Why CalArts at Venue 13 is no Mickey Mouse Outfit

The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) is a highly prestigious private university located in the town of Valencia, just over the hills north of Los Angeles. This year marks the 15th anniversary of bringing students and their productions to the Festival Fringe. So what inspires them to return year after year on what has become something of a thespian pilgrimage enshrined in the fabric of the school’s programme? And why do they have their own rather obscure base in Lochend Close tucked away behind a row of shops at the bottom end of High Street that’s been home to them since their first visit in 2003?

Venue 13 is an initiative run by the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff who use it as a training ground for their student stage managers. It enables them to work in the intense environment of putting on some 150 performances to tight schedules in the course of just over three weeks. That amounts to a wealth of practical experience that enormously enhances each student’s professional portfolio. From the outside it’s an unpretentious place that those of a superstitious disposition might not favour, yet it offers outstanding facilities in terms of raked seating, a large open performance area and state-of-the art sound and lighting technology that is expertly managed. All shows here receive enthusiastic full production support from a highly committed team. The College’s Richard Burton Company performs here along with other groups of students for whom it becomes a showcase venue for their emerging talent.

The partnership works well for both sides. Students are able to work collaboratively in a way that fulfills the learning philosophies of two premiere international institutions. The Venue’s facilities are ideally suited to the extensive range and varied styles of performance CalArts brings each year. The College, meanwhile, is assured an annual booking with the promise of shows that will support and enhance its reputation for promoting high quality, innovative theatre.

CalArts justifiably boasts that it is ‘renowned internationally as a game-changer in the education of professional artists’. Alumni, it claims, make a ‘transformative cultural impact’ because of its ability to ‘bring out visionary creative talent unlike any other university, school or conservatory’. There is no lack of evidence to support the claim. Amongst the many in that elite group are Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Chris Buck, Ed Harris, David Hasselhoff and Sofia Coppola. The Institute estimates that between 1985 and 2014 graduates from their character and experimental animation courses provided Hollywood with $30.6 (£23.2) billion in worldwide box office revenue as directors of feature films.

The founder of CalArts was none other than Walt Disney. In 1921 Nelbert Murphy Chouinard opened her eponymously named Art Institute. By 1929, Disney, with almost no money, was using the school and the generosity of Madam Chouinard to train his animators. He was indebted to her for offering to accept deferred payment. Following her stroke and subsequent inability to run the school, it was in the early 1950s that Disney was able to be magnanimous. He repaid her and returned the favour by sustaining the Institute with financial support and by taking over its administration. In 1961 he and others arranged a merger with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music; a much older and revered institution founded in 1883 that was also in financial difficulty. CalArts was born.

Disney had lived through an era of unprecedented scientific and technological discovery and development. "The arts," he said, "which have historically symbolised the advance of human progress, must match this growth if they are going to maintain their value in and influence on society." He had a clear vision. "What young artists need is a school where they can learn a variety of skills, a place where there is cross-pollination… What we must have, then, is a completely new approach to training in the arts – an entirely new educational concept which will properly prepare artists and give them the vital tools so necessary for working in, and drawing from, every field of creativity and performance... It shouldn’t be a school where studies are rigid and narrow. Students should be able to study the whole spectrum of the arts."

His ambition for the school has been energetically promoted by successive generations who have continued to bring diverse arts together in a melting pot of creativity and exploration. The Institute points out that ‘the uniqueness of the CalArts learning experience comes first and foremost from individualized faculty mentoring, which looks to the needs and goals of each student in order to strike a balance between rigorous professional and intellectual preparation and more open-ended experimentation, inquiry and ideation’.

The Festival Fringe is the perfect event for CalArts as some of last year’s cohort explained. Student producer Changting Lu observed that it was "a unique opportunity to practice producing work in an international environment… to see works by different artists around the world and to build up professional connections that may lead to future collaboration", a prospect shared by Tyree Marshall. "I wanted to come because of the opportunity to meet new artists and to potentially collaborate with them in the future." Sam Sewell, sound designer to all of last year’s shows, saw it in similar terms. "To me it represents the most international gathering of thespians in one place and the opportunities to connect with people in this field from so many walks of life is incredible. I would like to continue to work internationally and I feel that as a recent graduate from CalArts I could not pass up this amazing opportunity.’

