Westmont professor of theater John Blondell has big visions. You might even call them global. For more than 20 years, he has used his base in Santa Barbara as a platform from which to reach out to the international theater community. Blondell has built ties to dramatists in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Italy, Finland, South Africa, and China. He has taken his innovative company, Lit Moon Theatre, to perform in Poland, Scotland, Canada, and the Czech Republic, and he’s used these experiences to inspire a generation of drama students. Since 1998, he’s also been offering cutting-edge international theater to the wider Santa Barbara community in the form of the biennial Lit Moon World Theatre Festival.
This Friday, September 10, the 2010 Lit Moon Fest opens with a world premiere of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. It’s a typical Lit Moon production: based on a Swedish fairytale, written by Japanese-Latina-American Naomi Iizuka, and coproduced with a Finnish theater company.
In a sense, Blondell is blind to the boundaries between cultures and nations. He knows when he sees good work, no matter where it’s from, and he pursues collaborations with artists who excite him, regardless of where they live. Yet he’s learned the hard way that not everyone sees across national lines this way. In 2007, a Finnish playwright scheduled to join the festival found herself unable to fly to the States because her passport was not biometric. In 2008, an entire company of Macedonian actors had to pull out at the last minute due to visa issues. And this year, just 10 days before the festival’s opening, Blondell discovered that Teatro Koreja from Southern Italy would be unable to attend due to a change in immigration law.
Over Italian soda at Jeannine’s last Monday, Blondell smiled ruefully as he discussed this year’s disappointing news. “It’s really inexplicable why it resulted the way it did,” he said. “This is the same process we used with the Georgian national theater and the Bulgarian national theater.” According to Blondell, the INS has made its requirements of visiting artists more stringent, and the change leaves no time for the company to secure the proper documents. The hope is that Lit Moon will be able to bring Teatro Koreja’s production—an intriguing blend of The Trojan Women and the Passion of Christ—to Santa Barbara later this year, though no date is set at present.
And so, in a twist that’s become a festival signature, what was to be a seven-part festival is now a six-part one. That tips the balance of the fest strongly toward alternative theater originating here in Santa Barbara—a theme that was already stronger at this event than in years past. Yet Blondell remains buoyant. He acknowledges it’s a shame to lose the Italian production from the lineup, yet it provides a chance for audience members and artists alike to focus on the unique microcosm that is Santa Barbara’s alternative performing arts scene. On the last day of the festival, Saturday, September 18, Blondell will host a panel discussion at the public library’s Faulkner Gallery. He’s calling it Think Global, Act Local, and he is inviting anyone interested in alternative theater to join the dialogue and discuss the opportunities and the limitations of working in this community. Blondell has long dreamed of a large-scale performing arts festival in Santa Barbara, akin to Edinburgh’s Fringe, and this year has turned his attention to drawing out other performers and groups in this community whose work exists, as his does, well outside the mainstream. “Is there a way at all to characterize the kinds of performances we find made here, by Santa Barbara artists?” he asked. “What ties them together?”
It’s a question this year’s festival-goers may well be asking. Among the artists taking part in this year’s Lit Moon Fest is Casey Caldwell, a recent Westmont graduate and the artistic director of Ratatat Theater Group. The company will be performing Body/Bach-Min/Max, a show that combines movement and text and takes inspiration from the writings of essayist and novelist Gertrude Stein and avant-garde playwright Richard Foreman. “We’ve been asking ourselves, ‘What can we create from the very barest place?’” Caldwell explained over the phone last week. “Over the summer we made films focusing on just the hands, or the feet, or the torso—taking the human body and focusing on the smallest parts of it one at a time, exploring the possibilities there.” When Blondell invited the company to create a piece for the festival, Caldwell took the “chaotic, disorganized material and organized it around Bach’s solo pieces for cello, which are very organized, formal, and classical.” Caldwell resisted the term “physical theater,” referring to the show instead as “collage theater”—a word that better captures Ratatat’s patchwork of influences and approaches. The show will run for one night only, Sunday, September 12.
Also on the bill is Fusion 5.0, an evening devoted to theatrical works that incorporate dance and other art forms. Choreographer Robin Bisio will present two works, including a dance film, and Christina McCarthy will restage “Love, Petrushka,” a dramatic work based on the Russian classical ballet and featuring spectacular costumes by McCarthy and Ann Bruice. Works by Victoria Finlayson and Jeff Mills round out that night’s program. Longtime Lit Moon collaborator Jim Connolly and his Gove County String Quartet get an evening all to themselves on Saturday, September 11, when they’ll premiere music from their recently released CD. Lit Moon’s wildly popular, wacky matrimonial musical, The Wedding, will also get a reprise, and S.B.-based Otilliana Rolandson will play Greta Garbo in a solo show based on the life of the enigmatic Swedish film star.
What ties these six shows together is not so much a consistent style as a kind of theatrical zeitgeist: It’s more an attitude than a genre, more a philosophical approach than a product. For Blondell, it’s about bringing together artists who share his vision of dynamic alternative theater influenced by a variety of cultural traditions. “It’s part of a global movement,” he said of this year’s festival. “All over the world, there is more and more theater that’s not driven by text. Dance artists are wanting to use other media to extend their vocabulary.”
It’s exactly that blurring of boundaries—and the resultant mixing of art forms, cultures, and theatrical traditions—that has always been Blondell’s passion. “The language of performance is becoming more expansive,” he concluded. “I’m really interested in that cross-pollination.”
The Lit Moon World Theatre Festival takes place Friday, September 10 through Saturday, September 18 at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo). For more information, visit litmoon.com. For tickets, call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org.