(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 second 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 TGC 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. Read more about the San Diego Fringe Festival in Part One of this series, and read on for the story of “Out on an Limb”.
For emerging playwrights looking for opportunities to see their work produced, the advent of the Fritz Blitz of New Plays (1994-2008) was the city’s seminal event. It began with a chat in a hot tub between Bryan Bevell and Karin Williams, then husband-and-wife and partners (with Artistic Director Duane Daniels) in a scrappy little theatre that was barely a year old. They conceived the Blitz as a lightening-strike of original plays staged in an old brick warehouse donated by real estate developer Fritz Ahern, looking to the perceived value of properties near what would become Petco Park, new home of the city’s major league baseball franchise. Ironically, the gutsy Fritz Blitz was initially conceived to draw audiences in summer to the hot and inadequately ventilated venue, despite the ever-present lure of non-theatre events outdoors in the always-balmy “America’s Finest City.”
“Being a writer,” Williams recalls, “I wanted the Blitz to be writer-focused.” Williams was Writer-in Residence at the Fritz, where three of her plays had their premieres. (She is now a playwright in New Jersey, and an Artistic Associate at New York City’s Looking Glass Theatre) “It was always very important to me to limit submissions to San Diego playwrights, because I wanted the writers to be available to work with the directors and actors.” Williams saw this as an antidote to the sometimes adversarial view of the playwright in rehearsals.
Though in latter day incarnations it came to encompass plays by writers from further up the California coast, The Blitz was fundamentally a community affair. It ran a program of two to six plays four nights a week, with six programs across six weeks. It featured scores of actors, providing many with their first opportunity to be seen upon arrival in the community, quite a few with directorial opportunities that are hard to come by when an artist is stretching in that way.
“Theater, as we well know, is not a meritocracy,” comments Bevell. Always the rebel, the self-described ‘harmless old crank’ is now a gadfly theatre artist in Minneapolis. “[A] keen awareness of the terrible injustice of that fact was, in my mind, a driving motivator behind the Fritz…We didn’t have much to offer, beyond an empty stage and maybe a few bucks for essentials. We fed on hunger and desire and a gnawing dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. I think that’s why the best work at the Fritz tended to be raw, elemental, unvarnished, and very, very alive.”
The Blitz can claim some small credits of the kind that draw wider attention, beyond a city’s own limits. Here are a few of the talents who saw some of their first if not most substantive opportunities in the Fritz Blitz of New Plays.
Matthew Wilder was just completing his M.F.A. in directing at UC-San Diego when he staged classmate Karl Gadjusek’s Doctor FS in the Terminal Ward for the 1995 Blitz. Wilder went on to direct at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Dallas Theatre Center, Soho Rep New York; and Annie Hamburger’s En Garde Arts in New York. He has twice won the DramaLogue Award for Best Director, and received a Princess Grace-Theatreworks USA Grant for Emerging Artists. Wilder is now predominantly a film-maker.
Kirsten Brandt was just completing her B.A. in Theatre Arts from UCSD when she directed Judith Montague’s Our Lady By the Shoulder of the Road for Blitz II. She later directed Mary Fingar-Gail’s Carnivals of Desire for Blitz VI. She became Sledehammer Theatre’s Artistic Director (1999-2006) and has directed regionally for the Old Globe, the La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego Rep,
North Coast Rep and Diversionary in San Diego as well as Sierra Rep, Shakespeare Santa Cruz and San Jose Rep, where she served as Associate Artistic Director. She lectures and directs at UC Santa Cruz. Brandt is married to designer David Lee Cuthbert, who chairs his department at UC Santa Cruz.
Melanie Marnich was an MFA student at UCSD when her play Blur was workshopped at the Fritz, Blur later received its world premiere Off Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club, and won the Francesca Primus Prize from Denver Center Theatre. Her plays Quake and Tallgrass Gothic premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays.
