Review: The interactive festival without walls created a sense of community lost during the pandemic

Opera singer

During the pandemic, many San Diego theaters have kept their lights on with streaming productions, outdoor performances and indoor shows with strict vaccine and mask requirements.

As a lifelong theatergoer, I was grateful to see any style of theatrical performance over the past 25 months. But it wasn’t until I attended 14 shows at La Jolla Playhouse’s 2022 Without Walls festival last weekend that I realized what I’ve been missing since March 2020: community. Live theater is not just what the actors give to the audience, but what the audience gives back and how the experience transforms everyone collectively.

The transmythical creatures from Animal Cracker Conspiracy led children’s parades around Liberty Station during La Jolla Playhouse’s 2022 Without Walls festival.

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This symbiotic celebration of unity was the culmination of the 22-show, four-day festival that ended Sunday at Liberty Station. Virtually every paid performance sold out, and thousands of people filled the Liberty Stations Arts District each day for free, family-friendly performances of theatre, dance and music.

There were children building walls of ‘breadcrumbs’ with actors dressed as giant ants from Australia’s Polyglot Theatre, a parade of families following the transmythical stilt puppet stunning creatures of Animal Cracker Conspiracy and a host of adults marched alongside San Diego opera singers Tasha Koontz and Sarah-Nicole Carter as they transformed from 1920s suffragettes into 2022 U.S. Army servicewomen.

San Diego Opera "ascent," with soprano Tasha Koontz, left, and mezzo-soprano Sarah-Nicole Carter.

San Diego Opera’s “Ascension,” featuring soprano Tasha Koontz, left, and mezzo-soprano Sarah-Nicole Carter, premiered at the 2022 Without Walls Festival at La Jolla Playhouse at Liberty Station.

(Edward Wilensky/San Diego Opera)

This is my second and final round of WOW show reviews from this year’s festival.

“Black session”: The lovable actor, singer, dancer magician and “spiritual medium” Nathan Nonhof hosted this fun new play with cocktails by writer-director Richard Allen and Nonhof, in collaboration with Blake McCarty and Blindspot Collective. The 90-minute play was set in a bar-like space decorated floor-to-ceiling with paintings and photographs of black people and black artists. Between sleight of hand and cocktails, Nonhof’s character Francis Baker was briefly “inhabited” by the spirits of many famous black Americans, including James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Eartha Kitt, Malcolm X, Madam CJ Walker, Frederick Douglass, Bayard Rustin and comedian Redd Foxx. The entertaining spectacle unfolded quickly and fascinatingly in its blend of history, magic and mystical sightseeing. It would be fun to see this staging again soon in San Diego.

Nathan Nonhof stars in "black session" at the 2022 Festival Without Walls at La Jolla Playhouse.

Nathan Nonhof plays a bartender, magician, and mystic in “Black Séance” at the 2022 Without Walls festival at La Jolla Playhouse.

(La Jolla Playhouse)

“The Frontera Project”: A collaboration between Tijuana Hace Teatro in Mexico and New Feet Productions in New York, this excellent one-hour bilingual play, interactive with the audience, is a collection of stories and songs performed by five actors who have spent much or their entire lives on the south side of the San Diego-Tijuana border. The storyline focuses on the actors’ cross-border lives, what they love about TJ, the challenges they face every day crossing the border for work or school, the misunderstandings people have about Mexico and its history and the difficulties faced by immigrants and deportees seeking to enter (or re-enter) the United States Rather than dwell on politics, the feel-good show focuses on the interconnectedness of the region of Baja California and its people.

The Frontera Project at the 2022 La Jolla Playhouse Festival Without Walls at Liberty Station.

The Frontera Project at the 2022 La Jolla Playhouse Festival Without Walls at Liberty Station.

(Rich Soublet II)

“Music feels different to me now”: San Diego playwright and author Bill Wright’s poignant and well-written new play is the story of seven aging actors, singers and musicians who reflect on their glory days and share their hopes for their future. Think of it as “A Chorus Line” for the over 55s, but without the singing and (only a little) dancing. Wright writes plays and books about BIPOC and the gay experience, so his “Music” script has a diverse mix of black, white, gay, and straight characters who come together for their annual friends reunion at a studio. of dance. Actors Jody Catlin, Rhys Green, Kim-Grier Martinez, Kimberly King, Portia Gregory, Andrew Oswald and Eddie Yaroch play well-defined characters confessing about past loves, loss, favorite stage and movie roles, racism and the ageism they face and their passion for performing at any age.

“A Thousand Paths (Part 3): An Assembly”: Closing the loop for a trio of interactive pieces from New York’s 600 Highwayman that the Playhouse began showing in February 2021, this latest episode put 12 ticket holders in a room to jointly perform a series of prescribed actions on a large stack of index cards. Last year’s first piece was a phone call between two strangers who asked and answered questions from a recorded digital prompt. Part 2 was a silent interactive piece with two strangers wearing face masks on either side of a glass partition performing actions on index cards. Each was fun, quirky, intimate, and a connecting experience during a pandemic.