Interactive Without Walls Festival created a sense of community lost during the pandemic

Children build a wall of “bread crumbs” with the oversize ants from Australia’s Polyglot Theatre on Saturday, April 23, at La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival at Liberty Station.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘Black Seance,’ ‘The Frontera Project’ and ‘A Thousand Ways (Part 3)’ were among many hands-on shows at La Jolla Playhouse’s event at Liberty Station

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During the pandemic, many San Diego theaters kept their lights on with streaming productions, outdoor performances and indoor shows with strict vaccine and mask requirements.

As a lifelong theatergoer, I was grateful to see any style of theatrical performance over the past 25 months. But it wasn’t until I attended 14 shows at La Jolla Playhouse’s 2022 Without Walls Festival this past weekend that I realized what I’d been missing since March 2020: Community. Live theater isn’t just what the actors give to the audience, but what the audience gives back and how the experience transforms everyone collectively.

Animal Cracker Conspiracy’s TransMythical creatures led children’s parades around Liberty Station during La Jolla Playhouse’s 2022 Without Walls Festival.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

That symbiotic celebration of togetherness was the highlight of the 22-show, four-day festival that wrapped up Sunday at Liberty Station. Virtually every ticketed performance sold out and thousands of people packed Liberty Station’s Arts District each day for free, family-friendly performances of theater, dance and music.

There were children building “bread crumb” walls with actors costumed as giant ants from Australia’s Polyglot Theatre, a parade of families following Animal Cracker Conspiracy’s stunning TransMythical stilt-walking puppet creatures and a crowd of adults marched alongside San Diego Opera singers Tasha Koontz and Sarah-Nicole Carter as they transformed from 1920s suffragettes into 2022 U.S. Army servicewomen.

San Diego Opera’s “Ascension,” featuring soprano Tasha Koontz, left, and mezzo-soprano Sarah-Nicole Carter, was featured at La Jolla Playhouse’s 2022 Without Walls Festival at Liberty Station.
(Edward Wilensky/San Diego Opera)

This is my second and final set of WOW show reviews from this year’s festival.

“Black Séance”: Amiable actor, singer, dancer magician and “spiritual medium” Nathan Nonhof hosted this fun new play-with-cocktails by writer-director Richard Allen and Nonhof, in collaboration with Blake McCarty and Blindspot Collective. The 90-minute play was set in a bar-like space decorated floor to ceiling with paintings and photographs of Black people and by Black artists. Between sleight-of-hand tricks and cocktail-mixing, Nonhof’s character, Francis Baker, was briefly “inhabited” by the spirits of many famous Black Americans, including James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Eartha Kitt, Malcolm X, Madam C.J. Walker, Frederick Douglass, Bayard Rustin and comedian Redd Foxx. The entertaining show moved swiftly and fascinatingly in its blend of history, magic and mystical visitations. It would be fun to see this staged again soon in San Diego.

Nathan Nonhof plays a bartender, magician and mystic in “Black Séance” at La Jolla Playhouse’s 2022 Without Walls Festival.
(La Jolla Playhouse)

“The Frontera Project”: A collaboration between Tijuana Hace Teatro in Mexico and New Feet Productions in New York, this excellent hourlong, audience-interactive bilingual play is a collection of stories and songs performed by five actors who have spent much or all of their lives on the south side of the San Diego-Tijuana border. The script focuses on the actors’ cross-border lives, what they love about TJ, the challenges they face crossing the border each day for work or school, the misunderstandings people have about Mexico and its history and the hardships faced by immigrants and deportees seeking to enter (or re-enter) the U.S. Rather than dwell on politics, the feel-good show focuses on the interconnectedness of the Baja-California region and its people.

(Rich Soublet II)

“The Music Sounds Different To Me Now”: San Diego playwright-author Bill Wright’s poignant and well-written new play is the story of seven aging actors, singers and musicians reflecting on their glory days and sharing their hopes for their future. Think of it as “A Chorus Line” for the over-55 set, but without the singing and (only a little) dancing. Wright writes plays and books about the BIPOC and gay experience, so his “Music” script has a diverse mix of Black, White, gay and straight characters who are gathered for their annual friends reunion at a dance studio. Actors Jody Catlin, Rhys Green, Kim-Grier Martinez, Kimberly King, Portia Gregory, Andrew Oswald and Eddie Yaroch play well-defined characters confessing to each other about past loves, loss, favorite stage and movie roles, the racism and ageism they face and their passion for performing at any age.

“A Thousand Ways (Part 3): An Assembly”: Closing the loop on a trio of interactive plays from New York’s 600 Highwayman that the Playhouse began presenting in February 2021, this final installment put 12 ticketholders in a room to jointly perform a series of actions prescribed on a tall stack of index cards. The first piece last year was a phone calls between two strangers who asked and answered questions from a recorded digital prompt. Part 2 was a silent interactive piece with two strangers wearing face masks on either side of a glass partition performing actions on index cards. Each was fun, quirky, intimate and an experiment in connection during pandemic times.