Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 1999

Sledgehammer is undergoing a sex change.

Thirteen years ago, the Bad Boys of San Diego theater set out to bludgeon prevailing artistic sensibilities.   (“We Sledgehammer theater,” they insisted). In three dozen provocative productions, they pushed beyond the edge of the envelope — and sometimes the tolerance of the audience.

A couple of 20-something guys, fresh out of school: cynical, irreverent, iconoclastic, and sometimes given to railing in a screechy adolescent voice, they were often maligned for misogyny. But now, in an unexpected shift, new hormones are raging.   Co-founder/artistic director Scott Feldsher has departed; Ethan Feerst remains the indefatigable promoter/executive director. But estrogen is seeping in, with the advent of a bevy of 20-something females.   Women are getting top billing — directing, choreographing and starring in Sledge’s most recent shows.   Does this mean a kinder, gentler Sledgehammer?   Not according to recently-named full-time resident director, Kirsten Brandt.

“A lot of what Scott [Feldsher] did, and what he wanted for the theater and the community, I agree with,” says the 26 year-old writer/actor/director. “I want to honor the past but re-invent it as we go on. Experiment with form.   Play with presentation and style.   Each production incredibly different, with a fresh outlook and appeal. It will continue to be an avant garde theater company, but it needs to have more women involved.”

Brandt’s feminist vision informed her first two highly successful productions at Sledgehammer: “Demonology” in 1997 (later adapted for broadcast on KPBS-FM) and “Sweet Charity,” choreographed by Gina Angelique and her Eveoke Dance Theatre; both shows starred Julie Jacobs.

“Women are taking over,” says Brandt. “We’re comin’ on with a vengeance.” However, acknowledging the paucity of “comadres” in San Diego theater, she adds, “I really weep for the state of women in theater.”

“We have to start somewhere,” Brandt continues, optimistically. “Sledgehammer is evolving. But I can certainly play hardball with the men in this town. I have the cojones that the boys have.”

Brandt assisted Feldsher in directing the edgy “Peter Pan” production at Sledge (“I even went on as Tinker Bell on opening night”), and she’s also worked with or assisted Doug Jacobs at the San Diego Rep, Lisa Portes at Theater E, and various British directors during a year at the University of Birmingham, England. Right now, she’s focused on her next two directing projects at Sledgehammer: “Frankenstein” (through March 7) and “The Phantom Tollbooth” (April 1999).

Replacing an originally-scheduled world premiere by Scott Feldsher, and billed as a work-in-progress, “Frankenstein” was adapted by Brandt from the 1818 Gothic novel by Mary Shelley.     The familiar, oft-distorted story concerns a monster created by a young student. Longing for sympathy and shunned by everyone, the creature ultimately turns evil and brings retribution on the student for usurping the Creator’s prerogative.   Shelley gave no name to the monster, but he is commonly (and erroneously) called Frankenstein — after his creator, the student. In Brandt’s version, not surprisingly, the doctor/student is a woman.

“I’ve been an avid fan of Mary Shelley since junior high school,” says the self-confessed bookworm.   “Science has always captivated me, and I’m also very afraid of it. That’s why this story is so fascinating. It’s about science and religion.   Scientific morality.   The idea of a person playing God. The whole parenting and abandonment issue.

“In preparing for the production, I talked to theologians and scientists, mathematicians and chaos theorists and even plastic surgeons — another form of Frankenstein. With cloning and the recent limb transplants, we’re moving toward the creation of a new entity. Do we have the right to do this? And in the abortion debate, we’ve been forced to confront the question of when the soul enters the body. I’m bringing Mary Shelley’s structure to the present [the piece is set in 1990s San Diego] and to the issues of today.”

Six actors have collaborated with Brandt to create what she calls “a living work,” with consultation from the wildly imaginative playwright Erik Ehn (whose plays have appeared at Sledgehammer before).  

Brandt also sees “The Phantom Tollbooth”, typically produced as “a condescending children’s play” as a Swiftian allegory of our times. It follows a little boy who goes through a tollbooth and ends up in a parallel universe.   “It has a lot to say about society and the TV generation,” says Brandt. “And the victory of things that are intelligent over things that are crass and stupid.”

Having grown, who grew up in San Francisco, graduated from UCSD and spent several years in L.A. writing plays and working with the avant garde Relentless Theatre Company, Brandt is happy to settle back in San Diego.

“I’m totally excited about this whole new life, this journey and adventure I’m taking with Sledgehammer.”   Unfortunately, her pet chinchilla, Carmina Burana, didn’t live to make the move. But her tons of rare books are here, along with her freelance lighting-designer husband (David Cuthbert, a fellow UCSD alum, who designed lights for “Frankenstein”). And she’s busy hatching plans. She wants a resident acting company at Sledge, and she and Gina Angelique are talking about “a women’s artistic festival.”

Meanwhile, back at the theater, the tall brunette in the clunky boots is changing the face and voice of Sledgehammer.   As the company garners more grants and a higher profile, those on the fringe are hoping it doesn’t move solidly into the mainstream. We wouldn’t want the Sledgehammer to lose its power to pulverize.

©1999 Patté Productions Inc.