Curtain set to rise on neighborhood theater in OB
by MARTIN J0NES WESTLIN
Mar 26, 2014 | 2819 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A.J. KNOX
A.J. KNOX
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Whatever artistic talent A.J. Knox had as a boy was founded in one core characteristic — boredom. He’d sit in the car and draw while his sister traipsed into a million junior theater rehearsals. His technical passion extended about as far as the paltry beam from the flashlight he held over the family's impromptu shows.

But the theater bug is lethally addictive, and Knox soon developed several advanced symptoms. Add his high-school crush on a theater-crazed classmate, and that was the end of it.

Acting, directing, design, construction, a Dublin-based Irish theater seminar, a theater Ph.D. with an emphasis in comedy from Boston's Tufts University: Knox has been through it all and back, and at 31, he's had time to develop his own ideas on the art and how it plays in specific locales. Funky, eclectic Ocean Beach, he said, is a performance destination waiting to happen. With the use of the Ocean Beach Playhouse and Arts Center now staring him in the face, he has plans to launch a company the likes of which the neighborhood hasn't seen since — well — the turn of the 21st century.

He’s only three months into his effort; his troupe, called the Ocean Beach Ensemble Experiment, didn't even have a name until about five minutes ago, and hard realities like funding and administration have yet to take shape.

First things first, though.

“I love the theater in San Diego,” the Coronado native and OB resident told The Beacon. “[So many] places do really great work. But I think there's always room for smaller companies to do the work that's not necessarily gonna be the ticket seller for the season and do the kind of experimental, innovative stuff you can't really risk at a bigger theater. And so I think that that alone gives smaller companies a leg up, especially in OB. I think there's a built-in audience for it, and I think there's a desire for it. I think it could have legs.”

In fact, for one season, it did. The Wild Parrot Players, whose name derived from the rare feral birds that call the neighborhood home, put on a slate of shows in 2001. All reportedly sold out, and the company's “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” is regarded today as its signature piece. But Wild Parrot went as quickly as it came amid its woefully underdeveloped business sense.

Unlike Wild Parrot, Knox is mindful of the numbers — but the productions themselves, and the response they garner, will drive his group's budget, instead of the other way around. Meanwhile, crowd-source funding and research into grants will command a share of his time.

“There's always a core conflict,” he explained, “between the business side of the theater and the artistic side of the theater. At a certain point, you've got to start thinking about turning a profit and at least making enough to maintain an ongoing business out of it and maintain a space. We're really approaching it as a volunteer theater for the first season or so to establish ourselves, and then we can start to implement more of a business model. That first season or so, you're still gathering talent and an audience and a reputation. That's the prologue part of it.

“We can't plan a budget until we know what this looks like.”

To that end, the troupe will present an inaugural comedy, dance and music program at the playhouse, 4944 Newport Ave., on Friday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m. The event will feature rockers Tori Roze and the Hot Mess.

Ocean Beach Playhouse and Arts Center has become a multi-use facility since Veterans of Foreign Wars post 1392 closed its thrift store and bar there in 2010. A small recording studio and an art gallery abut the 100-seat theater, and there's a boatload of paid parking in back. Knox said that Lynne and Paul Bolton, the playhouse's producers and anchor tenants, “have done such a great job giving the space an OB feel.” But he cautioned that the Boltons are less artistic directors than entrepreneurs — a description Lynne Bolton endorsed.

“We're not theater people,” she stressed. “We're just people who happen to have a beautiful space. We know how to decorate. We know how to place art. We don't know the ins and outs of theater and what makes it work, except for the construction part. We need somebody in the theater; that's their life; that's their passion.”

Bolton met Knox last year as plans for San Diego's first summer fringe theater festival ramped up; what followed was a meeting of minds and overflow curiosity about OB. “Everybody started calling him Dr. Theater,” Bolton said, “because, really, who knows somebody who has a doctorate in theater? He has a tattoo of Ubu Roi on his forearm, so that was immediately a bonding moment. He'll fit right in in the San Diego theater community.”

Ubu Roi is the title character in an insane French parody of “Macbeth.”

Meetings and introductions have followed regularly, with Knox gauging his approach to festival committees and commercial proprietors (Denny Knox, his mom, is executive director of Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association, the 525-member business collective). The Ocean Beach Playhouse and Arts Center is at his disposal when not in use (some smaller area companies have rented the space until August). The stage is set for Knox's message to the neighborhood, which features an almost exclusive ring.

“OB's such an eclectic community,” Knox said, “that I want this theater to reflect that. I picture it as there's no other place this particular theater could exist but OB and there's no other place for plays I'm hoping to do can go up but OB. I want it to celebrate the character of OB. I have no interest in doing Shakespeare without some kind of reflection of OB, whether it's design or theme or whatever it is. I'd want it to resonate with where we are, with good, exciting, strange things happening.”

Neither, Knox repeats, has he an interest in expansion.

“I don't think I'd be as excited about this project,” he continued, “if I was given a space like [The Old Globe Theatre]. It's too big for the stuff I want to do and for the divisions I'm developing for this space. I think it's perfect. I wish it had more wing space, but that's about it.”

Several seasons ago, a local theater critic scoffed at the prospect of legitimate performance art in dog-eared little OB. Hold the play on the beach and give away beer, she snorted; the typical local audience will show up.

“You can do anything on the beach with free beer and get a lot of people to come,” Knox said. “But this is different. This is theater. I have full confidence that this will succeed and take off and allow us to do bigger, more nuanced and more detailed projects, in OB's entrepreneurial spirit.”

Look, after all, at Ocean Beach-opoly, the Monopoly-based board game inspired by the neighborhood. Or the one and only Street Fair and Chili Cook-Off, which funds the neighborhood's spectacular Fourth of July fireworks display the following year. Or the fact that the big-box banks and coffee shops sit away from the beach because that's the way the neighborhood wants it. There's a curious, free-spirited core behind all that; now, one of its own seeks to introduce performance art as an expression of its uniqueness. You can take Ubu Roi out of OB, but. . .

Those interested in learning more can write Knox at andrew.joseph.-knox@gmail.com. For details on the company, visit Obensemble.org.

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