APRIL 1998

Published in In Theater

Southern California has long been known as a hotbed of alternative lifestyles. So why not alternative theater? Okay, San Diego has a reputation (not always undeserved) as a lovely, sleepy, conservative Navy town. But last year, there was higher attendance at arts and cultural activities than at the world-famous Zoo, Sea World and all the events at Qualcomm Stadium combined.   The city sits at the extreme end of the continent, and it does have an edge.

The most fertile growing medium for theater experimentation is UCSD, whose drama department was recently ranked third in the nation (by U.S. News & World Report). It has spawned several fringe theater companies, including Undergraund! Inc, Theater E and California Repertory Theatre; the longest-lasting of the bunch is Sledgehammer Theatre. Their modest, revisionist account goes like this:

“A condensed history of theatre:  

There was the Big Bang.   The Dinosaurs lived and died. Gutenberg invented the printing press. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.   Sledgehammer Theatre was born.   Bang.”

That early promotional brochure captures the essence of Sledgehammer. “We’re not ‘the’ Sledgehammer Theatre,” they doggedly assert. “We Sledgehammer Theatre.   We’re a verb.”   And, for 13 years, they’ve remained true to their name, grabbing the attention and brutally assaulting the senses of their ever-increasing audiences.

The punk/funk, shoestring operation was started by a fearless triumvirate straight out of school: Ethan Feerst (a film student, ultimately executive director), Scott Feldsher (artistic director) and Robert Brill (resident designer).

Their early productions were site-specific, staged in highly unlikely, uncomfortable, unnerving places — a dirt canyon, a parking garage, 20,000 square feet of abandoned factory.   Their presentations were aggressive, acrobatic, in-your-face, misogynistic, violent, bloody, loud, long — and often drop-dead gorgeous.   The critics crowed.

“I hated everything about this show” (Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Pre-Paradise Sorry Now”), said Jonathan Saville of the San Diego Reader. “And yet… there is something wonderfully stimulating about the sheer gall of Sledgehammer, which in its fanatical devotion to serious theater careens ahead without thought for what the audience thinks it wants, or what good taste dictates, or what critical judgment finds to be worthy.”

Alan Havis (writing in Theatre Forum) said “Sledgehammer esthetics are evident in their … bold brass knuckles acting, and sarcastic punch… Set, costume, light and sound design… are more outrageous with each show. Sex, violence and hallucinations are common elements…    Feldsher’s actors…[are] far from subtle and rarely modest… sometimes terribly sexist and dangerously sensational.”

The San Diego Theatre Critics Circle awarded Sledgehammer Theatre a special citation for “outstanding achievement in … their proof that rowdiness and art are not necessarily contradictory terms.”

The Sledge-men went on to stage five West Coast premieres and ten world premieres, by writers like Mac Wellman (“7 Blowjobs”), Erik Ehn (“The Saint Plays,” “New,” and “Shadowy Waters”), Kelly Stuart (“The Peacock Screams When the Lights Go Out”) and Scott Feldsher (“South of Heaven”). They graduated from vacant lots to the Wallenboyd Theatre in LA, the Old Globe Theatre, the Whitney Museum of Art (the world premiere of Erik Ehn’s “No Time Like the Present”) and finally, to their own home base, St. Cecilia’s, a high-ceilinged, stained-glass former funeral chapel built in 1928.

Currently underway is the American premiere of Nicky Silver’s “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine.”   The 1995 savagely dark comedy was workshopped last year at the Vineyard Theatre in New York and performed this year in Dortmund, Germany.   But Sledgehammer’s Feerst “kept hounding me and begging me,” says the ever-cheerfully cynical Silver.   “Clearly, the theater isn’t dying; it isn’t dying all over the country. Especially in San Diego. Some kind of cancerous growth has sprouted up. Young people under seventy are coming to the theater! Like toadstools on a rotten branch, these theaters have taken root.”

When he talks “theaters” and San Diego, he’s not only referring to Sledgehammer. In fact, Silver’s work was introduced to the local community by the other contender for long-running fringe company, the Fritz Theater.   Founded in 1991 by Duane Daniels (who served as artistic director until last year), the plucky little storefront company is still struggling, but has built a solid foundation as a high-quality producer of off-center, provocative plays, both old and new.  

Current artistic director Bryan Bevell has brought the work of many contemporary playwrights to San Diego:   Paula Vogel (“Baltimore Waltz,” “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing”), Suzan-Lori Parks (“The America Play”), Brad Fraser (“Poor Superman”), Morris Panich (“Vigil”), Edwin Sanchez (“Unmerciful Good Fortune”) and writer-in-residence Karin Williams (most recently, “The Third Voice of the Nightjar”).

Bevell’s direction of Silver’s “Fat Men in Skirts” prompted a remounted co-production at Sledgehammer Theatre.     In 1996, his guest direction of Silver’s “Free Will and Wanton Lust” saved Sledgehammer Theatre from financial ruin. A four-month run made the show the biggest success ever. Now Bevell is directing Silver’s “Borgnine” at Sledgehammer.

