WoW Factor: The Four-day Without Walls Festival at the La Jolla Playhouse
by PAT LAUNER
The San Diego Jewish Journal
Wow, is all you can say.
The list of performances and presentations for the first site-specific Without Walls ( WoW ) Festival at the La Jolla Playhouse is kind of mind-boggling, from the array of international talent to the fascinating, unique and off-the-wall artforms.
Try these as a sampling:
- an “immersive ambulatory journey into the fractured psyche of a young woman”
- a stellar astrophysics exploration of fusion and “our star”
- an open-air operetta billed as a “ritual of music”
- a new, Millennial, phone-camera-toting version of “Our Town”
- a live-cinema adaptation of Chekhov’s first full-length play
- a giant public construction site comprising thousands of cardboard boxes
- a reality-based theater piece in which San Diego County’s population is represented by 100 locals
- an oversized fantasy puppet emerging from the sea
- a duo offering one dollar for a minute of your time
the return of “The Car Plays”
That’s just a titillating taste of the 20 offerings at the one-of-a-kind four-day festival, presented with partners UCSD and MCASD (Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego). You probably can’t see all of them, but you can try.
Inspired by Europe’s city-wide theater festivals, the WoW Fest breaches the boundaries of conventional theater, placing visual and performing arts in unexpected and intriguing new locations, by bringing together an impressive exhibition of creative work.
At the center of it all, on the UCSD campus, will be a Festival Village, a communal gathering-place that features food trucks, a beer garden, no-cost artist talks, live music and free public performances. There, between sips, you can mingle with artists and try to get a handle on what you’ve seen.
The Festival is an extension of the Playhouse’s experimental, site-specific Without Walls program, which began in 2011 and so far, has included four remarkable productions: “Susurrus” at the San Diego Botanic Garden, “”The Car Plays” in a Playhouse parking area; “Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir ” at Martinis Above Fourth and “ACCOMPLICE: San Diego,” in and around Little Italy. Each one has been a knockout that, by popular demand, required an extension of the original run.
“The Car Plays” was so much fun that the Playhouse is bringing back several of the original 15 playlets from 2012 and commissioned a few more, from local playwrights. The “Car Play” experience was the brainchild of Paul Stein.
Paul Nicolai Stein got his middle name from his father’s side: Russian Jews who escaped the pogroms in the 1920s. When they landed in Chicago, Stein’s grandfather established a used furniture store. None of his three sons wanted any part of the family business; they all went into the entertainment industry: one as an actor, another, a screenwriter and Stein’s father became a manager and producer (with a client list including Harry Belafonte).
Stein was born in New York City, but moved to Los Angeles at age 7.
“I grew up with the feast-and-famine of the entertainment business,” he recalls.
When the family arrived in California, they lived in a hotel room in Hollywood; later, they stepped up to a house in the San Fernando Valley. Stein started out in a private Jewish day school, but by the time his bar mitzvah came around, there was no money to afford it.
During his high school years, Stein’s father began to show signs of Alzheimer’s Disease . Paul was just starting college when Dad died, which left him and his younger brother with their Mom (“a real Jewish mother” – “so happy this story will be in the Jewish Journal!”).
Now Stein’s daughter, age 3, carries on the Russian ancestry in her name: Kieva Natalia. They live not far from his work in Hollywood, where he’s production manager at Comedy Central/MTV Networks, and artistic director of Comedy Central Stage. He previously worked at HBO, and served as artistic director of Moving Arts Theatre Company (2005-2007).
Stein’s wife has family in San Diego (a brother in Carlsbad, a 96 year-old grandmother in Coronado). He’s already been down here twice this year, to direct Leonard Nimoy’s play, “Vincent,” at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
But it was at Moving Arts, in 2007, that Stein had his vehicular vision.
What Happens in the Car, Stays in the Car
“The company had lost their 60-seat theater space downtown L.A,” Stein recalls. “The building was being renovated. At the time, we had about 30 members – actors, writers, designers, stage managers. As artistic director, I had the responsibility of figuring out how we could keep working.
