You can reasonably expect to get from San Diego to L.A. by car in a couple hours. And when you're not in or around the latter city, the drive isn't all that bad. That's no small comfort to Fritz Theatre artistic director Duane Daniels, who's lately run the drill several times. He directed In the Wake of the Bounty, one of the six entries in the 14th annual Fritz Blitz Festival of New Plays by California Playwrights (more on that in a sec) and now lives in Hollywood, where he notes some acting success in TV and film.
For the moment, the trip is worth his while. But with each commute, the cult-favorite Fritz is morphing into something less tangible in its 16th year, its cutting-edge, in-your-face visibility sharply diminished. And that, Daniels said, has nothing to do with his divided attentions.
'It's not so much me not being in San Diego,' he told CityBeat. 'It's really more a matter of us [not] finding more opportunities to produce. Over the last several years, just about everything we produced that wasn't the Blitz lost money. Hair [produced in 2005] was a hit for us, obviously, but we've lost money on everything else. The Blitz is one of our most successful programs, so that's kind of why we're focusing on it more.'
If your annual budget had sunk from a high of $90,000 to its current $25,000 in a matter of seven years, you'd focus on it more, too. You'd bend over backward and forward for those 25 percent of Blitz patrons who spend nearly $50 for a festival pass every summer. If you're homeless like the Fritz, your face would contort in agony every time a San Diego theater venue closes (five have shut down for various reasons since May of 2005) or when the rent spirals out of reach on an ideal performance space in our developer-run downtown.
And if you're Daniels, you'd crank out a brusque, exemplary caution that speaks to the single most important element in the company's fortunes.
'People with money,' Daniels said, 'only trust other people with money. And nobody in theater has any money. There you go.'
Well, some places do, at least theoretically. Play development and challenge grants, seven- and eight-figure gifts for construction and education: The Old Globe Theatre has a truckload of 'em. La Jolla Playhouse isn't necessarily rolling in it, but it's got its share of generous sponsors and pays nothing for the land on which its three main venues sit (UCSD donated the acreage). But virtually all the 50 or so San Diego Performing Arts League member theaters know something of Daniels' plight, if only through the inherent logistics.
'Supply and demand,' Daniels explained, 'doesn't work in the theater world. You spend money all day every day, but you only make it for two or three hours virtually Thursday through Sunday. If we had any sense at The Fritz, we wouldn't still be doing this. We just don't have any sense.'
Nothing new there, as the three opening-night Blitz entries of Thursday, Aug. 16, made clear. The Daniels-directed In the Wake of the Bounty, a one-act by San Francisco's Kim Porter, was a plucky, stream-of-consciousness gem of a sketch focusing on Liferaft Willy (an excellent Christopher Gyre) and the momentousness behind the world record he's set for days adrift at sea. Such irony likely marks the festival's remaining fare, consisting of three full-length pieces over the next three weekends (www.fritztheatre.com).
Daniels will perform in Bets and Blue Notes, about four friends and political incorrectness, the weekend of Aug. 30. The play is by Kevin Armento, the lone San Diego selectee among this year's 100 Blitz submissions--but don't be fooled, Daniels said, by the lack of local representation. He's been around here forever, and he's adamant that 'I would put San Diego's talent--its actors and directors and writers--against anybody else's anywhere, including New York.'
It's true that our theater talent takes a back seat to no one's--but so what? Such quality exists in nooks and crannies nationwide, and that renders any city's claim to stage savvy (except for unparalleled Chicago's) rather unremarkable. While the richness of a local talent pool matters to some degree, the real test of a city's theater clout is where, or indeed if, it registers in the public mind as a community service.
The Fritz is a vital local component to that end. It's a sad commentary that money--which, after all, is only a commodity, like costumes and props--is the deciding factor in the company's dwindling presence.
Makes you kinda wonder what's in store around here.
The Fritz Blitz Festival of New Plays by California Playwrights runs through Sept. 9 at the Lyceum space, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $13-$17 for individual programs, $49 for a festival pass. 619-544-1000 or www.fritztheatre.com.