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All the world on stage

New International theater festival in California offers audiences a window on foreign cultures – and shared stories.

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As she trotted the globe assembling the festival roster, Purl says she sought shows with universal themes that were successful in their home countries. She was not surprised, she says, to discover similar concerns about political oppression and forbidden love from Shanghai to Israel to South Africa. "Artists in a given time tap into similar ideas," says Mr. Dayan, whose one-man show, "Conviction," portrays a doomed love set against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition. "All of these different artists' lives have their own piece of the story that's going on in the global psyche, the global consciousness," he says. Right now, he adds, artists all over the globe are responding to events of the day such as the war in Iraq, the rulers that are in place, and the kinds of relationships that are being "seeded" in that part of the world.

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Irish actor Mr. Lovett has made a career of bringing to life the nondramatic writings of Samuel Beckett. "First Love" is a one-man show based on the playwright's novella of the same title, a comically tragic tale of unfulfilled love. "You always learn something from being around other artists," says Lovett. He recalls the eye-opening experience he had in Shanghai when a Taiwanese theater company presented the traditionally minimalist Beckett classic "Waiting for Godot" as an elaborately staged Peking Opera-style extravaganza. "I didn't think it was possible," he recalls with a laugh, "but I learned a lot from seeing the play's possibilities through their eyes."

Themes of prejudice and abuse of power inform the Israeli production, "Conviction," a solo work based on an Israeli novel, "Confession," which in turn is based on archival Inquisition material. The centuries-old manuscripts detail the tragic love affair between a converted Spanish priest and his Jewish wife in the 16th century. "I'm interested in themes of oppression and persecution," says Dayan, "whether religious or otherwise."

Organizers reach deep into the community to fill out the nearly $1 million festival budget. The Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas) ponied up $100,000 and is a primary sponsor. The utility company was impressed with the festival's vision. "This group had such a coherent long-term plan," says Michelle Pettes, Ventura County Public Affairs Manager for SoCal Gas. "It was hard not to want to be on board – not just one year, not just two years but three and five and beyond." The multiple venues of the festival format also help broaden the cultural and economic impact the festival has both here and nationally, adds Ventura mayor Christy Weir.

The festival faces its own challenges. With gas topping $5 a gallon, recreation budgets are tight for families everywhere, and nonstar driven productions from foreign lands, occasionally in other languages, can be a hard sell in the backyard of the entertainment industry. But RITF anticipates the use of English supertitles to bridge the cultural gap, and fellow southern California theater professionals have welcomed the festival. "There is something very exciting about a collection of theatrical events pulled together from so many different countries and cultures," says Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Los Angeles-based Center Theatre Group and an adviser to RITF. "It becomes far greater than the sum of its parts."

James O'Neil, Rubicon Theatre Company's artistic director, says that theater tells a story with an immediacy that no other medium can. As the world gets more fractious, the ability to understand foreign cultures is more important than ever. "We need common ground," he says. "Basically, we have lost the idea that we all share fundamentally the same stories."

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