“I was walking in the Valley one time, and there was a car parked at the curb, with a couple inside, arguing. I was about ten yards away. I was like a voyeur, trying to figure out what was going on, what was the power dynamic in that passionate interaction.
“I started thinking what the car means in L.A. Where are we all going and what are we going for? You’re judged by the car you drive. And, for many in L.A., the car is an escape. There were moments I recalled in a parked car: studying; sleeping; being broken up with by ex-girlfriends; the first kiss with my wife.
“And I thought: Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a play that happened in a parked car, and the audience was watching from the inside, not through the window, like I was? It’s a comment on our car-dependent lives in California.”
Stein conceived of and directed the first “Car Plays” with Moving Arts (which continues as the event presenter), then brought it to the Radar L.A. Festival and subsequently, in March 2012, to the La Jolla Playhouse.
Five cars are parked in a line. Two audience members get into the back seat, and a 10-minute play unfolds in the front. Then ‘carhops’ open your door and usher you to the next vehicle, where another play – a comedy, a drama or a mystery – transpires. It’s amazing how much can happen, how much you can glean, in a 10-minute glimpse into others’ lives.
“The audience plays a role in the performance,” says Stein. “At times, it’s almost breaking the bounds of comfort. Most people like it, but it’s hard on others.
“The response in La Jolla was so overwhelming, they invited us back, and we’re thrilled.”
Steinm the artistic producer (he has three co-producers), put together 15 plays, including five world premieres commissioned by the Playhouse. Seven plays will be new to San Diego, and three favorites will be returning from the last visit.
In one, called “We Wait,” the characters are two dogs anxiously anticipating their masters’ return, which may not happen. Another is about a fractious family enroute to Disneyland. And in “The Audience,” the most audacious and unsettling of the prior pieces, actors and audience reverse roles. The impatient performers keep asking each other when those two in the back seat are going to start the show.
“I always like strange encounters,” admits Stein. “A couple of people meeting for the first time. Whose car is it? Who has the ‘home field advantage?’ In one piece, there’s a dead body in the trunk; another is about a parent-child relationship, where the parent has to let the child go, into adulthood. But overall, we’re definitely going to have more laughs this year.
“It’s hard to write a comic car play,” Stein explains. “Will an audience of two feel the freedom to laugh out loud? Will they think it’s all right to applaud? Some people are afraid to throw the actors off. But really, they can do anything, as long as they don’t touch the performers, or interfere with the play. Some clap, give praise and talk to the actors after the show is over. Whatever makes you comfortable. ”
You have four times a day during the WoW Festival to test your comfort in a theater-car. There are three different ‘lines’ of cars to sample (you do one row at a time, lasting about an hour). The Huffington Post called “The Car Plays” “adventurous theater packed into a Jeep or a Jetta or an Audi.” Hop in!
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest…
Somewhere else on the UCSD campus, someone will be buying time. That is, a minute of YOUR time.
Renowned site-based artist Brian Lobel was inspired by his own life experience.
At age 20, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. And ever since, people have been telling him how lucky he is to know the true value of time. Folks often have high expectations of survivors, he says, putting excessive pressure on them to do something valuable and important with their lives, now that they’ve out-run this brush with death. Even Holocaust survivors, he claims, are asked about what they’ve done to change the world.
“We ask people to become superhuman,” the friendly, frizzy-haired Lobel claims, in a Skype interview from his home in London.
He moved there seven years ago because he turned 26 and, no longer covered on his parents’ insurance, he was unable to afford healthcare. He’s made a good life abroad, earning master’s and doctoral degrees, and becoming a Senior Lecturer in Performing Arts at the University of Chichester , while he continues to create distinctive performance art about the body – his body in particular.
But we’re jumping ahead. Let’s take a step back to other formative episodes of his life.
Lobel grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Albany, New York. As a teen, he was actively involved in USY (United Synagogue Youth) and served as a camp counselor for years, experiences that, he says, “formed my work ethic. It’s all about getting people involved.”
