In July 2014, Newport’s Tin Shed Theatre Company took the unprecedented step of travelling to San Diego to take part in the city’s Fringe theatre festival. Here, Tin Shed’s Artistic Director Justin Cliffe walks us through their exciting and inspiring journey.
A few weeks or so ago Tin Shed Theatre Co. arrived back in the UK, feeling bedraggled and very jet-lagged after having spent three weeks in the USA touring and performing Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freak Show. It was the first time for the company presenting and performing work outside of Europe, and it turned out to be a journey like no other we have experienced in the five years we have been Tin Shed.
To say it was awesome, in the truest sense of the word, would be an understatement, and in the short time we have had to reacclimatise to British tendencies (and weather) and regain some sort of unjet-lagged-state-of-being it seems the influences, inspirations and opportunities garnered from the visit are already abundant and beginning to blossom.
People had told us that everything in America is bigger and brighter and faster and louder and busier than we could expect, and they were not wrong. After nineteen hours of travelling in various vehicles, the five of us arrived in San Diego at 9.30pm, four days before our first show, ready to clamber inside yet another vehicle to be driven the final leg through the beautiful urban desert that is San Diego, to our accommodation in the centre of one of its eclectic neighbourhoods. Bright lights, wide roads and the smell of the city heat evaporating into the neon-lit night sky silenced us as we clung to the windows of our giant taxi cab and watched wide-eyed at the strange new world that whizzed by, a sensation of nervousness and excitement mixed with a dash of wonder and exhaustion made the whole ride dreamlike.
America is an odd place for a small Welsh theatre company to exist for three weeks. I read an article on the phenomena of ‘culture-sickness’ before leaving and its theories soon became apparent. I was overwhelmed by buildings, people, routes, cars, supermarkets, food, but as soon as we began interacting and meeting people and becoming more involved with the activities of the fringe festival we quickly got a grip, and began to work and play in equal measure.
The first person we met was our long standing Skype contact, and one of our main International Providers, Kevin Charles Patterson, who is a theatre and performance producer living in San Diego. Upon meeting us, Kevin shared his story and the reasons why he created the festival. Having first made contact with Kevin in 2013, his enthusiasm for introducing an international element to his festival was apparent, and his desire to initiate a relationship between American and European theatre makers was inspiring. He was a real driving force toward getting us over their.
Kevin quickly introduced us to the team at The Spreckels Broadway Theatre, where we would perform, and showed us around this huge, beautiful and historical Broadway Theatre. We met Nate, the Technical Director and all-round handyman, who was, with his team, building a bespoke theatre space in a large dusty back room (The Raw Space), whilst also constructing a hundred-seat rig on the enormous Broadway Stage, making the playing space smaller, the audience closer and the whole experience more intimate. We also met Shaun Davis, the Theatre Manager at Spreckles, who helped us with almost anything we needed (which included suggestions on places to visit, places to eat, and places to do a ‘good food shop’); and Geoff Shlaes, a co-owner of The Spreckels and a producer of New York Theatre. Geoff was an inspiring man to be around, who was delighted to have us there as a visiting company from Wales, as he waxed lyrically about his love of British Performance Art and his time spent viewing it.
Looking around and taking it all in, it was difficult to believe the San Diego International Fringe Festival was only in its second year. The organisation, commitment and workmanship was impeccable. It was like the gig had been running for decades, and although I am almost certain behind the scenes people were tearing their hair out and strangling one another, it never showed. The professionalism and pragmatism of American Theatre-Doers could inspire many would be Theatre-Doers in Britain. Stern professionalism with a ‘can do’ attitude that comes with a wink and a smile.
Following this meeting we piled into Kev’s car and he drove us over to his studios on the other side of town. The APA Studios were created in 1993 and their mission statement is: Embrace diversity, enrich community, nourish/encourage creativity, and enrich lives through the ever so important cultural arts. Upon walking in we saw a group of young girls from the local area taking part in a dance class, and working behind the front desk was Chantalle, a student of Performing Arts at the local University, studying dance and also trying to start her own company. Immediately we were plunged into an environment with positive vibes, a fun atmosphere and a good work attitude. APA has three decent-sized, mirrored studios, all of which are available to community groups, theatre makers and students for any type of activity that falls under the umbrella of performance art. The air was full of sweat, friendliness and commitment. We worked in the studios for the next two days, putting the piece back together, fixing some niggles, getting re-focused on the dialogue, and also having a lot of fun creating a two-minute preview piece for Press and Public Previews.
