Playhouse's WoW Festival goes urban for its third edition

Site-specific performance, immersive drama, interactive art: It's tough to find one label that fits the riot of creativity that is  La Jolla  Playhouse's Without Walls Festival.

But new festival director Meiyin Wang thinks she might have a word for it.

"I just call it theater," says Wang. "In all of its forms - wherever artists are taking the art form."

Where the Playhouse is taking the WoW Festival for its third edition is a whole new location: downtown San Diego, which will host close to 20 outside-the-box productions plus numerous ancillary events Oct. 19-22.

The past two WoW fests, in 2013 and 2015, took place primarily around the Playhouse and its  UC San Diego  environs, as an expansion of a program that began on a small scale in 2011.

But "so many of these artists were hungry for a more urban environment," says Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley, who launched the Without Walls initiative.

'All these pieces were (on hold) that we'd wanted to do, that you can't really do on the bucolic campus of a university."

Now, the Playhouse is teaming with seven key partners - Border X Brewing, Bread & Salt, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, the San Diego Public Library, The New Children's Museum, Horton Plaza Park and ArtPower (with one piece in La Jolla) - to present an array of projects by artists both global and international.

Some of the works are themed to a specific location; others will rove around the center city. But all share the theme of seeing both the town and traditional concepts of theater in fresh ways.

It's familiar territory - artistically, anyway - for Wang, who formerly co-directed the Under the Radar Festival for the Public Theater in New York.

"My love is working with artists who are challenging the art form - and (looking at) how to make it new, how to view the world a different way."

Because the inventive breed of theater that WoW is showcasing has tended to exist outside the realm of conventionally staged plays and musicals, "There's this danger of silo-ing this kind of work: 'It's that side thing, that weird thing,'" says Wang.

"It's not. It's actually part of the experience of why we go to the theater."

Moving downtown has had its complications: The festival has been organized around performance hubs so that patrons ideally can park and walk to several happenings (parking was less of an issue in La Jolla), and the Playhouse says it's instituting extra sanitation measures in light of the ongoing Hepatitis A infection concerns.

One thing that hasn't proved an issue is a continuing interest from artists: "I would say that every festival we get twice as much pitched to us as the festival before," says Ashley.

And Wang senses there's been a similar rise in curiosity among audiences.

"I do think this idea that there have to be other ways to listen, to hear, to experience - I think that is a hunger or a desire that most people have," she says.

"I think this idea of an event where there is a quality of adventure, of surprise, (a feeling) that anything could happen - this idea of liveness - I think is very appreciated.

"That's the quality I love."

Without Walls Festival

When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (Check with theater for specific performance times.) A free, pop-up Festival Club also will be open at Bread&Salt, 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. Friday and 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Where: Multiple venues in and around downtown San Diego.

Tickets: Free to $35

Phone: 858.550.1010

Onlinewowfestival.org

Six picks for WoW 2017

Here's a sampling of some notable WoW shows (quoted descriptions provided by La Jolla Playhouse):

"Super Night Shot": Gob Squad Arts Collective. (Partner: San Diego Public Library, 330 Park Blvd.). 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $29.

This British troupe's project is among that those festival director Meiyin Wang and Playhouse artistic chief Christopher Ashley are most excited about. It involves shooting a movie on San Diego's streets and then bringing the audience into the action. "Full of unexpected surprises, the public become co-stars in a movie that celebrates unplanned meetings with strangers, serendipity and chance."

"Model Home": Mimi Lien. (Partner: Horton Plaza Park, 900 Fourth Ave.) Presented continuously, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Free.

The Tony Award-winning scenic designer Mimi Lien ("Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812," the Playhouse's "Milk Like Sugar") created and designed this "urban intervention/installation" under a Playhouse commission. It centers on a house lofted high in the air by a construction crane. "At once incongruous and familiar, the performative installation reflects the shifting infrastructure of a changing city, and asks, what makes a home?"

"Among Us": Marike Splint. (Partner: Horton Plaza Park, 900 Fourth Ave.) 2 and 5 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. $20.

Splint's roving piece - versions of which she has done in other cities - starts at Horton Plaza Park and takes groups of headphone-guided playgoers on a route through downtown. "How do you relate to the strangers on the streets? What can you imagine about the lives of the people that brush by? 'Among Us' moves from observation to participation, culminating in a game of choice and affiliation that gradually illuminates the hidden social structures that define us."

"And Then You Wait": Dylan Key, Lily Padilla and John Burnett. (Partner: Bread & Salt, 1955 Julian Ave.) 5 to 10 p.m. Friday; 2 to 10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Free.

This piece by a trio of UC San Diego graduate students invites attendees to put themselves in the shoes of people in a fallout shelter. "A meditation on hope and resilience in the face of uncertainty, 'And Then You Wait' is an immersive audio installation in a grain silo that will get close and talk to you in the dark."

"FAETOPIA: A Fairy Flash Mob": Basil Twist. (Partner: The New Children's Museum, 200 W. Island Ave.) 11 a.m. and 12, 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Free for children; $13 museum admission for adults (11 a.m. performance is free; viewable from outside museum).

The Playhouse favorite and MacArthur "genius" grant recipient Basil Twist directed and designed this new piece. (His Playhouse history includes the 2013 WoW piece "Seafoam Sleepwalk," performed on the beach in La Jolla, as well as the robot designs for the world-premiere musical "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.") He'll be joined by puppeteers from the San Diego Guild of Puppetry, plus the UC San Diego percussion ensemble red fish blue fish. "FAETOPIA will delight children and adults alike as it celebrates the art of marionette puppetry in a spontaneous, 10-minute faerie flash mob."

"Under Construction: An American Masque": Sledgehammer Theatre in association with UCSD Department of Theatre & Dance. (Partner: Bread & Salt, 1955 Julian Ave.) 8:15 p.m. Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Friday; 7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. $29.

The pioneering San Diego alt-theater troupe Sledgehammer, who were at the 2015 WoW fest with "Heaven on Earth," return with an innovative take on another Charles Mee play. The show is set within "a pop-up banqueting hall," and juxtaposes "the red states and the blue states, where we grew up and where we live today, in a piece that is, like America, permanently under construction."

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