Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 1994

Once upon a time there was a Seventh Avenue storefront.   And two guys who thought they’d build a theater in the seedy side of town. They called it Events West. They were into theme parties and corporate entertainment; they didn’t know much about theater.   Enter friend Duane Daniels, a Cleveland boy who grew up in the theater. He helped them build a tight little 49-seat space. But, during their first production, “Circus Cafe,” the talent walked out (negotiation problems). The two guys left San Diego. Daniels seized the helm, borrowed the name of his landlord/patron/angel, Fritz Ahern, and a theater was born.

Now in its third year, The Fritz Theater has moved on to bigger and better things, not the least of which is a new, airy-but-narrow 80-seat storefront location at 3rd and J, on the edge of the Gaslamp Quarter.   The company has made a reputation for itself as a quality producer of off-center, provocative plays, both old and new.

Focusing on the new, the company is mounting its first (perhaps first annual) Fritz Blitz of New Plays (August 4-September 11).   This was the brainchild of Karin Williams, the Fritz’s producing director and resident playwright, whose “Australia”, “Room,” and “Susan, Katrina and Jill” have been produced at the Fritz.  

“We were looking for something inexpensive and intriguing; August is always a tough sell,” said Duane Daniels, Artistic Director. “A lot of people are closet writers, with no opportunity to have their plays produced.”   Actually, most of the finalists (12 pieces were selected from 85 submissions) will be familiar to local theatergoers:   actors, directors or writers such as Luther Hansen, Cathryn Pisarski, Ed Vogel, Karl Gadjusek, Todd Blakesley, Burnham Joiner.

One of the plays was a group creation.   “Women of the Violet Wynn,” submitted by Second Story Writers, is an eight-woman collaboration that emerged from a class at the Writing Center, next door to the Fritz in the Quong Building.   At the turn of the century, the building housed a brothel named after its madam, Violet Wynn.   The theater piece, primarily fictional, is about the women who worked in that sporting-house.

Since that time, the area has definitely cleaned up its act, and has become a veritable “culture corner,” with the Fritz, the Writing Center and the Chinese Center all within shouting distance.   But the Fritz still operates on a very taut shoestring.

They get no government funding. “We’re not interested in money from suits and ties and paperwork,” says Daniels, “but from people who care about what we’re doing.”   Ticket sales provide 99% of their income. Each show pays for the next one. They mount 7 or 8 productions a year, for an annual cost of about fifty thousand dollars.   “If we didn’t sell that many tickets,” Daniels shrugs, “we’d survive on forty thousand.

“Actors like working here. We’re doing a type of theater no one else is doing…. Contemporary work, but not necessarily with a nihilistic bent.   Very socially and politically conscious.   We’re definitely not middle-of-the-road.” The Fritz-folks lean toward Pinter, Mamet, cross-gender casting and quirky new works.

“We tried hard for a real mix in the style and type of production for the Blitz,” says Karin Williams.   “Four of the plays are by women, eight by men; the submissions leaned heavily toward comedy.”   The fully-produced plays will be grouped into six evenings, each of which will run for one weekend. There “is” quite a genre variety. Take, for example, Cathryn Pisarski’s ““The Corpse and the Cruise Ship”. It’s a mystery thriller with eight characters — performed in six minutes.

That play shares an evening with (among others) “The Further Adventures of Studs Spillblood”. A wacky parody by Maureen Anderson (who also gave the Fritz “Zombie Sex Mutants” and “Rainy Night in Dago”), the piece has a ’40s/’50s film noir/gangster movie ambiance.

Then there’s “39 Hours” by director Patrick Brassell.   This full-length comedy concerns a young man who, believing he may have a fatal disease, undergoes a battery of tests and then waits the titular amount of time for the results.  

Another evening is devoted to “The Well of Happiness”, Stuart Ostfeld’s dark comedy about the roots of violence in our society.   A female advertising executive is a staunch advocate of non-violence — until she’s assigned a job promoting a new line of handguns for women.

Further out on the fringe, on the borderline of weird, you can find “Dr. F’s in the Terminal Ward” by Karl Gadjusek, co-director of Theatre E, and “Bomb!” by the Fritz’s own Ed Vogel. This is either a relationship piece or an anti-war statement; the judges (from a range of local theaters) couldn’t agree.   For ten minutes, a man and woman sit at a bus stop, communicating or not communicating, while someone throws bombs at them from offstage.

The festival should have something for everyone… everyone without really mainstream taste, that is. Everybody wins here: local writers get produced; local actors get more work; local audiences get treated to new and hopefully thought-provoking work.   That makes a good theater story.

©1994 Patté Productions Inc.