathering, attracted about 350 attendees to the Natural History Museum.

The fifth annual Craig Noel Awards, held Jan. 21, 2008, featured two special tributes to legendary San Diego directors. The Old Globe’s Artistic Director Emeritus, three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien was honored with a lifetime achievement award, and the ceremony was dedicated to the late Dr. Floyd Gaffney, a tireless advocate of African-American theater.

The year’s biggest honoree was the Old Globe’s Broadway-bound musical “A Catered Affair,” with big wins to Cygnet Theatre’s “Yellowman,” New Village Arts’ “Sailor’s Song” and La Jolla Playhouse’s “Cry-Baby.” director Esther Emery was the recipient of the first Jack O’Brien Excellence in Direction award, which will be given periodically to directors who exhibit O’Brien’s versatility and commitment to excellence. Welsh, retiring from her Union-Tribune post, was given a surprise tribute from her fellow critics. Jim Hebert, who will take over most of her duties, joined the Critics Circle.

The sixth annual Craig Noel Awards, held Jan. 26, 20009, was highlighted by the award of two Lifetime Achievement honors to Jonathan McMurtry, a veteran San Diego actor who was performed at the Old Globe Theatre (and other local venues) for the past 47 years, and Arthur Wagner, the founding chairman of the Department of Theatre and Dance at UC San Diego. Also earning a special honor was local preservationist Steve Karo for his tireless efforts to restore the historic Balboa Theatre in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.

Cygnet Theatre’s “Fences” was the evening’s big winner, with honors for production, direction, ensemble and its two lead actors, Antonio T.J. Johnson and Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson. Other winners were La Jolla Playhouse’s Broadway-bound “Memphis” in the new musical category, Steven Drukman’s “In This Corner” (produced at the Old Globe) as best new play, San Diego Musical Theatre’s “Dreamgirls” and its featured actor Tonex, the Playhouse’s “Xanadu” and many more. More than 350 people attended the La Jolla ceremony.

The seventh annual Craig Noel Awards, held on Jan. 25, 2010, were highlighted by three special awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award to longtime San Diego actor/teacher DJ Sullivan, and a Special Achievement Award to Darko Tresnjak for his body of work at the Old Globe over the past eight years, six of them as founding artistic director of the Summer Shakespeare Festival. For the first time, Craig Noel, in frail health, was unable to attend the ceremony. Weinberg-Harter, no longer reviewing, did not present any awards but assisted during the evening.

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.

In subsequent years, the Craig Noel Awards have continued. A complete list of winners for each year can be found on the “Awards” page of this website.