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Culture Report: Kickstarting the Immersive Theater Scene in San Diego

A video, a backlash and a backlash to the backlash in Barrio Logan, Tijuana and San Diego artists are coming together and more in our weekly digest of the region’s arts and culture news.


A scene from “Waking la Llorona” / Photo by Jose Galvan

You enter through an alleyway behind the Bread & Salt arts center in Logan Heights. A woman in a lab coat greets you, asks a few questions,  then takes you in to see an eye doctor. The doctor outfits you with goggles that block your peripheral vision and headphones playing intense instrumental music.

The setup instantly make you feel detached from reality – like you’re watching a movie in which you’re playing an active role.

From there, you’re led through twisting hallways and even a small crawl space that opens up to eight different, beautifully detailed scenes, each inhabited by actors who help bring the story of a notorious Mexican urban legend called “La Llorona” to life.

The immersive theater experience is called “Waking La Llorona” by a new theatrical company in San Diego called Optika Moderna. The show was part of La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival, which specializes in immersive and experimental performances, but tickets have been in such high demand, it was extended through Nov. 5. 

David Reynoso heads up Optika Moderna and is the creator, designer and co-director of “Waking La Llorona.” A set and costume designer by trade, Reynoso said he has long wanted to explore the story of La Llorona through immersive theater. He grew up hearing the tale of a woman who drowned her children in a river to get back at her husband for leaving her for a younger woman. Often described as an evil ghost who curses anyone who hears her wailing at night, Reynoso always wondered about the woman’s side of the story. He wanted to explore the circumstances that led her to the heinous act.

“I was interested in seeing if whether or not there was a way of bringing some empathy for this woman who was largely considered a monster,” Reynoso said.

Reynoso has a background in immersive theater – shows in which audiences experience storytelling by roaming through theatrical worlds. He worked for years in New York with Punchdrunk, a company credited with making immersive theater a growing trend.

He never thought his idea for “Waking La Llorona” would actually come to be, but then the San Diego Foundation granted him $20,000 as part of its annual Creative Catalyst Program in 2016, and he was able to fund a limited run earlier this year.

The show, though, is expensive to run. It’s a one-on-one, 30-minute experience that’s tailored to each guest based on a short questionnaire at the start of the play. Story details are changed if people are sensitive to certain things. Tickets are priced at $63 each, but paying actors a fair price for their time is expensive, and Reynoso said they simply can’t circulate enough people through the show each night to make a good profit.

After the first staging, Reynoso had to raise another $11,000 through a crowd-funding campaign so he could pay the actors better wages.

He said the project is more about passion than profits, and that he’s hoping other people in San Diego see the show and start making more immersive theatrical experiences.

“This is very much what I consider a labor of love,” he said. “To me, it feels worth it even if I come away making zero dollars. I hope it inspires other people in San Diego to reconsider what it means to make theater.”

You’re reading the Culture Report, Voice of San Diego’s weekly collection of the region’s cultural news.

Clueless in Barrio Logan, and the Backlash to the Backlash

The backlash was swift and fierce: A young white woman wanted help raising funds to open a modern fruteria in Barrio Logan, and residents in the gentrifying, historically Latino neighborhood thought her fundraising video pitch was, uh, clueless at best, offensive cultural appropriation at worst. (mitú)

Enter the backlash to the backlash: After dozens of comments on the future fruteria’s Facebook page teetered uncomfortably close to white-bashing, folks like Brent Beltran, an outspoken Barrio Logan resident and affordable housing activist, asked people to focus their energy on developers buying property and building market-rate housing in Barrio Logan that current residents can’t afford. Beltran wrote this on Facebook:

Anna Perkins, a new resident of Barrio Logan, said she, too, was left questioning the community’s reaction to the proposed business.

“On one hand, this woman is an entrepreneur and clearly has invested thought and money into this business venture – on the other, she is coming in with no sensitivity and a bit of a white savior complex,” she wrote in an email. “I understand the initial reaction, I had it as well (I’m also Mexican American) – standing for their heritage and calling out cultural misappropriation, but where is the line? When does it border on hate?”

• I focused on the tension between the cultural renaissance and the gentrification happening in Barrio Logan for the first season of Voice of San Diego’s Culturecast arts podcast. Go here and listen to episodes 1-5 to hear what some people in the heart of it have to say.

