There’s always been theater that exists outside the comforts of the mainstream. Here in San Diego, we’re a bit more traditional but the second annual San Diego International Fringe Festival is working to change that. Billed as “one of the largest performing arts events on the West coast,” 73 sharp, eccentric, avant-garde and unexpected shows will charm, shock and mystify San Diego audiences for 10 straight days.
Every presentation lasts only 45-60 minutes. The artists receive 100 percent of their box office sales and tickets are eminently affordable ranging from free to $10.
The focus, Fringe executive producer/director, Kevin Charles Patterson, says, is on “promoting artists, creating community, and encouraging the development of San Diego as a destination for innovative artistic expression.”
Last year’s inaugural Fringe was three days long at three different venues. Produced on a shoestring, it garnered a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle award for “Outstanding Special Event.”
This year, there are 17 downtown venues, featuring 300 participants and more than 80 productions.
Birth o’ the Fringe
The Fringe Grande Dame is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which launched in 1947. San Diego’s began when Patterson, who owns the Academy of Performing Arts in La Mesa, was seeking a new project.
“It started out as something to fill a void in my life,” he says, “and turned into the biggest gift to the community.”
Last year’s Fringe had zero budget. The venues were donated, and some sponsorships were available. This year, there’s a $30,000 in-kind donation of the Spreckels Theatre stage, and a Horton Theatre Foundation grant for use of the Lyceum. Total attendance last year was an estimated 38,000 (including drop-bys for buskers/street performances); ticketed attendance was more than 3,000.
There are so many show options this year but a few have Jewish connections, so let’s get to know those.
Ray Jessel: Writer, musician, and 85-year-old bad boy
Ray (no relation to the late comedian, George Jessel) was born in Cardiff, Wales.
“There were quite a number of Jews there when I grew up, about 2,000 families and three shuls,” the avuncular Jessel says by phone from his home in Los Angeles. His grandfather was one of the co-founders of the Orthodox synagogue in Cardiff, where Jessel had his bar mitzvah.
“Following the Jewish tendency to be musical,” young Jessel started piano early. He earned a degree in music from the University of Wales, and won a scholarship to study composition for a year in Paris. He emigrated to Canada and served as music director for a Reform temple, writing music for the choir.
He became an orchestrator/composer for CBC radio and television. In Toronto, he got involved with musical theater, and that changed his life.
Jessel wrote material for “Upstairs at the Downstairs” revues in New York, and created songs for the Sherlock Holmes musical, “Baker Street,” which ran on Broadway (1965). He wrote the score for “Helzapoppin,” which premiered at the Montreal Expo in 1967.
He wrote songs and comedy sketches for “The Dean Martin Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show” and “The Captain and Tenille Show.” He wrote the two-hour TV episode, “Love Boat, the Musical,” starring Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Cab Calloway and Della Reese. He created gags for Bob Hope and Groucho Marx, even Muhammad Ali.
Jessel’s songs have been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis, Jr., Vicki Carr, John Pizzarelli, Al Jarreau and Michael Feinstein.
In 2002, he finally decided to perform his own comic songs, making his cabaret debut at age 72 (“Ray Jessel: The First 70 Years”). He’s played Hollywood, Toronto and New York, receiving several national cabaret awards.
“Everything comes together in my act,” he says. “Comedy, music, serious songs” (the latter co-written with Cynthia Thompson, his wife of 25 years). In preparation for his San Diego appearance, he wrote and recorded a song promoting the Fringe, which will likely be used at other Fringes. But we get it first!
One of Jessel’s most-requested songs (fondly referred to as “The Penis Song”) is “What She’s Got,” which appears on his second CD.
Ever the provocateur, Jessel has entitled his San Diego show, “Life Sucks…and then you Die.”
(Two free performances, at the Central Library).
A long time coming
For the past six years, Jonathan Rosenberg has been working on his first musical, “Long Way to Midnight,” about a family, a divorce, a mid-life crisis and a man’s journey to growing up.
“It’s about how family influences the decisions we make in middle age,” Rosenberg, who learned a lot from his own divorce and from his mother’s fellow residents at San Diego’s Seacrest Village, says. The acerbic-but-loving grandma has been the favorite character in the five readings of his ever-evolving piece.
“The grandmother (age 80) and granddaughter (age 10) have a very strong bond,” Rosenberg explains, “and between them, they’re trying to straighten up the father. Their private language is Yiddish.”
“The play is also about aging parents and unfulfilled dreams,” Rosenberg continues, referring to the father’s desire to be a rock star, having to choose between fantasy and responsibility. The abridged Fringe version of the musical features 13 songs and several Jewish characters. “But it’s universal,” Rosenberg asserts. “Any ethnic group trying to keep its language and traditions alive will be able to relate.”
Like the writer and producer, the play is bi-coastal, set in San Diego and New York. Rosenberg grew up in the Bronx, next door to his mother’s parents, who spoke only Yiddish. After getting his master’s degree at the University of Michigan, he worked as a print journalist. He moved to San Diego in 1981 and earned a doctorate in psychology at USIU/Alliant. He’s performed in bands for years.
“In some ways,” Rosenberg admits, “the main character, Michael, is like me: well-meaning but misguided at times. He has a fraught relationship with his mother, but she always knew what was best for him.”
(Three dates at the Lyceum Theatre.)
Ira and Miss M save the universe
How do Bette Midler and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein relate to the San Diego Fringe Festival? It’s a circuitous route.
