ColumnMay 2018

My Comic Relief

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By Salomon Maya

For the months of March and April, my life was dedicated to Beachtown. For those of you who don’t know what Beachtown was, it was the closing show for San Diego REP’s 42nd season and the theatre’s first attempt at immersive work.

A quick plot rundown. Beachtown “existed” in conjunction with its sister city of San Diego in Santa Arenas County. Every year, Beachtown residents would gather to celebrate their town by opening a time capsule which held ten artifacts. Of those ten, three were deemed eternal and seven ephemeral. It was the job of the town (cast and audience) to vote out one ephemeral artifact and replace it with one of three proposed artifacts that better represented the town’s values and identity.

I played Benny Ramos-Leibowitz, a conservative Mexican-Jewish (real stretch huh) Councilman, who left the birth of his own child to attend this celebration. Full transparency, I am not a conservative. However I dug deep into research looking up talking points and even watching countless hours of Marco Rubio speeches on YouTube (will someone get that man a glass of water!). As rehearsals started, I stepped completely into the shoes of Benny, vowing to give a voice to Beachtonian’s who didn’t think like the predominantly liberal audience we were expecting. All in all, we wanted Beachtown to be a safe space where people of all backgrounds would feel comfortable debating their beliefs.

Rehearsals were simple when it came to debating issues. At most we would debate with other actors, dramaturgs, playwrights and directors. It wasn’t until we got on stage at the REP when Beachtown truly took flight.

This experiment wasn’t going to be easy. We (the people behind Beachtown) felt that we were asking a lot of the audience by playing with us. It goes against everything that feels natural when going to a play. People were expecting some 4th wall breaks in an immersive piece of theatre but Beachtown never put a wall to begin with. Patrons, from the moment they bought tickets, received an email from the Mayor welcoming them and asking them to bring dessert for the potluck. What play have you gone to where you were asked to being brownies? Patrons also sang with the cast, raised their hands, voted, etc. But where the true magic of Beachtown came into play, was the debates.

Almost the entire second act was dedicated to the audience. Cast spoke very minimal scripted lines. Our 9th cast member in Beachtown, the audience, basically controlled the second part of the show. And control it…it did.

In our four week run, we never had a “dull” (or as we say behind your backs when we get into the dressing room) a “bad” audience. Yes, sometimes we would have an audience that took a little longer to get the debating revved up but in the end they always started conversations I never thought were going to occur on stage.

Conversations such as transgender, minority, and LGBTQ+ rights. Conversations such as modern day feminism and how even a thirty-seven year old man (such as myself) can be a feminist. Conversations with my fellow actors that spilled over into post show discussions and future conversations of people of color and the roles available to them in the arts. Conversations followed by more conversations…and more conversations.

I have been acting since I was ten years old. If you’ve read my articles you’ll remember that my first “gig” was playing Wilbur in Junior Theatre’s Charlotte’s Web (1990). But I have only been acting professionally since 2008 and I have counted myself lucky to be part of some pretty groundbreaking work. But nothing compared to Beachtown. The amount of conversations that were started because of this experiment will live with me forever. I see people who think differently than me in a whole new light. A brighter light. A much more positive light. I now allow for change of thought and possibly even consider myself a little more open to things that confused me in the past.

Benny and Beachtown…together changed the very fabric that was and is Salomon…for the better. What more can you ask from theatre?

For I now live my life by two beautiful phrases uttered by two beautiful souls (of course said during the run of Beachtown).

I now play the play (or life) I’m in, not the play (or life) I rehearsed.

I hope to one day be…the man my dog thinks I am.

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Cantor Sheldon Merel

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