Moving around San Diego, especially in the midst of a brutal East Coast Winter, it’s easy to rejoice in the palm trees, beaches and sandaled tourists strolling along the water (locals don’t wear flip flops in March). Upon closer look, however, you’ll notice the strong and thriving military identity that permeates this Southern California paradise. Massive ships float along the coastline, and naval stations and museums make up an essential piece of the city’s cultural fabric. Liberty Station, San Diego’s Naval Training Center, has shaped the city’s cultural and civic identity since the early 1920s. At its peak, the center housed 33,000 sailors and the city hosted 1/6 of the U.S. Navy. Now a mixed-use development, Liberty Station is an exciting center of arts, culture and commerce, while remaining representative of its original purpose.
On March 8, TCG and Blue Star Families celebrated these elements with a Blue Star Theatres event at the Malashock Dance Studio, located in one of the center’s thriving arts complexes. The convergence of arts and culture in a military context is the focal point of Blue Star Theatres, a collaboration between TCG and Blue Star Families, and a recognition—at least in San Diego—that destination cities may be more than meets the eye.
Of the 108 participating Blue Star theatres, 12 are in California, and three represent the San Diego area. All three (La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego Repertory Theatre and The Old Globe) were on hand for an afternoon of performances, kicked off by statements from Captain Scott Adams, commanding officer of the Naval Base Point Loma; Megan Glynn, director of membership and volunteer outreach, Blue Star Families; TCG’s Executive Director Teresa Eyring; and featured a group of artistic and executive leaders from the San Diego theatre community—including Michael Rosenberg, Managing Director of the La Jolla Playhouse, Sam Woodhouse, Artistic Director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre and Roberta Wells-Famulaa, director of Education for the Old Globe. An enthusiastic audience (ranging, it seemed, from 1-71) filled the room, taking a break from the 80 degree March afternoon to check out what each of the Blue Star theatres had to offer.
La Jolla Playhouse was first on the program, offering a full performance of their touring show Suzette Who Set to Sea, which is currently traveling to San Diego schools as a part of the theatre’s 2014 POP Tour. Suzette—a lady pirate captain who tells an Odyssey-esque tale on the way to divulging her professional origin—and her 2 male counterparts—one “mute” yet hilariously capable of voicing female characters, and one loudly resentful of being captained by a female and averse to Suzette’s penchant for cuddling—drew smaller audience members close to the stage as they deftly navigated through their delightful nautical musical.
Photo: Jamie Scott Lytle
After a break for refreshments and mingling, performers from The Old Globe took their spots for readings of short plays generated in their Community Voices program, an adult workshop series that offers playwriting sessions to members of San Diego’s underserved community, culminating in readings by professional actors at The Old Globe. For the afternoon’s program, Old Globe staff chose pieces written by veterans and focused on military family dynamics, including a powerful true story about a soldier’s participation in his son’s birth via telephone while deployed. Midway through his wife’s labor, the call drops, but the soldier is quickly reconnected, eliciting nervous sighs of familiarity and awe from the Blue Star audience.
Photo: Jamie Scott Lytle
To bring the afternoon to a close, Jim Mooney, of San Diego Repertory Theatre’s A Hammer, A Bell and A Song to Sing, performed several numbers from the Rep’s hit musical, featuring a few unlikely songs of change. Mooney encouraged the audience to sing along with ‘This Land Is Your Land’, and reminding us of the song’s oft ignored verses, highlights of the activism that A Hammer embraces. Though not all of the pieces were directly connected to military life, they were unified by a sense of independence, optimism and strength, which characterizes a life of deployments and homecomings. The afternoon was an example of something we as theatre makers often cite but more often take for granted—that theatre has the power to create a shared experience, regardless of the subject or the viewer’s preexisting connection to it.
Photo: Jamie Scott Lytle
San Diego, like any other theatre community, is uniquely tied to its city’s history and strengths. This month’s event was reflective of the diverse military community in the area, and the willingness of San Diego theatres to give voice to members of this community who are so often underrepresented in its audiences and on its stages. The sense of community in the group of assembled families, artists and leaders was exciting, as was the appropriateness of Liberty station, a military landmark turned cultural catalyst, as its locale. For San Diego, a connection between the military population and area theatres is not yet seamless. There’s no question, however, that it is essential to the growth of the community at large, and brought to the fore by artistic leaders who are interested in being truly reflective of their hometown. Forging these pathways takes awareness, energy and creativity, as well as the knowledge that any change takes time. Luckily, San Diego seems to have these qualities in spades. Theatre makers and audience members alike displayed a commitment to increased accessibility and involvement in the arts for San Diego’s military community, who are taking an inspiring step towards greater engagement nationwide. Sometimes it just takes a little scratching below the surface, and maybe making the choice to avoid the beach for a day.
Hannah Fenlon is a TCG intern in the department of Communications and Conferences. She graduated from Kenyon College with a BA in Drama, and has lived for the past several years in Chicago, where she co-founded Two Birds Casting and worked as a freelance producer for theatre and film. She is currently pursuing an MA in Arts Administration at Columbia University.
Blue Star Families is a national, nonprofit network of military families from all ranks and services, including guard and reserve, dedicated to supporting, connecting and empowering military families. With our partners, Blue Star Families hosts a robust array of morale and empowerment programs, including Books on Bases, Blue Star Arts, Operation Honor Corp, Blue Star Careers and Operation Appreciation. Blue Star Families also works directly with the Department of Defense and senior members of local, State and Federal government to bring the most important military family issues to light. Working in concert with fellow nonprofits, community advocates, and public officials, Blue Star Families raises awareness of the challenges and strengths of military family life and works to make military life more sustainable. Our worldwide membership includes military spouses, children, parents, and friends, as well as service members, veterans and civilians. http://www.bluestarfam.org/.
MetLife Foundation was established in 1976 to continue MetLife’s longstanding tradition of corporate contributions and community involvement. The Foundation’s commitment to building a secure future for individuals and communities worldwide is reflected in its dedication to empowering older adults, preparing young people and building livable communities. Since it was established, MetLife Foundation has provided more than $530 million in grants and $70 million in program-related investments to nonprofit organizations addressing issues that have a positive impact in their communities. For more information, visit www.metlife.org.