Wasserstein once wrote a comical one-act, “Bette and Me,’” explains playwright-director Ira Bauer-Spector, who has an MFA in Musical Theatre from SDSU. “It was about their connection, and paid tribute to all Bette had done for women.
“When I formed my Breakthrough Workshop Theatre a few years ago, I created ‘The Bette Midler Project,’ a kind of companion piece, written in a similar structure, based on my love for Bette and all she’s done for the gay community. I’ve expanded that into a one-hour play called ‘Miss M Saves the Universe.’”
Bauer-Spector plays the title character, in drag, switching wigs and costumes. “I’m not trying to be Bette Midler; I’m a fictional character inspired by her. Miss M is a sort of guardian angel who’s visited me at various times of my life – at age 12, in college, and as an adult.” Three other actors play those versions of Bauer-Spector.
“It’s a personal piece about me as a person and an artist,” he says. “I grew up gay, fat, Jewish and nerdy, in small-town Colorado, with a lot of struggle. In second grade, I was called a ‘Jesus-killer.’ I always found peace and connection through my love for Bette.”
Bauer-Spector (who hyphenated his name after marrying Nathan Bauer – eight times, in different states) grew up in a very Jewish household, going to two different Denver synagogues: his father’s Conservative shul (bar mitzvah), and his mother’s Reform congregation (confirmation).
Now, he happily continues to act, direct, and run his theater company, whose mission is to present socially-relevant theater.
“The first five minutes of ‘Miss M,’” Spector promises, “might be some of the most memorable you’ve seen in the theater.”
(Three performances at the 10th Avenue Theatre).
From the (somewhat) ridiculous to the sublime
At the Fringe, Bodhi Tree Concerts is presenting “Seven Deadly Sins,” a satirical “sung ballet” by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.
In the 1930s, “the Jewish Weill and Marxist Brecht represented everything that was anathema to the Nazis,” Diana DuMelle, co-founder (with husband Walter) of Bodhi Tree, says.
Weill’s father was a cantor; he was brought up in a religious family in the Jewish quarter in Dessau, Germany. Although he was a prominent composer and his collaboration with Brecht, “The Threepenny Opera,” was the biggest hit of 1920s Germany, Weill was denounced for his views and sympathies.
“When, in 1933, he found out that he and his wife, Lotte Lenya, were on the Nazi blacklist, and were due to be arrested,” DuMelle reports, “they fled Germany and crossed into France. In Paris, he reunited with Brecht, who had also left the country, fearing Nazi persecution.”
“Seven Deadly Sins,” originally written in German, later translated by Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden, was Weill and Brecht’s final collaboration.
“Even after his move to America,” DuMelle continues, “Weill never forgot his roots. Unlike many emigrés who downplayed their Jewishness, he was an early figure in memorializing the Holocaust and raising public awareness of the plight of Europe’s Jews.”
Now, along comes Bodhi Tree Concerts, formed “to highlight local performers, put on concerts and give all the proceeds to charity.” In three years, they’ve presented 10 concerts benefiting 10 organizations. One of their Fringe performances (July 13) will benefit the San Diego Opera, where DuMelle and her husband met; she as stage manager, he as a singer.
DuMelle, a San Diego native, isn’t sure “Seven Deadly Sins” has ever been done here. Walter performed it in New York City, and will reprise his role of Mother (written for a bass).
Set in America, the piece follows two young women, Anna 1 and Anna 2, on a journey to find their fortune. Tempted by the titular sins, they become disillusioned by capitalism and the American Dream.
“The family quartet weighs in, calling the Annas lazy and slutty. It turns the idea of sin, and good and bad, on its head, and really makes you think.”
(Five performances, Lyceum Mainstage)
The French connection
Mindy Donner is a little obsessed with French author Colette (1873-1954, best known for her novel, “Gigi”).
“I read five biographies of her. She led about seven lives.”
In Belle Époque France, Colette was a scandalous lover of women – and men (including her stepson), a writer of 50 novels, a music hall dancer, member of the Belgian Royal Academy and a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.
During the German occupation of France, Colette aided her Jewish friends, including her husband, whom she hid in her attic all through the War.
When asked to name names, she declared, “We would prefer death to informing.”
Colette, according to Donner, is “the archetype of Miss Peg, who’s an archetype for women of a certain age,” in the San Diego Guild of Puppetry presentation of “Matinee with Miss Peg,” which Donner wrote and performs. She’s been working on the story for three years, with assistance from theatermakers Lisa Berger and Liz Shipman.
Miss Peg, she says, “transfigures her memories in order to live the life she wanted. It’s a little surreal, poetic. An homage to my mother’s generation. My mother had dementia before she died. Miss Peg doesn’t, but some of her words and actions were informed by my mother’s disease. The story is conveyed using many different modalities of puppetry.”
Donner, raised in a Chicago suburb, in a “somewhat observant, Conservative family,” has lived a few lives herself. She’s been a contemporary dancer, arts educator, weaver, and businesswoman (costumes and fashion). She had her first stilt-walking lesson a few years ago, at age 65.
Her motto is: “You gotta go for it…what’s the alternative?”
(Three performances, 10th Avenue Theatre Cabaret)
Something for everyone
Clearly, the Fringe has something for any artistic palate. You have 11 days to sample, nibble and savor.
The 2nd annual San Diego Fringe Festival runs July 3-13, at various downtown locations. Info and Tickets: (619) 460-4294, sdfringe.org.