The Press Previews happened the next night on a rooftop in the centre of town on top of the 10th Avenue Arts Centre. Making our first American transition into the Freaks, clambering over one another in a tiny back room at 10th Avenue and applying our make-up using the camera and screens on our mobiles. We were incredibly nervous about performing even two minutes of material. We were worried the distinctly British influences of the show would possibly mean American audience’s would find it difficult to engage with. We performed on the roof of 10th Avenue as the sun set over San Diego. It was initially quite a nervous experience, but we came out of it with a lot of good words said, a lot of hand shakes, some guaranteed press attendance and some new friends. The Public Previews happened one day later in Spreckels Theatre, and once again we were roped into hosting the event and ‘hooking-off’ any act who ran over their allotted two minutes, which with a Bearded Lady and a Half Lobster-Half Man was incredibly fun.
Sometimes, when performing as part of a fringe festival, we focus so heavily on the show we forget how advantageous, enriching and important it is to attend and accept any and all the offers to do additional stuff like events, fill slots, host nights and participate in collaborative activities. We went to America with the life-span of a moth, so we all agreed that whilst there we would seize almost any opportunity that presented itself. By agreeing to co-host the Press and Public Preview nights we not only gave our show more exposure, but we got to engage with other performers and meet people from all over the world. Some of these contacts have become business opportunities, others have just become really good friends. I would encourage any young company attending any fringe festival to adopt a ‘SAY YES’ attitude. Another thing I would suggest is spend less time getting in make-up and flying on the streets and more time seeing work and meeting the people who made it. It is not just for the experience, it will broaden your mind, your prospects, your imagination and your social life. San Diego Fringe was a festival that welcomed this, and in opposition to another festival we are quite familiar with, it feels a little like this attitude should be more readily adopted in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh sometimes becomes something like a mix between a rat-race and a bullfight, the people you speak to, perform next to on the streets, share a venue with or bump into in a pie-shop do not seem like your next potential collaborators or future friends, they are competition, and it is up to you, your clown nose and your bloodied mop to outshine them and get more audience. Sometimes, as a young company working in Fringe we need to focus on relationships and not audience, and I speak on behalf of the independent, small time, hostel living, bread and water-eating performers of course; the grand heights of National or Footlights I know not of, but having attended Edinburgh six times, I think I can state some claims.
San Diego fostered and encourage a share system, where at the end of shows the actors would bow and then ask any fringe performers in the audience if they would like to stand up and plug their show. People offered to carry flyers and posters for us and put them in the shops they would be hitting that day. We lent a company our projector, that company lent two other companies one of their major props. There was a system, where each artist would help each artist. I think that this was maybe because the festival is so new, and only hosted approx 150 companies. We felt we were the pioneers of something.
We had four shows in San Diego. Our first one sold fifty of a hundred seats, our other three performances sold out. The show ran really well. This a consequence of many things. Our preparation, the playing space, the encouragement and ethos that surrounded the festival. But most importantly our relationships with one another, which at times can become fraught, were re-enforced by how proud we felt to be where we were. The performances flowed and became fully-formed really quickly, it was like the show was a beast and we had tamed it and taught it how to speak to an audience.
Doors began to open pretty quickly as we were invited onto the San Diego Morning News Channel, we were taken out for dinner by KPBS Reviewer and all round horror-nerd, Beth Accomando who loved the show so much her review was possibly the best write up we have ever had and will ever have. Beth would be the last San Diegan face we would see, extending her generosity further than we would have ever expected, as she came around to our apartment at 5.30am the morning we were due to fly out with a tray of coffee, breakfast burritos, doughnuts and Comi-Con backpacks.
At the end of it all we had had a frantic, physical, amazing, inspiring time, meeting strange folk in strange shows from strange places, boozing with eccentric producers, dining with zombie obsessives, and well and truly being taken in by the San Diego theatre community.
The money that was given to us by Wales Arts International and from all the people who donated on WeFund made this massive step for the company possible. Without it, the trip would have been implausible. Now we are talking to various agencies and individuals in America about returning next summer to collaborate on a project, and perhaps to perform whatever our next piece will be at The San Diego International Fringe Festival 2015.
Just as a footnote to this article: Thank You, to everyone who helped, donated, suggested, met with us, advised us and encouraged us to do this. A lot of people we interacted with in San Diego were not even sure of what Wales was, let alone the kinds of art it might produce, and by the time we left we had flown the flag for not only Newport, but Welsh Culture.