• Speaking of gentrification, this CityBeat columnist thinks artists need to take a more active role in making sure the neighborhoods they help make cool aren’t decimated by the developers who often follow them wherever they go.

A Call to Revamp Arts Funding, The Old Globe Hits the Road and More Arts and Culture News

• Tijuana and San Diego artists and musicians are coming together for a show at Bread & Salt Friday.

Cura Caos, the VOSD Podcast Network show about movers and shakers on both sides of the border, features an interview with local musician and author Al Howard.

alfred howard san diego
San Diego musician Alfred Howard was featured in a VOSD Podcast Network show. / Photo by Kristy Walker

The best and worst of San Diego architecture was acknowledged at the annual Orchids & Onions awards show last week. Arts District Liberty Station was among the winners, snagging an Orchid for adaptive reuse. The arts scene is growing at Liberty Station, but rent there is still too high for many struggling artists.

• Peter Kalivas, executive director of The PGK Dance Project, wrote an op-ed for VOSD calling for the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture to revamp the way it funds local arts and culture organizations.

Speaking of Arts District Liberty Station, San Diegans who stopped by Monday and Tuesday could have their picture taken by French artist JR, who’s using the images for an interactive installation that advocates for Dreamers, or people who were brought illegally to the United States as kids. JR is the artist who installed the large image of a child peering over the border fence in Tecate.

• So Say We All, the nonprofit literary education group, has a new event night in La Mesa.

• Mesa College is getting a fancy new arts building and gallery.

• As part of the Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA” initiative showcasing artists from Latin America, this week the Museum of Photographic Arts is opening “Point/Counterpoint,” an exhibition from 19 contemporary Mexican photographers.

• Be on the lookout for a play by The Old Globe happening at a venue near you in coming weeks. The Balboa Park institution’s annual Globe for All outreach program is under way. (NBC 7)

• Artists Hugo Crosthwaite and Jose Hugo Sánchez are set to do a live performance that’s supposed to last five full days and includes the creation of a mural at the San Diego Art Institute picturing “migration, dislocation, labor and the plight of the Mexico-U.S. border region they call home.”

• California’s American Indian & Indigenous Film Festival is happening this week. (Union-Tribune)

• Learn about Carlsbad resident Roland “Rolly” Crump’s connection to the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. (Union-Tribune)

• Don’t miss the annual Day of the Dead altar at Balboa Park’s Mingei International Museum. The New Americans Museum at Arts District Liberty Station has an impressive Day of the Dead altar on display as well.

The Backfence Society Inc., a scrappy arts group in Vista, has a new home.

• In the ’70s, a local radio station held a contest and gathered songs about San Diego. The top 12 were included in an album called “Homegrown.” That album is the inspiration for a new performance by the San Diego Ballet.

• San Diego New Music’s 2017-18 season is off to a good start. (Union-Tribune)

• Chefs and arts leaders are going to talk about what inspires them at a big event Monday.

• The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the UC San Diego team up every year for a lecture series that brings in big-name artists. This year’s lecture features artist and writer Miguel Calderón.

• Here’s a recap of the recent summit focused on arts and the economy, hosted by the North County Arts Network and the San Diego North Economic Development Council.

• The San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art is teaming up with the San Diego History Center for a new exhibition featuring eight black artists with strong ties to San Diego

• I told you about Project Reo Collective, a new coffee shop on Reo Drive in Paradise Hills, in a past Culture Report. The shop continues to host art shows and other community events. This week, see a show featuring new works by San Diego artist Ricardo Islas.

Beer, Booze and Food News

• San Diego Beer Week is back, and so are the handy roundups of don’t-miss events. (Reader)

• Beer Talk Radio, a Voice of San Diego Podcast Network show, talks to the folks behind Bay City Brewing, the brewery whose beer was mislabeled San Diego’s “official” beer earlier this year.

• Here are 11 Halloween-themed cocktails for ya’ll to imbibe. (San Diego Magazine)

• 32 North Brewing Co has plans to open in southeastern San Diego.

• I hear this annual barbecue festival in Spring Valley is not to be missed.

• Buona Forchetta is expanding all over the place. (Eater)

• Fan of hard cider? There’s a new festival for that.

Correction: An earlier version of this post had the incorrect closing date for “Waking La Llarona.”

Kinsee Morlan is engagement editor at Voice of San Diego. Email her at kinsee@vosd.org with arts and culture news and tips. Want to recommend this culture newsletter to someone? Share this sign-up link.

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