He lived in Jerusalem for a year, as part of Seeds of Peace, a non-profit, non-political organization that helps teenagers from regions of conflict – like Israelis and Palestinians — learn peacemaking skills. He was also an Israeli folk dance instructor in Israel.
A lot of his work revolves around Jewish themes.
One performance piece, called “ Ruach ” (Hebrew for ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’), was about an Israeli folk dance instructor trying to relate to his religion through dance.
Another, called “ Schmug ” (a word he made up, combining schnozz and mug), focused on finding glasses that fit Jewish noses (Italians and Greeks related to it, too). It was about where people’s noses come from, and how they feel about their parents giving them their nose.
And then there’s “Carpe Minuta Prima.”
Seize the Minute
“It’s about someone paying for a bit of someone’s life,” Lobel explains. “Kind of a twist on a horrifying Jewish stereotype. It puts money into the conversation about the value of life, which has always dogged Jews.”
The color scheme for his setup is “all red and black, playing on themes of the Devil.
“Jews don’t really believe in the Devil. But I’m asking people to make a Faustian bargain. They say, ‘You can’t own my time.’ Well, I will.”
Here’s how it works:
Someone (in this case, not Lobel himself, but two students from UC San Diego, whom he trained when he was here a few months back, to try out “Carpe Minuta Prima” on San Diegans at the Fringe Festival… It was a huge success) asks you if they can have a minute of your time. They’ll pay you a dollar, just to go inside a booth (an unadorned 3’x5’ closet ), sit in front of a camera and do anything you want for a minute. Then you sign a contract, saying that you’ve given that minute to Lobel . Each recording is made into a shrink-wrapped DVD with the person’s picture in front and their signed contract on the back. Later, the DVDs are available for sale, for the price of one dollar. You can buy back your own minute; but most people take a chance on someone else’s.
“People do all kinds of things,” reports Lobel , who’s presented the piece all over the world, accumulating more than 1300 minutes of people’s time.
“Some take 20 minutes to prepare. Others just walk in and do whatever they’re gonna do. A couple kissed. A man sang an operatic aria. One guy took his shirt off and flexed his muscles. Some call their friends; some sleep. Some are upset to be in a room alone, without outside stimulation. Some like to reveal secrets. Some of these minutes will be terrible, some meaningless, some boring. But others will be exciting, sexy, romantic, dangerous, restful, political or touching. Much like life itself. And they’re all worth the same.
“This piece is not about doing something phenomenal,” says Lobel . “It’s a random collection of minutes. All of them together make the piece. Each becomes an art object. At the end, we have a little ceremony, a kind of grand finale. Many come back. People are generally fascinated by it all. There’s no pressure. They can choose not to participate. They can choose not to buy any DVDs. It’s quite dramatic for everyone to watch us delete all the material.
“I’d say 40% of people understand the profundity of it. Some say it’s nice to have time to reflect. I’ve always been inspired when people bring back the exact dollar I gave them. They seem to be thinking about the value of their time. Even if they didn’t record, that’s profound. They might go home and think, ‘What did I miss?’
Your Body, Your Self, Your Playhouse
“All my work is about amateurism, about asking regular people to perform. It’s exhibitionistic and voyeuristic – and neither. I try to make very tiny claims. But I’m not interested in avoiding tough subjects. And many people are really up for a different experience of theater or performance.”
La Jolla Playhouse managing director Michael S. Rosenberg agrees.
“The Without Walls program sits squarely at the center of our mission of developing new work and new theatrical forms,” Rosenberg asserts. “This inaugural Festival has galvanized the entire Playhouse staff, to create a spectacular community-wide event that will shine a national spotlight on San Diego.”
So savor the taste of San Diego… and beyond. Sample the smorgasbord of singular performance offerings, and see if you say Wow!
The La Jolla Playhouse presents its first site-specific Without Walls Festival, October 3-6, around the UCSD campus and elsewhere.
Performances occur during the day and evening.
Tickets (ranging from free to $25) and the full schedule are available at www.lajollaplayhouse.org (or WoWFestival.org), or by calling 858-550-1010.
©2013 PAT LAUNER