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Arts & Culture

WOW Festival attracts national and international companies

The Canadian dance company CORPUS presents "Les Moutons" at La Jolla Playhouse's WOW or Without Walls Festival. (Undated)
The Canadian dance company CORPUS presents "Les Moutons" at La Jolla Playhouse's WOW or Without Walls Festival in an undated photo.

La Jolla Playhouse's Without Walls Festivals showcases site-specific and immersive theater starting Thursday.

Once again, La Jolla Playhouse (LJP) prepares to wow audiences with its Without Walls Festival.

Without Walls or WOW is a kindred spirit to the Fringe festivals started in 1947 in Edinburgh, which were designed to challenge conventional theater. LJP's WOW kicks off April 4 with a four-day showcase of immersive, interactive, and boundary-pushing experiences from local, national and international artists. It is also free to the public, and this year it's presented in partnership with UC San Diego and takes over locations all around the campus.


One of the international companies attending this year is CORPUS from Canada. Co-founded by Sylvie Bouchard and artistic director David Danzon, it combines dance, movement and surrealist humor. This year it presents "Les Moutons," which Danzon describes as an "installation with a sheep pen."


"You have to visualize a standard wooden sheep pen on grass. In the sheep pen are a few troughs, some bales of hay," Danzon said. "The audience sits all around the pen, and a shepherd arrives with his flock of sheep, and we go on to do half an hour in the life of sheep in a most realistic way. Of course, the twist here is that they're not real sheep. They are portrayed by actors."

Les moutons Short Demo - Corpus Dance Projects

There's no commentary, no setup, and no verbal interaction with the audience to explain what's going on. Then a funny thing starts to happen. People start behaving the way they would at a farm or a petting zoo.

"So you get people starting to pet the sheep or feed them or start to try to communicate with them using sheep language, and it becomes a very intriguing, funny happening," Danzon said. "We get all kinds of reactions. There are people who are desperately looking for the political statement behind the show, other people who laugh their heads off, who see the comedy of it, the absurdity of it. Children, especially the younger ones, are completely dumbfounded and fascinated by what they're watching. And we hear comments, often from kids who say, 'Hey, mommy, are these real people?' Not, are they real sheep, but are they real people? So you can see their little brains trying to slowly compute, but they have lots of questions."

But sometimes people exhibit violent behavior toward the sheep, pulling their ears, kicking them, or even throwing stones, he said.

"And we, of course, let it all happen because we try not to spoon feed the audience in any way and let the installation speak for itself," Danzon said.

Mister and Mischief will present "The Apple Avenue Detective Agency" at La Jolla Playhouse's 2024 WOW or Without Walls Festival. (Undated)
Mister and Mischief
Actors from a performance of "The Apple Avenue Detective Agency" in an undated photo. The Mister and Mischief theater company will perform the show at La Jolla Playhouse's 2024 WOW or Without Walls Festival.

Mister and Mischief

Pushing boundaries in different ways is Mister and Mischief, a company from Los Angeles featuring Andy and Jeff Crocker. Their show is called "The Apple Avenue Detective Agency." Andy calls it "a playable memoir about my own childhood detective agency that I had with my friends. And when we say it's a playable memoir, we are going to tell this inspired by a true story of three, real 11-year-old girls that worked on real mysteries in their neighborhood. So audiences will join the club and go out into the neighborhood and explore and uncover mysteries in the neighborhood with three lead detectives who just happen to be 11-year-old girls."

Although the story involves young characters, the show is not really designed for kids. It is more along the lines of Stephen King's "Stand By Me," where an adult is looking back on childhood and exploring something tinged with a loss of innocence.

And be warned, this will be a mystery you cannot solve.

"Because that's not how the real story went," Andy added. "I treat this story with reverence because it's a huge part of my life and who I am. Being a kid detective isn't about solving mysteries. It's a way to look at the world and it's a way to frame a world that stops making sense as you get older. So you'll never solve it."

But along the way, Mister and Mischief promise it will take strangers and turn them into pals.

"That conceit is a big part of the work that we do," Jeff said. "It's really fun to go out with your friends and you've got your gang, your team, your crew, and to go out and have fun. There's a different kind of adrenaline or excitement when you get to collaborate and participate with complete strangers and then discover new bonds like that. And a lot of the work that we do encourages playing together with people you've just met. It may not be a requirement, but it is encouraged. And we are going to create a welcoming space for that to happen."

And unlike traditional theater where the performers and audience are separated by an invisible wall that makes the audience a passive viewer, "The Apple Avenue Detective Agency" can only exist with an audience participating.

"The notion that the audience is a required part of creating the work is the first level of enthrallment that we have as creators," Jeff said.

Andy likes to use water as a metaphor.

"Like, you're building a fountain," Andy explained. "You can build the most beautiful fountain in the whole wide world, but if you don't put water into it, it's just a sculpture. And so what we're designing is a fountain, not a sculpture. So we design, design, design, but until we have guests going through the experience, we don't really know how it's going to go. And you can make a good guess to be like, the water's going to go this direction, but the weather might be different, the wind might blow and each one will be slightly different. Some of our fountains are more chaotic than others. The piece is not the piece without fresh eyes, fresh hearts and fresh minds each time. It makes rehearsing very challenging because you're always rehearsing with missing cast members because the last cast members are the audience."

WOW offers audiences a rare opportunity to challenge their expectation of what theater can be as they immerse themselves in a diverse array of shows and performances this Thursday through Sunday.