#SDTheatre: A Festival of Opportunity (Part One)

by Tim West

in National Conference

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(Pictured: Tim West. The following post is part of a series highlighting and celebrating the theatres and theatre people of San Diego as part of the 2014 TCG National Conference in San Diego. This also the first in a two-part series about festival opportunities for emerging theatre artists in the San Diego area. Email Gus Schulenburg if you’d like to participate.)

The TCG Conference in San Diego, the weekend of June 19-21, 2014, occurs on the eve of two play festivals here in July that illustrate the ways that the city’s thriving theatre community has grown in the last two decades. It also shows how growth in any arts community is built upon groundwork done long before.

The second San Diego Fringe Festival (July 3-13) and Scripps Ranch Theatre’s third annual “Out on a Limb: Plays From America’s Finest City” (July 19-27) are two rare opportunities for emerging playwrights to participate in the production process from initial project conception through production.

Until the early 1990s, an emerging playwright in San Diego had few area venues in which they could find opportunities to develop their work. As in most cities, the best that playwrights could hope for was to add their scripts to the backlog of those to be found stacked on the desks of literary managers at most any theatre across the nation. If not the proverbial snowball’s chance in a Plutonian underworld, it had about the same odds as winning a national lottery. You’d have better odds at a corner-side crap-shoot.

That began to change with the advent of the Actors Festival in 1991, a program of the nascent Actors Alliance of San Diego, founded four years previously by actors Annie Hinton, Dan Novak, Linda Libby and Phil Sneed. Under Sneed’s artistic direction, the two week event featured more than two dozen one-act plays and employed more than twice that number of actors. Although the Actors Festival featured many published one-act plays, it also allowed for the inclusion of original work. This aspect became more prominent as The Actors Festival expanded in both scope and scale under the subsequent artistic direction of Luther Hanson (1993) Barry Mann (1994) Rosina Reynolds (1995-2000) Todd Blakesley (2001, 2004-05) Myra Mcwethy (2002-03) and George Soete (2006-07).

blakesleyTodd Blakesley (left) got involved with the Actors Festival in its first event, when he served on its organizing committee. From its inception, Blakesley was an advocate for original work in the Actors Festival. With Bernie Joiner, Blakesley himself mounted an early version of Laughing Buddha WholistiK Radio Theatre, which had a subsequent extended engagement at Bowery Theatre, a 76-seat Equity theatre (now defunct) downtown.

After touring the Canadian Fringe circuit in 2000, Blakesley determined that the festival experience made new work not only sustainable but potentially profitable. Every year, Fringe fever sweeps across Canada, from Ottawa and Toronto to Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton, then on to Victoria and Vancouver. Then Fringe fever edges its way down the Pacific Coast, from San Francisco to Santa Cruz to Hollywood and now to San Diego. What Blakesley learned there was that: ”A festival offers a broad platform of support because there are several participants with the same vested interest… get audiences in to see our shows.” He prepped his show The Mind Diddler at the 2001 Actors Festival in preparation for his first Fringe tour, and took the reigns as Artistic Director in the absence of any other candidate for the leadership role. In the process, he altered a key component of the Festival:

“For years the festival guaranteed a payment. Which was good considering actors were often treated economically as the least important component of a theatrical production. The problem inherent in that policy is that if the Festival didn’t make enough to pay the actors it would have to come out of the organization’s general fund, endangering other programs. I believed that with over a 100 participants in the festival we had the marketing muscle to forego a guarantee. Actors would only be paid if we surpassed expenses. It was up to them to get butts in the seats. It worked. As a result in 2001 actors were paid more than at any time in the festival’s history.”

Blakesley has been publicly credited for laying the groundwork for the San Diego Fringe Festival by KPBS News arts reporter Beth Accomando and San Diego Reader theatre critic Jeff Smith, to the general applause of the theatre community. However, Blakesley himself attributes the development to changes in the city’s infrastructure and arts funding, and would prefer to give the majority of the credit to Kevin Patterson.

patterson1Kevin Charles Patterson (left) is a former globe-trotting choreographer and director, and an irrepressible theatre enthusiast who found a second career in leadership of the Fringe after a traumatic automobile accident shattered his hip.

Patterson serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Actors Alliance, and grieved to see that the festival had been allowed to lapse. Its funders no longer saw how the festival served the organizations mission to area actors, and as a result it was no longer offered as a benefit to members.