For Darius R. Booker the Edinburgh opportunity meant a change of plans. He was preparing to relocate to Atlanta, Georgia for film work when, as he says, "the playwright of Gunshot Medley approached me about traveling with her and the show to the Festival Fringe. Having been a part of the original cast and considering how much I resonate with this style and genre of work I couldn't say no". Carolina Vargas felt Edinburgh to be a ‘performing laboratory’ affording ‘the opportunity to share the creative process with a multicultural audience’. Samantha Brounstein focussed on the distinctive vibe of August in Edinburgh and the chance "to meet thousands of people that understand why I do what I do every single day. The dedication that people don't necessarily understand back home; almost everyone that I walk past on the street has that same feeling".

The difficult situations in the home countries of some international students is highlighted by the freedom afforded by CalArts and the atmosphere in Edinburgh. Toritseju Danner explained, "I wanted to partake in an immersive experience where all I lived and breathed was the Arts; the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was exactly that for me. Having grown up in Kuwait with limited exposure to the arts, due to heavy censorship, I found myself craving that which had been held back from me for so many years. This festival is my opportunity to view theatre unveiled." Scarlett Kim and her group wanted their production to be performed in Edinburgh "because we felt a need to present this piece in a third place that is neither one of our seven home countries or America. When we first started making this piece, we believed we cannot take it to Korea, my home country, because the president was blacklisting artists for making political art. We are ecstatic to premiere this piece about our exile experiences in a liminal space, and for an international audience. Our multilingual collage is not made for a single language speaking audience, and we want our audiences to mirror the heterogeneity of the company members". Jinglin Liao summed up very succinctly and simply calling the Festival Fringe an ‘international party’ in which it’s possible to learn from others and to develop.

This year’s program brings another group of students under the longtime mentorship of program director Jon Gottlieb. He had long toyed with the idea of enabling students to visit Edinburgh. When he was invited to become interim Dean of the Theatre School he seized the opening to embed the Festival Fringe opportunity into the department’s program. It was an inspired move to which the Institute, scores of students and many colleagues who have accompanied them over the years owe him a considerable debt of gratitude.

The three productions on display this year are born out of the methodologies deployed at CalArts and admirably reflect the variety of creative arts and the range of themes that inspire its students to explore performance through their own passions, interests and talents. You Are Frogs combines Absurdist mask work and puppetry in a surreal domestic story about sex, sickness and survival along with the existential crises brought about by metal puppet Bill when he enters the lives of two frogs, Mabel and Garry. Back in the world of humans, Man Down is rooted in the Baltimore Riots of 2015. It’s a play of tensions: between the police and citizens; in the lives of interracial couple Michael and Eva and between colonial attitudes and the march towards racial justice. Red and Boiling features drag duo Hasadick and Rosay. Billed as being ‘fast, fun and flexible’, they use shadow puppetry and comedy in a performance that lip syncs verbatim theatre based on hours of interviews covering issues of personal identity. The show invites audiences to share their thoughts and opinions which might well be used in the next day’s show.

Disney wanted to encourage people with talent irrespective of their backgrounds or grades, along with scholarships for those who had no other means of support. "We don't want any dilettantes at CalArts," he proclaimed. "We want people with talent. That will be the one factor in getting into CalArts: talent. It's the principal thing I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures. If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something."

He would undoubtedly have been proud of CalArts’ alliance with the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama and the major contribution that the inspired programme of participation in the Festival Fringe has made to original and excitingly creative theatre in Edinburgh. If he were alive today he might well have been found sitting at the bottom of the Royal Mile during August pondering on the fact that, for some, 13 is actually a very lucky number.

Related Listings

Red and Boiling

Red and Boiling

Lesbian porn! Just kidding, for once we tell our own narrative. Drag duo, Hasadick and Rosay, will take you through a world of striking shadow puppetry using comedy and lip sync. Based on hours of interviews, they explore the lives of queer womyn and non-binary individuals from different countries, religions, ethnicities, and ages... 

You Are Frogs

You Are Frogs

Two frogs, Mabel and Garry, are ridden with the monotony of living. Until Bill comes along... a metal puppet, full of life and in love with Mabel? Soon all three are bound together by an existential crisis... 

Man Down

Man Down

It’s April 2015 and the Baltimore Riots have only just begun. As the city fights to end police brutality, interracial couple Michael and Eva struggle to hold on to each other. Tensions mount over colonial attitudes, Freddie Gray’s controversial death and the beginnings of a monumental racial justice movement that sweeps the country... 

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