She has been awarded two McKnight Advancement Grants and two Jerome Fellowships from The Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, and is the recipient of numerous other playwriting prizes, with commissions from Arena Stage, the Guthrie Theater, the Kennedy Center, the La Jolla Playhouse, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and South Coast Repertory. Marnich’s work has been also been seen at New York’s Public Theater and London’s Royal Court Theatre, among many others. Her adaptation of the book The Brand New Kid by Katie Kouric, had its premiere at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in 2006. In 2009, Marnich became a staff writer for the Season Three of Big Love, the HBO drama series, and the next year was nominated for the Writers Guild of America (WGA) Award for her work there. She is married to playwright Lee Blessing.
Certainly these three UCSD alumns were already headed for success, and their later successes are less evidence of the efficacy of the Fritz Blitz than of its inclusiveness.
But if we truly believe in the importance of theatre as a legitimate lifetime pursuit as well as a career path, then we must allow that there are many other lives that were touched by the fifteen year experiment in community empowerment –a phrase that has become the watchword of TCG National Conferences recently. Thus the demise of such opportunities is both deplorable and lamentable, and their resurrection of that hope in another form is a cause for celebration and praise.
When ‘The Blitz’ ended in 2008 with a retrospective of pieces from past festivals, produced at the Lyceum Theatre in downtown San Diego, the loss of the new play festival was much mourned. One man did something about it. Beginning in 2010, director Robert May labored to fill that gap.
Robert May had directed and produced for The Blitz in its latter days, alongside his wife, theatre administrator and casting director D. Candis Paule. After two years of careful planning, May approached Scripps Ranch Theatre, a 35 year-old theatre that has only recently professionalized, to launch a program of complete development in miniature, guiding three plays from initial proposal through draft revisions to festival production. As Director of New Play Development, he gave the program a name that embraced both the riskiness of the venture, and the strong sense of local pride.
“Out on a Limb: Plays from America’s Finest City” debuted in July, 2012, at Scripps Ranch Theatre, a thirty-five year old organization that only began paying artist stipends in 2006 and only recently hired its first professional staff. Though open to all ideas, May was committed from the start to a development process that saw plays through from conception to production, with professional stipends for all artists involved.
The only limitations imposed are that plays are one-acts with six or fewer characters. Plays must reference San Diego in some way, but Program Director May and his review committee give great latitude to any play of merit, and references to America’s Finest City have ranged from a modest local eatery and district community college to a prominent street intersection and an area beach. The key idea, for May, is that the event makes San Diegans cognizant of the work originating in this ‘theatre town.’
The first “Out on a Limb,” in 2012, featured three plays in a single weekend’s program. The second new play festival, in 2013, expanded from one to two weeks. A play from the first year, Lisa Kirazian’s moving tribute to her Armenian-American family, is in development for possible inclusion in a future SRT season, and other playwrights involved have seen successes that they attribute to their engagement with the process of playwriting through “Out on a Limb.”
This year, the program received over thirty-five initial proposals by the October deadline. Twelve proposals were selected, with drafts solicited for final consideration in February, 2014. Three selections will have three months of professional input and playwright revision toward festival production at Scripps Ranch Theatre’s regular venue, the Leger Benbough Theatre on the campus of Alliant International University. Those performances of “Out on a Limb” will be July 19-27, 2014. The play selections, just announced, include Borderline by ‘California’ Jack Cassidy, Canary Cottage by Jake Edmondson, and Unplugged by Lisabeth Silverman.
San Diego theatre is recognized nationally for its two largest LORT theatres, the Old Globe Theatre and the La Jolla Playhouse, which have become conduits for Broadway-bound shows. It is also regarded for the top-ranked actor training program at UCSD. However, part of what makes up any ‘theatre town’ is the authentic experience of theatre on the city’s own terms. It is a pity that attendees of TCG’s national conference will miss two of those experiences by less than a month.
TIM WEST is an actor, director and playwright in San Diego. He participated in the first Fritz Blitz of New Plays in 1994, directing Where The Dust Has Settled by the late Cathryn Pizarski. Six of his own short plays were featured in the Blitz, including two in the final year’s retrospective. He participated in the first two years of SRT’s “Out on a Limb: New Plays From America’s Finest City,” and is pleased to be returning this year with a third play. His work was seen in New York City for the first time last year when his ten minute verse play, Great Reckoning in a Little Room, was read at Playwrights Horizons as part of Red Bull Theatre’s “Revelations Readings.”