All the world on stage

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    'First love': Irish actor Conor Lovett's solo work is based on a Samuel Beckett novella of the same name, a comically tragic tale of unfulfilled love.
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Just north of the Los Angeles county line the air feels, well, different. It's the same ocean breeze blowing in, but the atmosphere of the lush hills of L.A.'s northern neighbor seems more relaxed than the hurly-burly of Tinseltown. It's a perfect setting for creative ferment, say organizers of the Rubicon International Theatre Festival (RITF), which opened July 12 and runs through July 27. The only true global stagefest in the United States (others such as South Carolina's Spoleto include music and art), this preview season offers four US premières and works from Ireland, South Africa, Israel, and Ivory Coast.

"It's way past time," says Edgar Rosenblum, executive director of RITF, who adds, "Given the urgent need for people to understand one another from culture to culture, theater has an important role to play in telling those stories."

The brainchild of festival director Linda Purl, the idea for an annual global gathering of top theater talent was born three years ago during "BeckettFest," the 10-year-old Rubicon Theatre's celebration of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. "We saw so many connections and synchronicities being made from all the talent in one place at one time that it just made sense to take it one step further," says Ms. Purl. Theater is about live connections between audiences and performers, but also among the artists themselves, she adds. While it is true that traveling productions from foreign countries are not new, the festival format provides that sort of creative soup in a way a single traveling production cannot.

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The festival features a range of themes and storytelling techniques from the wordless mimicry of former Cirque du Soleil artist Julien Cottereau to the solo works of Irish actor Conor Lovett and Israeli-American Ami Dayan and the song stylings of London cabaret singer Giselle Wolf. "We are all international," says Ms. Wolf, whose Russian father emigrated to Cuba and married her Lithuanian mother. She put together a program, she says, to emphasize this diversity. Her act weaves together a Broadway medley, a Yiddish lullaby, ballads from Edith Piaf, the Mexican love song "Besame Mucho," and the Cockney torch song "As Long as He Needs Me."

A designated trustee of the festival, Wolf acknowledges that the setting, nearly an hour north of downtown Los Angeles, may seem an unlikely detour for the global traveler, but she compares it to the internationally renowned Edinburgh Festival. "When it first started," she says, "it was a small, little festival, and now it draws people from all over the world."

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.

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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