Like Blakesley, Patterson saw program funding from a producing organization as a flaw in the logic of the concept. He envisioned an event that didn’t draw down resources from one organization, but uploaded them from many, to create a self-sustaining festival derived from a vibrant theatre community and extending beyond the city’s limits. And, like Blakesley, Patterson derived his model from the Fringe experience, volunteer driven and independent of subsidy. In reassembling his own life and career, he became determined to “pick up the pieces” and revivify the idea of a city-wide theatre festival

Patterson began assembling a group of like-minded individuals and organizations to help make the first Fringe happen. “It’s way more fulfilling than anything I could ever direct or choreograph,” says Patterson, “in terms of what it does for actors and for the community as a whole.”

Asked how the San Diego theatre landscape had changed to allow for a San Diego Fringe Festival where none had existed, Patterson describes it as a kind of perfect storm, a coalescing of elements that had existed but gelled. He notes Blakesley’s quiet, selfless dedication, above all. Patterson also credits the solid support of the San Diego theatre critics, in particular Jeff Smith but with “every major publication doing full page spreads.” This year, Patterson notes, the Fringe has benefitted from $25,000 worth of in kind donations from Geoffrey Shlaes, whose family for three generations has owned the Spreckles Theatre, the 1911 opera house in the heart of downtown San Diego that offers as many venues in itself as were available in the entire festival in its first year.

Patterson himself has put forward many resources, travelling on his own dime to festivals in Edinburgh (founded in 1947, the grandfather of all fringe festivals) and Orlando (at 22 the oldest fringe festival in the US) and many others. Patterson has also offered up his place of business, a school and studio, as rehearsal space.

“Two decades of being my own boss,” he says, are what taught him the truth about artists and individual self-empowerment. Blakesley and Patterson are both pleased that 100% of ticket sales are returned to artists in an unjuried, uncensored, uninhibited environment for the creation of theatre art.

In terms of community self-empowerment,Patterson notes, the San Diego Fringe is designed to be, “a feeder for untapped audiences into mainstream theatre,” and is in the vanguard of national movements toward community engagement, site-specific work, immersive theatre and physical theatre. The event embraces the city of San Diego with street theatre and buskers, family friendly events, and cross-discipline displays in the Visual Fringe. It embraces a larger community by welcoming artists from around the country and abroad.

To quantify that, one can point to 17 participating venues in a city where real estate is at a premium. One can point to artists from six different counties and seven different states in a city that is more of a tourist destination than an arts destination, although in truth it is both. One can point to a bottom line, if so inclined, as Americans for the Arts estimates that the 2013 event pumped more than a million dollars into the local economy.

The importance of generating new work seems so self-evident, it can be difficult to articulate the need when challenged. Why not simply recycle the plays of the past, with fresh interpretations of polished, well-worn classics taking the place of raw, risky new work?

Blakesley articulates the answer, with characteristic clarity, simplicity and striking imagery. Call it a conversation with ourselves. Or talking to ourselves. Call it what you will, but the compulsive or compelling need for this expression is evident, and Blakesley nails it:

“An actor can do well tackling the myriad of roles from other locals and eras. But if they’re going to communicate most effectively in their community, they’d do well to channel the voice of their neighbor. If we don’t talk to ourselves, through all the arts, we make ourselves vulnerable to the overlords and sociopaths whose bottomless maw can never be satiated. Or on a more complex note, our ability to fathom love would atrophy. Every community has to keep at it.”

Across twenty years, San Diego has kept at it. The San Diego Fringe Festival is the latest incarnation of that effort. We welcome TCG’s National Conference to our city on the eve of this auspicious event.

TIM WEST is an actor, director and playwright in San Diego. He mounted
David Ives short plays, Universal Language and Variations on the Death of Trotsky, in the 1994 Actors Alliance Actors Festival, in preparation for producing the West Coast premiere of All in the Timing at Ensemble Arts Theatre in 1995. He also workshopped a collection of his early performance monologues there as Two Minutes in 1995, and his full length play Amelia Earhart, Lost and Found in 1998 in preparation for its premiere at 6th@ Penn in September, 2001. West has registered his play Olivia Bolivia for the 2014 San Diego Fringe Festival, and is awaiting notification of venue.

  • Michael Eichler

    Very nice to read and understand all the work and strategy that made the San Diego Fringe Festival such a success. Great to see Todd’s many talents and unbelievable effort recognized.

  • Hully Gully Entertainers

    As a new San Diego resident of 3 years, and a 2-time Fringe participant this July – I am so thankful and appreciative for this opportunity these great men have provided. To think – for a nominal fee – my work is playing the Lyceum 5 times this summer!?! I’m luckiest man I know!!!

  • http://www.theatreartswest.org Theatre Arts West

    Theatre Arts West – a new theatre company in San Diego County dedicated to developing new plays and visual arts by Southern California playwrights and artists celebrates Kevin, Todd, and all who are supporting the San Diego International Fringe Festival and local theatre companies. We will be producing the work of five playwrights for 5 performances during the festival.