There's a reason we picture artists in garrets, forlorn and smoking, staring out at the rain. In our collective imagination, misery and creation are inextricably linked. Art is something that comes from the depths—from the stormy, windswept corners of our soul. It comes from New York, London, Berlin—places where the physical environment matches the turmoil within.
It doesn't come from San Diego.
“This city is good at promoting three things,” says Justin Hudnall. “Weather, fish and football. But if you want to be an artist, you almost have to go somewhere else.”
Entangled in the ideal of “America's Finest City” is the notion that the angst and suffering upon which we believe all art must feed simply doesn't exist here. Baudelaire wasn't writing on a beach, after all.
“To that I would say that there is a dark side of paradise,” Hudnall says. “There's an underbelly here—it's just untapped. People in San Diego do have stories to tell. All they need is a stage.”
A stage is precisely what Hudnall, along with his partners Jake Arky and Jessica Gillette, are trying to provide. So Say We All, a kind of incubator for writers, musicians, artists and actors, was formed in February 2009, after NYU grads and self-described “drama fags” Hudnall and Arky had finally had enough.
The two met while working at the La Jolla Playhouse. Hudnall, a writer, was born and raised in San Diego and began to grow frustrated with the city's attitude toward its artists as productions at the Playhouse were regularly manned with talent shipped in at exorbitant costs from New York, L.A.—anywhere but here.
“Meanwhile, all these local artists are screaming, ‘I'm here and I want to work!'” Hudnall explains.
“There's this idea that art and artists couldn't possibly come from San Diego,” Arky adds. “The city has a real inferiority complex, and that's what we're trying to overcome.”
Arky and Hudnall were convinced that San Diego was teetering on a cultural tipping point—all it needed was a push. So, together with Gillette, they conceived an idea for a story slam to showcase the talents of local writers. After the first event, for which six writers showed up, interest snowballed—so much so that So Say We All is in danger of becoming its founders' full-time job.
The concept is disarmingly simple: Offer an underserved, underappreciated community of artists a stage, a microphone and an audience—and watch what they can do. Each event is organized around a theme, and participants submit their stories and materials to SSWA for feedback beforehand. Prior to being staged, each event is rehearsed. (“It's important for people to understand that,” interjects Arky. “This is not an open-mic thing. Open-mic sucks.”) Past themes have included “Caught in the Act,” during which a performer described how coming out in southern Minnesota made him somewhat of a collector's item, and “Scared Shitless,” when El Cajon native Missy Solis recounted a violent childhood tragedy that unfolded against the mock-horror of Halloween.
SSWA events have proved a haven for writers like Rob Williams, who moved with his husband from Brooklyn four years ago. “It was tough, at first, finding other creative types in San Diego,” he says. “Four years ago you really had to go searching for them. It's not like New York City, where you bump into them with every step you take.”
The group is expanding on its original story slam concept to include a variety of different media. They staged “My Friend Dahmer,” a play adapted by Arky and produced by Hudnall on Halloween. SSWA has also introduced VAMP, events that include elements of visual art, music and performance. Musician Rob Deez, who describes his sound as an amalgam of acoustic, hip-hop and comedy that he has yet to christen with a clever name, remembers playing the show titled “When Poverty Strikes” at Cream coffeehouse back in August.
“When I got to the show, I was blown away by the turnout,” he recalls. “I asked Justin what his secret was because I've played many a show to an empty room.”
Deez went on to perform at the “Scared Shitless” event, where “Justin told me that there was a 55-year-old evangelical Christian mother in the audience and she said I was the funniest thing she'd seen in a long time. I think that's awesome seeing how most of my songs are not very”—he pauses, searching for the right words—“55-year-old-evangelical-Christian-mother-friendly.”
The range of personalities participating in events is one thing Hudnall and Arky pride themselves on. “We had a senior citizen step up to the mic not long ago and totally school the hipster who came on before,” Hudnall laughs.
“It's just amazing what people can do if you give them an audience and take them seriously.” SSWA also maintains a website (www.sosayweallonline.com), where past shows are archived and new material is regularly added.
The group is staging weekly events in November (“VAMP” on Nov. 9 at Whistle Stop Bar, “Living Room Heroes” on Nov. 21 at Cream and “Story Slam” on Nov. 28 at Lestat's West) and hopes to become a consistent and influential presence in the local arts scene—a kind of This American Life for San Diego.
“Not that we're trying to emulate something else,” Hudnall cautions. “But we were watching a VHS tape of Ira Glass and Dan Savage from the early '90s, way before they became who they are now. It's encouraging to know that something as pervasive as that started small. It gives us hope.”
Hudnall and Arky begin to jokingly argue over which of them is Savage and which is Glass.
“OK, Jake,” Hudnall finally laughs, “you can be Ira because you have glasses.
“And because you're the Jew.”
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