Whereas the Fritz was always a cooperative venture, more like a collective, most of the other alternative theaters in town were ‘guru-driven’. And when the guru moved on, the company fell apart.

There was the high-octane Theater E, which brought some much-needed estrogen to Sledgehammer co-productions.   Lisa Portes was at the helm, and at Sledge, she directed spectacular productions of Naomi Iizuka’s “Tattoo Girl” and Erin Cressida Wilson’s “Cross Dressing in the Depression.”   But then Portes became assistant director for Des McAnuff’s La Jolla and New York productions of “The Who’s Tommy,” and she went on to direct the show around the world, winding up in New York, where she’s now an associate artist at SoHo Rep.

Matthew Wilder wowed San Diego when, fresh out of UCSD, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff handed him the directing reins for a production of “The Hairy Ape.” “We were so lucky at UCSD,” Wilder says from his current home-base, L.A. “Des gave us a sense of unlimited possibilities, with teachers like Robert Woodruff, Jose Rivera, Anne Bogart. But the theaters in town weren’t very interested in supporting indigenous work.”   So Wilder founded his own company, California Repertory Theatre. Under that banner, he directed two Sledgehammer co-productions:   the world premiere of Chuck Mee’s “The War to End War” and Chekhov’s “Three Sisters. ”

“Audiences supported Sledgehammer and were eager for that kind of work,” says Wilder. “But not theaters. We also had the best possible support from critics. But we were all very idealistic. And impatient. We didn’t want to spend years setting up work in the city. I suppose we could’ve toughed it out. But no one wanted to wait 5-7 years for the payoff.”

But Sledgehammer ‘toughed it out.’   They pushed on relentlessly, uncompromising in their vision, gradually moving from small potatoes to relatively big bucks. Their first production (Heiner Muller’s “Quartet,” 1985) was mounted for $1500 and some student credit cards. Their five-hour deconstructed “Hamlet” (1990) ran up a bill of $15,000.   This year’s budget is $170,000, up $40,000 from 1997.   They’ve actually got a surplus.

So how does a company go from seat-of-the-pants to foundation grants, while still remaining controversial enough to be rejected by the NEA’s National Council for the Arts — after approval by the peer review panel? The answer, by all accounts, is a tenacious, business and marketing-minded person who maintains the edgy artistic vision. At Sledgehammer Theatre, that person is San Diego’s theatrical pit-bull, Ethan Feerst.

“I have to hand it to Ethan,” says the Fritz’s Bevell. “He’s a terrific producer, a tireless promoter who parlayed his organization into a comparative powerhouse in the community. He’s absolutely relentless, wonderful and maddening and charming and grating.   I think Dustin Hoffman plays Ethan Feerst in ‘Wag the Dog.’”

While most executive/managing directors stay close to home, Feerst got out into the community. He served as co-chair of the San Diego Arts and Culture Coalition and Theater Grants panelist for the California Arts Council.   He spearheaded the establishment of the groundbreaking San Diego Small Theatre Code which allows Equity artists to work for seven local theater companies.

While he was busy building a local and national reputation for his theater, his co-founders were being lured away.   Robert Brill’s out-of-Sledge design gigs ranged from L.A. to Chicago and New York (Lincoln Center, MTC, NY Theatre Workshop), as well as the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse.   He recently designed the blockbuster Broadway revival of “Cabaret.”

Feldsher, meanwhile, who directed 23 of Sledgehammer’s 35 infamous productions, won a prestigious TCG Career Development Fellowship, and traveled around the country, working with other high-profile directors. He also started spending half his year teaching theater at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. As of February, he officially resigned as artistic director of Sledgehammer, though he’ll be back in January to direct his latest creation, “Don Juan in Cooperstown.”

Sledgehammer may be a one-man band now, but it continues to be a loud and brassy one, big enough to play host and advocate for other fledgling fringe groups. But has growth altered the vision? Feerst insists not.

“I think we’re still aspiring to the best avant garde esthetics,” he says. “What I don’t like about alternative theaters is that they like to hang out on the edge with that old leftist, ideological strident mentality.   ‘We don’t want or need success,’ etcetera. For us, it’s always been a battle for the center ground — by shifting the landscape.   It’s the job of the avant garde to get absorbed. That’s what waging culture war is all about. I don’t want to hang out in black, smoking a cigarette, bitching about mainstream theater.   We don’t want people to be afraid to come here. I want people to be excited, to have a sense of anticipation. Our sense of the high-wire is still there, of doing a triple gainer with a twist.   And how do we land?    With spectacular successes and failures.”

Tempus fugit. Sledgehammer’s 1998-9 season brochure (a mailing of 10,000) is a far cry from the Big Bang promotion. “Quietly confident, like Calvin Klein,” says Feerst. Let’s hope he doesn’t trade in all his black clothes and stray too far from the edge.

©1998 Patté Productions Inc.