Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 2001

It’s a veritable blitzkrieg. The 8th annual Fritz Blitz of New Plays has gone statewide. According to Fritz Theater artistic director Duane Daniels, there were more submissions this year than ever — 140, as versus 100-110 — and now the competition is open to the whole of California.

“It’s nice to get some fresh blood,” says Daniels. “There were more people eligible, so the quality went up. It makes the whole project more exciting.”

Many people thought the project was defunct. Last year, the Fritz unexpectedly lost its home, a cozy little storefront space on the edge of the Gaslamp Quarter. The building’s owner and Fritz namesake Fritz Ahern leased the space to the Mexican restaurant next door.

“He wanted us to provide the entertainment for the diners,” says Daniels. “We decided that just wasn’t us. Without Fritz, there would be no Fritz Theater, but we had to move on.”

So the Fritz is maintaining its original fringe theater mandate and its reputation for producing edgy theatrical fare. A bit bloody but unbowed, they’ll celebrate their 10th anniversary at the Blitz, for which they’re renting space at Sushi Performance and Visual Art.

“Even if we didn’t do anything else, we still had a responsibility to produce the Fritz Blitz. It’s a San Diego institution.”

Though they have no money (“let’s just say I’m a major donor,” Daniels admits), they’re optimistically planning to produce a full season: a world premiere musical, Shiny Round Object, next spring at Sledgehammer’s St. Cecilia’s (where they reprised their acclaimed Sweeney Todd this year) and three shows at the Quentin Crisp Theatre, where former artistic director Bryan Bevell will shepherd San Diego favorite Ron Choularton in Simon Gray’s 1959 drama-with-stinging-wit, Otherwise Engaged (Sept. 20-Oct. 21).

But right now, Daniels’ mind is on the Blitz, which will run five weeks (August 16-September 15) and will feature eight plays, about 40 actors and several high-profile guest directors, including Bryan Bevell and Sledgehammer’s Kirsten Brandt. Half the scripts are from local writers, including a first-time effort from 26 year-old Elle Weatherup called Roman and the Somnambulant, a contemporary view of love presented in witty classical style — “a la Molière, Wilde or Sheridan,” says Daniels. “It’s one of my favorites in the whole Blitz.” Bevell directs.

Brandt, who first directed at the Blitz, will helm Carnivals of Desire, a full-length fantasy about age vs. beauty, written by Mary Fengar Gail of Irvine. Daniels himself directs Easter’s Exile by San Franciscan Pemma Teeter, about a preacher who questions his Faith.

There is no over-arching theme among the plays this year, though many of the submissions trod the well-worn path of dysfunctional family sagas, and “there was too much gunplay for my taste,” confides Daniels. “The theme to me is quality. I was going for people taking chances literarily; only a few are in the realistic vein. I think I’ve chosen some dang good scripts.

“Ultimately, I want to take this national and make it like Humana [the celebrated Festival of New Plays in Louisville]. We started by opening it up to California. I truly believe we can do it, in terms of talent and vision.

But Daniels’ frustration still peeks through his plans and enthusiasm.

“I feel so redundant complaining about the theater scene in this city. You have a great show, and no one comes. It’s very different in other places. In Minneapolis, theater is page B-1 of the newspaper every day. People expect cultural news and information. When we at the Fritz or Sledgehammer are doing our best work, it’s as good as New York. I don’t think the public knows that. If we’d done in New York or Chicago what we’ve done here, we’d be Steppenwolf [Theatre Company]. Instead, we’re homeless and on the rocks.”

So what brought Daniels back from his solo acting career [touring nationally in The Buddy Holly Story and several musical revues, and still performing here in Triple Espresso] to re-claim the reins of the Fritz?

“I saw my baby adrift at sea,” Daniels says wistfully of the risk-taking theater he co-founded in 1991. ” I was no longer a starving actor trying to run a theater. I wanted to come back and make it what it should be. We became a small professional theater company in March, which allows us to work with Equity actors. I’m hand-picking the plays and the directors for the Blitz, with the help of associate producer [and local playwright] Judy Montague.

“My game plan is to find a new space; there’s malls, redevelopment — downtown, the Naval Training Center, the Harbor. If we don’t have a space in two years, I’ll be worried. But I’m patient. We’ll still do 4-5 mainstage productions and a couple of late-nights and the Blitz. We’ve never been in the red in ten years, and we don’t plan to be now.

“I want to get back to our roots, to 1994-1996, when we did some pretty spectacular things.   Since then, the quality of directors, scripts and actors hasn’t been consistent. As long as I’m gonna live here, I’m gonna try to keep the Fritz going.”

For tickets and information, call 619-233-7305.

©2001 Patté Productions Inc.