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Theater at the Edge of the World 

A brand-new festival, and what went before it

Wednesday, Nov 3 1999
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Art by Santiago Uceda
THE EDGE OF THE WORLD THEATER FESTIVAL, A CITYWIDE network of performances by mostly local troupes and individuals (50-plus attractions in one week), may be the first such festival that's the progeny of the Internet: born from a Web chat site hosted by a confederation of stage troupes across the Southland called the Big Cheap Theater Roundtable (BCT). This festival of fringe theater, staged in venues of 99 seats or less, is the first step of what the organizers hope to develop into an annual event that will include entries from around the world. The idea of a major arts festival, however, has proved daunting for past pioneers, who have struggled to sustain a number of ambitious and often thrilling arts festivals.

Writer-director Charles Marowitz suggests France's Avignon Theater Festival as an ideal model for such an event, highlighting the "festive" nature of festival -- bands and performers in the streets, venues brimming with productions, all within a few square blocks. The Avignon is also funded by the city and attracts thousands from all ports. The Edge of the World Festival, however, has no central location and little civic sponsorship, a consequence of its being in a formative stage, as well as of BCT's ideological resistance to having a centralized and hierarchical structure. That resistance will need to be addressed if the festival is to make the kind of international splash in the coming years that its organizers hope for.

THE HISTORY OF LOS ANGELES THEATER FESTIVALS IS LITtered with good intentions that fizzled. In 1972, Warren Christensen established the highly praised but ill-fated Garden Theater Festival, which ran annually through 1979 but collapsed after a federal probe determined that finances were being inappropriately allocated within the festival organization. The concept of a citywide theater festival didn't get a boost again until 1984, when the Olympic Arts Festival, headed by Robert Fitzpatrick, promised to focus some much-needed attention on the burgeoning Los Angeles arts community. It was arguably the most impressive display of international theater fare this city has ever seen, with Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil from France, Kantor from Poland and the Royal Shakespeare Company from England all in Los Angeles in the same month. Local companies, however, were largely ignored.

"We had to lobby hard for space in the festival," remembers Ron Sossi, artistic director of the now 30-year-old Odyssey Theater Ensemble. Finally, the festival's selection committee chose 10 local theaters to represent the host city, each of which received modest grants of $10,000, while the international groups were clearly the festival's centerpieces. The remainder of the theater community participated in the Fringe Festival, using the main festival's hype to rally the troupes and attempt to entice a thinly spread audience.

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The Los Angeles Festival, as it was called after the 1984 Olympics, was popular enough for Mayor Tom Bradley to declare it a biennial event. But what should have been the 1986 festival actually arrived a year late, at which time the organizers worked more closely with theã Fringe Festival. And though theater played a large role, the Fringe encompassed a broad range of artistic disciplines and, in the end, presented 450 events, 500 artists spread out over 210 sites. Director Peter Sellars, who assumed leadership of the 1990 Festival, saw the Fringe as a vital component to the celebration. The Fringe's name had now changed to the Open Festival, suggesting a more welcoming attitude -- much in line with that of this year's Edge of the World Festival.

Sellars increased the start-up subsidy to a colossal $250,000, and the Open Festival's scope expanded to 700 events over 400 sites. The marketing scheme included bus tours as a means to battle Southern California's expansive geography, and publication inserts in local papers to help spread the word (thousands of which ran in the Weekly free of charge).

But when the numbers were totaled, the 1990 festival closed slightly in the red (as opposed to the profitable Olympic Arts Festival). By 1993, the Fringe had been eliminated entirely, its participants absorbed into the larger festival. And the event became a showcase primarily for Los Angeles companies. Aaron Paley, director of CARS Inc., an arts support group founded during the 1987 festival that continues to specialize in organizing events, says, "The Fringe outgrew its capacity. There wasn't a marketing budget to support the amount of shows."

Then the recession hit, civic money dried up, and the 1992 riots made L.A. appear considerably less festive. But, Paley adds, successors of the L.A. Festival, such as the Sacred Music Festival, are still thriving.

Can the Edge of the World festival avoid these pitfalls? It is smaller and therefore ostensibly more manageable than such events in the past. Though the venues are still spread out all over the city, there is an inaugural party on Saturday, November 6, at the downtown Stock Exchange to bring participants together, as well as a roundtable discussion at the Los Angeles Theater Center on November 13 with a discussion of local theater and its problems among artists, critics and audience members. Perhaps the festival isn't geographically centered, but it nonetheless derives from shared yearnings within a theater community that is considerably more consolidated than ever before.

Perhaps the festival's Web page (edge oftheworld.org), employing a technology not available before, will serve as a unifying conduit -- for artists and audiences. The Edge has outside support, a marketing cooperative with the city's Year 2000 celebration and several corporate sponsorships (including that of the L.A. Weekly). Yet it considers itself an independent entity.

Will this burst of energy from small theaters create the momentum needed to survive poverty, apathy and urban sprawl? Interact Theater's Amanda Carlin remarks, "The only thing that can hold us together is throwing up pieces all at the same time, like kindred voices calling out all at once, to connect us all."

 

The Edge of the World Theater Festival takes place at venues across the city from November 7 through 14. See Theater listings in Calendar for schedule. All festival events are marked with an asterisk before the title. A single asterisk (*) designates ongoing performances that are included in the festival. A double asterisk (**) designates performances created for the festival. For more information, contact edge oftheworld.org.

With the purchase of a $10 Festival Passport (available through the Web site or by calling 323-654-3505), admittance to any festival event can be obtained for $5 at the door.

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