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Arts & Culture

La Jolla Playhouse 'WOWs' audiences at Rady Shell

Without Walls Festival serves up more than 20 immersive, site-specific works over the next four days.

La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls or WOW Festival kicks off Thursday.

The four-day event showcases immersive and site-inspired dance, music, and theatre by local, national and international artists. The event is based at the Rady Shell.

"The festival as a whole takes over the Rady Shell area," explained Patrick Mueller, artistic director of the Denver-based Control Group Productions. "But our show is unique in that we are taking people away from that lively, exciting environment. Passengers will board the bus right in front of the Shell, and we will then leave.


Mueller is directing "The End," a bus tour of San Diego's climate future.

"I am sitting in our apocalypse renovated school bus at one of our sites," Mueller said, in a Zoom interview, with an emergency exit sign visible over his shoulder. "I probably shouldn't name the site because part of the fun of the show is showing up to places that you may know and you may not. And the route that you took there got you so lost that you're surprised that you showed up there, whether you recognize it or not."

And that’s what the WOW Festival is all about, taking you on an unexpected journey to experience theater in an exciting new way.

"Immersive interactive, site-based and audience mobile experiences all help us into a place of deeper empathy, [and] transformational impact. I find that very important," Mueller said.

Maria Patrice Amon agrees, "The WOW Festival allows us to break out of the traditional boundaries of the theater, so we get our audiences up and moving."

Maria Patrice Amon working on TuYo Theatre's "Las Cuatro Milpas" for the 2023's WOW Festival.
TuYo Theatre
Maria Patrice Amon working on TuYo Theatre's "Las Cuatro Milpas" for the 2023's WOW Festival.

Amon is co-artistic director for TuYo Theatre, a San Diego-based company that is presenting "Las Cuatro Milpas," a love letter to the oldest Mexican restaurant in San Diego.

"When we look at the history of our indigenous folks coming into Latinx heritage, we don't have many documents to go off of, and those documents are these old ancient codices," Amon said. "And we wanted the audience to feel like they were able to walk through and traverse history, to see that legacy from our ancient past into our contemporary folks today. In site-specific or immersive theater, the audience is a part of the storytelling. They are a character in your show. They are collaborative with you in generating the script. Our actors have their script and they have their dialogue, but there is a responsiveness. So when the audience says something to the actors, the actors have to improv and they have to think on their feet and respond in real-time to the audiences."

And audiences should be prepared for their own kind of improv when preparing for "The End."

"The audience will be recruited to take different sort of job assignments during the show with tasks that help us on our journey," Mueller explained. "The basic conceit is that passengers have booked a one-way ticket to 'The Refuge' because they realize that a climate cliff is imminent and it's time to run for cover. And so the bus is trying to get us all there, gathering the things that we need to show up with in order for the refuge to be a sustainable community."

There’s a tastier destination waiting for audiences at "Las Cuatro Milpas."

"Our WOW piece is very user-friendly," Amon said. "Audiences can come up to our tents. There can be large 9-foot-tall walls of fabric, all painted in the style of an Aztec codex with murals. We've got about 200 feet of murals inside the space. Audiences will come in and they'll be able to watch short videos with some puppets, with some animation, with some live-action. And then, in the very last space, they'll be able to engage with some live actors. The actors will guide the audience to a very special and delicious treat."

Close-Act Theatre's "Birdmen" is one of more than 20 immersive, site-specific works at this year's Without Walls Festival.
Click Rick Photography
Close-Act Theatre's "Birdmen" is one of more than 20 immersive, site-specific works at this year's Without Walls Festival.

Whether it is through your taste buds or through seeing the familiar with fresh eyes, WOW is all about engaging the audience.

"I find that experiences that interact with me and that surround me, I can relate to in a different way," Mueller said. "We're so used to looking through screens and standard theater is basically that, it's a big rectangle frame that you look through to see the action that you are excluded from. And so I think there's a big, fundamental value to being part of the experience you are having.

These are just two of the many spectacular shows presented at La Jolla Playhouse’s WOW Festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.

All shows are free of charge but attendees are encouraged to make reservations. This year’s event is presented in association with the San Diego Symphony.