‘Every show starts with a stack of papers,” says Duane Daniels, founder of the Fritz Theatre, “words on a page, from the script to production demands, and they’re just the tip of one humongous iceberg” — including, for the producers of the Fritz Blitz Festival of New Plays, cell phones always ringing and, they estimate, thousands of emails.
EMAIL TO THEATER COMMUNITY 7/15: “This is Duane Daniels: You’re receiving this email because you have helped the Fritz in the past. THANK YOU. Can you please help us find: 8–10 flats (4 X 8, or any other sizes you have); 3 door units (with doors preferably); living room furniture (couch, chairs, reasonably good shape).”
For 15 years, Daniels and his company have staged the largest new-play festival on the West Coast. They accept submissions from all over California (over 1500 since its inception) and mount 10 to 12 each year: that’s 2 or 3 plays a week for four weeks — new ones, uncharted territory. Unlike other festivals, this summer’s showcases “the Best of the Blitz,” popular shows from years past, including Steven A. Lyons’s Peaches En Regalia, Kim Porter’s Liferaft Willie, and Craig Abernethy’s State of the Art.
EMAIL 7/3: “The park bench is ON LOAN from MiraCosta College. So please, no changes to the bench as received — no paint, no screws, no nails, or anything else. Thanx.”
Daniels and his coworkers are always on the move. Along with reading scripts, they cast (over 100 actors audition each year), choose directors, rehearse ten shows, construct sets. The process requires the energy of a triathlete — and this year more than that, since the dates got moved up a month at the last minute. Originally scheduled to begin August 28, the festival opened July 31 — and may be the last Blitz ever.
EMAIL 7/3: “Each Tuesday for four weeks at 10am we move our shows into the building: putting up flats and spiking. Around noon, electricians hang and focus lights. Set work continues, but it’s darker. Around 2, Ginger [Harris, who designs lighting for the festival] takes charge. About 5, the lighting tech segues into actor-proofing the stage.”
The Fritz held its inaugural show in 1991 on Seventh Avenue between J and K. Back then it was an old industrial section: run-down brick warehouses and smashed car windows glittering on badly lit sidewalks and gutters. Today the storefront space would be a foul ball away from Petco.
By 1994, the Fritz had earned a reputation for doing edgy, honest theater. It introduced San Diego to many of today’s hottest playwrights: Nikki Silver, Suzan-Lori Parks, Donald Margulies, and Paula Vogel. But the idea for a new-play festival, Daniels admits, “was as much about putting butts in seats as it was about art.” No matter what they offered, the Fritz couldn’t sell a ticket between July and August. The theater had no air-conditioning.
In the spring of 1994, Daniels was house-sitting for friends on Texas Street. He, Bryan Bevell, and Karin Williams — the Fritz triumvirate in those days — held a “board meeting” in the Jacuzzi. Bevell got an idea: a festival of, say, ten new plays from ten minutes to two hours long. They’d need 40 to 75 local actors to cast the shows. Add local directors and designers, and the Fritz could build an audience on just the creative team’s friends.
The idea was for a fundraiser, but the immediacy of new work also grabbed them: a festival of “what’s coming out of California’s word processors right now.” The first year they received 50 submissions and staged 11 scripts. Ginger Harris, who designed lights during the Blitz’s early years and often since, realized at once that the project was crucial: “These writers had nowhere else to submit work, or no theater with the, let’s say, ‘imagination’ to bring it forward.”
The quality of plays and productions, Daniels admits, hasn’t always been there, especially at first. “We’ve had our hits and misses. I tell the company, ‘You don’t know great theater until you see bad theater.’” But over the years, as the Blitz became known, more viable playwrights, with off-off-Broadway credits, offered their latest, among them Josefina Lopez, Doug Field, and Melanie Marnich. And the Blitz has been a springboard for unknown playwrights as well.
Kristen Lazarian’s Push was so experimental no one would touch it. The two-acter has 18 scenes. Act One presents the first halves of nine scenes. Act Two gives the second halves of the nine scenes in the same order: 1A in Act One, 1B in Two. The Blitz staged the piece in 2006. Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills will mount Push this September.
EMAIL 6/18: “The budget’s an intangible. If we have money, we spend it. If we don’t, we don’t.”
The Fritz found staging shows with short runs to be liberating. “We could take huge risks,” says Daniels, “the kind you couldn’t if you ran four to six weeks. If a risky one only runs four nights, by the time anybody hates it, it’s gone.”
They also found they could use theatrical styles other than their own. “We don’t do Come Blow Your Horn, but we haven’t gone WAY out there either.” Karl Gajdusek’s Dr.’s F’s in the Terminal Ward fits the second category. Matthew Wilder, an always-inventive director, gave this sensual drama about Frankenstein an elongated physicality, bloody effects, and nudity. “It probably wouldn’t have sold during a long run,” says Daniels, “but for four performances it was a brief smash hit.”
EMAIL 7/17: “I would like to get a master cast list started…. Also, we have postcards [for advertising]; it’d be great if you could pass your cast members a stack and ask them to please distribute them wherever.”
The Blitz has been a launching pad for actors as well as plays. Peter J. Smith, who appeared in several festivals, had a regular role on the TV series West Wing. And Daniels has become, he says with a wry grin, a “celebrity guy.” Along with performing over 2000 times in Triple Espresso at the Hahn, he had an ongoing role as Mr. Clemmons, principal of the high school in Veronica Mars. Last week, he took time out from myriad Blitz duties to meet his fans at Comic-Con. (“I got my first fan letter when I was 45,” says the 48-year-old. “If it takes 45 to get my next? That’s not doing too well.” Actually he receives many, and from around the world.)
EMAIL TO A VOLUNTEER 6/21: “You’ll work with us on crew for week one: rehearsals 6–10 (earlier if you’re avail). Did I mention this is a volunteer position? Don’t worry, they all are!”
Between 2003 and 2006, the Blitz had a guardian angel. The late Craig A. Mueller, a retired airline pilot, bought 500 tickets for students to see the festival. His annual donation helped the Fritz break even. Mueller died last September. Without his contribution, the festival cannot continue. Advertisements announce that this year’s will “absolutely, probably” be the last Fritz Blitz.
“It’s most likely quittin’ time,” says Daniels, “for several reasons. In a way, we’ve moved on. Bryan [Bevell]’s gone. Candis [Paule, casting director] has a busy career and growing family. And I live in L.A. But if it were financially feasible, are you kidding? We’d love to continue.”
Daniels is — and is not — resigned to ending the festival. Keeping busy, he confessed, hasn’t blocked an impending sense of loss, the size of which he can’t yet fathom.
“It’s a tragedy,” says Ginger Harris. “I can’t imagine that the most important new-works festival around could just die! Duane gave so many their first chance, especially young people who can really write, like Kevin [Armento]. He does dialogue like Mamet and scenes like Orton. And he’s 22! Kim Porter won a McDonald [Marianne McDonald Outstanding Playwright Award] in 2005 for Munched. For a theater community to call itself healthy, it needs big equity houses and community theaters and experimental companies AND places for new plays to develop! But if the Blitz dies, who’s going to stage urgent work like this?”
EMAIL FROM DANIELS TO STAFF 7/28: “The Blitz has been with us a good long while. Producing a hundred and something shows every August since 1994, you really get to know a lot about the people you work with. It all begins when a playwright gets inspired. Pen to paper. Paper to artist. Somebody has to start the process. The Fritz Blitz is a tribute to all of those hundred and something somebodys.”