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Fringe Artist Spotlight: Renee Westbrook

Renee Westbrook brings her one-woman show "Shelter" back to San Diego International Fringe Festival where it premiered back in 2017. Feb. 26, 2020.
Beth Accomando
A Feb. 26, 2020, file photo of Renee Westbrook as she brings her one-woman show "Shelter" back to the San Diego International Fringe Festival where it premiered back in 2017.

San Diego International Fringe Festival returns June 2 in Balboa Park. During the next few weeks, Midday Edition will be spotlighting a trio of artists performing at the back in-person Fringe Festival. Renee Westbrook premiered her one-woman show "Shelter" at Fringe in 2017. This year she's bringing it back, new and improved.

Writing "Shelter" has been a personal journey for Westbrook.

"The process of getting to this point has been exponentially difficult," Westbrook said. "I mean, starting with sleeping on the buses and the beach because I denied my creativity — 'I'm not a writer. I'm a black, traditional Baptist woman. I'm going to get a job as a teacher.'"


Westbrook said when she finally surrendered to her need to do creative work someone suggested she apply to graduate school.

"(I said) 'I can't get into graduate school.' But thank goodness I applied because what happened was, I had the opportunity in the fall of 2016 to complete the writing of the play," she said. "A colleague of mine had said, 'Renee, I think you need to write about this. I think it's going to help you.' Because when you're homeless, there's no way to explain what it does to you. And I had been developing it since 2011 and got involved with Diversionary Theater in 2013, which was one of the best experiences I've ever had. And so 2017 it world premiered Fringe (at a pop-up venue and then returned in 2019). And now it's really hard to get someone to mount a show. So it has been difficult emotionally and personally, but so rewarding. I mean, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, because I get to create and it's all I ever wanted to do."

The show, in which she plays all the characters, was inspired by her experiences living on the streets and the people she met.

"I wanted it to be about the various definitions of shelter," she said. "The different characters have their own meaning of what shelter means. To Davina Gray the main character, it's a home, a roof. To Laz-R-Us, 'nobody's going to ever hurt me again,' that's his shelter, his karate. And that's one of the things that I wanted to just express is that contemporary homelessness has a deep meaning for everyone because so many people are experiencing it now."

"Shelter" was one of my top picks of the 2019 Fringe Festival and it looks to have lost none of its power or honesty. Westbrook is also developing a musical version of the play. She will write the songs and the characters will be more fully developed and with different actors performing each role instead of her bringing all the characters to life.


"What (the musical) is about is connection," Westbrook added. " We are better together and stronger together than we are divided. They're all trying to get to the same place, and they're trying to convince Davina that 'you're okay and we will shelter you.' So we'll see what happens with that. It's very new in the early stages of development."

But for now, you can see "Shelter" from June 3 through 7 at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater in Balboa Park during San Diego International Fringe Festival.