Friday, October 4, 2013
The campus of the La Jolla Playhouse is buzzing with activity for a Tuesday night.
Actors and artists are rehearsing for this weekend's "Without Walls" festival (WoW), which features site-specific performances and plays. On the lawn next to the Forum Theater, a long dinner table is set up under strings of lights. The cast of "Our Town" is readying for its performance, which will take place outside under the stars.
One of the few shows happening inside a theater on a traditional stage is "100% San Diego." But don't let the conventional stage fool you — this is a different kind of theater, one that blurs the line of fiction and reality. It stars a cast of 100 non-actors. They're all San Diegans, and most have never stepped foot on a stage before.
Over the next four days of the festival, those 100 men, women and children from Chula Vista to Oceanside will share their personalities, hobbies and opinions in front of a live audience.
The series was created by a German theater company called Rimini Protokoll. It has produced the series in cities all over the world, including London, Zurich and Melbourne. San Diego marks the group's first U.S. stop.
"We were wondering, how can we bring a whole city on stage," said Rimini Protokoll co-founder Helgard Haug. "And we had the idea that we could ask 100 people that would represent the whole population of a city."
The Casting Process
Finding the cast can be tricky because it has to represent the demographic make-up of San Diego County, which has a population of just more than 3 million.
Andrea Moser works for the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. She helped the Playhouse gather the demographic criteria using the U.S. Census. She was asked to be the first cast member.
After agreeing to do it, her job was not done. Moser then had to chose the next cast member, keeping the production's demographic needs in mind. She chose a family friend: a white male who is in the military. He then had to invite someone he knows to be in the cast and the process keeps going, while the demographic matrix gets filled out along the way. As the chain reaction gets closer to the desired 100 cast members, the process gets harder because the categories that need filled are much narrower.
"Those 100 people are actually mirroring the city and its diversity," explained Haug.
The play doesn't have a plot. It's a series of vignettes based in reality. Cast members might be asked to pantomime what they're doing in San Diego at 3 a.m. Most of the cast is lying on the stage mimicking sleep at this point, while one man holds his computer and another is pretending he is knocking back beers.
The stage is divided in two, with signs reading "Me" and "Not Me" on each side. A question is posed to the cast and they respond by sorting themselves on the "Me" or "Not Me" side of the stage.
Some questions reveal economic insecurity in the region. When asked how many participants had ever been homeless, more than I expected walked over to the "Me" side.
Other questions are timely: "Do you believe the U.S. should send troops to Syria?" "Do you support gay marriage."
Haug says, at first people were uncomfortable talking about politics.
"This project makes people stand for their opinions and shows how different opinions can be," Haug said. The cast only had four rehearsals, but by the fourth they were feeling more comfortable.
Escondido resident Leo Melena is in the cast. He says answering the provocative questions has the cast talking among themselves.
"You know, we get that question and people start to waffle and try to decide or where they fall on it," explained Melena, who says sometimes he's in the minority with only a few cast members on his side, and other times he's with a large group.
"We feel like we need to justify our choices," Melena added. "We need to talk about it, say why we feel this way and qualify it a little bit."
Haug says the play is meant to incite dialogue for audience members as well. They get a chance to reflect how they would answer the questions posed and see who they would be surrounded by if on stage.
Allisyn Thomas is also in the cast. She was a lawyer for 15 years but, as she says in the play, "I had a lot to atone for so I became a priest." Thomas is an episcopal priest at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego.
Thomas believes the cast is getting braver with each rehearsal. "But we’re also getting more vulnerable as we get to know each other," Thomas notes. "Towards the end of the show, I’ve almost choked up a few times because people are so real and willing to put themselves out there. That’s very rare."
To see the line-up of performances and plays in the La Jolla Playhouse's WoW festival, go here.