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In San Diego’s arts community, collaborations grow in popularity and power

When the chamber opera “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914" lands at Balboa Park’s Veterans Museum this November, it will come courtesy of what might seem an unlikely producing trio.

There’s San Diego Opera, the venerable local cultural institution with a budget of $10 million a year. There’s SACRA/PROFANA, the seasoned professional chorus that performs here year-round.

And then there’s the lead producer: Bodhi Tree Concerts, a tiny but mighty arts outfit run by a local married couple out of their home office in City Heights.

Walter DuMelle and his wife, Diana, founded Bodhi Tree Concerts seven years ago as a way both to celebrate the arts and support fellow artists (all the profits from their works go to charitable causes).

But when they first hit on the idea of staging “All Is Calm” three years ago, the DuMelles realized it was not something they could do on their own.

So they approached SACRA/PROFANA, with its ensemble of top vocalists, about a partnership. San Diego Opera also wound up coming aboard with sets and scenery — a kind of pay-it-forward moment, since Bodhi Tree actually had helped raise funds for the opera company when it announced its continuation after facing near-closure about five years ago.

The partnership clicked, and since that 2016 production, the three have teamed to present the piece twice more, with the opera taking the lead last year in a larger-scale staging at the Balboa Theatre. That production won a Craig Noel Award from the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle as outstanding special event.

The companies’ collaboration seems emblematic of a vibrant spirit of creative cooperation in San Diego’s arts community just now, and Walter DuMelle is very onboard with it.

“You’re hearing of it more and more,” says DuMelle, who also performs in “All is Calm” as a vocalist.

“When you set it up right and it’s an appropriate product you’re trying to create — where (say) a dance troupe and a choir and an orchestra team to Project X — it makes more sense to take three established groups to do a project that none of them could do on their own.”

Here, there and everywhere

The factors that seem to be driving the trend toward collaborations here also appear to be in play around the country.

“I’d say in the last decade or maybe longer, we’ve seen a lot more collaboration, a lot more partnerships of really varying size and scale,” says Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts, a national arts-advocacy organization.

“The reasons for partnership or collaboration are many. One of them is certainly audience cross-pollination. There’s great marketing potential there. It really can create artistic innovation, when different arts organizations come together. A lot of times it’s cross-disciplinary, too, which is really exciting for an audience.

A scene from the 2018 production of “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914" at the Balboa Theatre.

(Courtesy San Diego Opera)

“It can work really well, but it has to be thoughtfully considered going into it. You’ve got organizations that have different cultures (or) different values, in terms of edginess for example.

“What I always say with partnership and collaboration is that 1+1 = 3. We’re greater than the sum of our parts. But it’s not a gimme, either. You have to clarify the purpose.

“If you think about those things in advance, and you put that structure in place, then you can really let the form follow the function. And that’s when the artistic fire can really catch.”

In San Diego, artistic collaborations can take on myriad forms, from more or less traditional co-productions to outside-the-box partnerships. The key seems to lie in leveraging and multiplying each of the parties’ particular strengths.

And for its part, Moxie itself has been the smaller party in a partnership with a much larger arts institution; the troupe was one of the first to be named resident theater company at La Jolla Playhouse, in a pioneering program launched by Playhouse artistic chief Christopher Ashley a decade ago.

For Ashley, the idea of the resident theater program — which brings aboard a local company without its own performance home to work with Playhouse artists and other resources — is deeply connected with his affinity for collaborations.

“I walked in the door to this job as artistic director at the Playhouse with a couple of key ideas that led us right to the residency program,” says Ashley, the Tony Award-winning director (for the Playhouse-bred Broadway hit “Come From Away”) who joined the theater in 2007.

“One is that collaboration is valuable and essential — with other theater organizations and other performing arts organizations, and even interdisciplinary collaborations” with groups outside the arts.

“I think if two organizations come together to make a piece of art, you end up with two audiences, which is what everybody wants. And you often get different perspectives — from somebody who makes music or makes opera or makes dance or is in social services.

“The ideas that are available to you are richer and broader and deeper. And in many cases, although not all, you can afford to do something on a scale that neither institution alone could do.”

Jonathan Glus, executive director of the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, came to that position about six months ago after serving in arts-administration posts in Sacramento and, before that, Houston.

From what he’s seen of San Diego so far, collaborations “are really very much a phenomenon of larger, oftentimes anchor institutions partnering with smaller, kind of unexpected partners.”

Glus was particularly taken by last January’s Hearing the Future Festival, which was programmed by the San Diego Symphony and brought together artists working in dance, theater and visual arts as well as music.

“I thought it was so interesting how they were deliberately using unexpected spaces, and (creating) kind of surprising partnerships,” he says.

“It used to be that organizations would showcase artists; it would be a platform but not really a collaboration. But now the power of relationships (is key).”

And when it comes to the success of these endeavors, Glus says, “in so many ways, it’s about who’s introducing whom,” referring to the need for trust and an equitable give-and-take among the parties.

That idea is central to collaborations for Freedome Bradley-Ballentine, director of arts engagement for the Old Globe, San Diego’s flagship theater.

Bradley-Ballentine and Globe artistic chief Barry Edelstein have been leading a major push over the past few years to extend the theater’s mission further into the San Diego community. Among the efforts have been the Globe’s free “AXIS” events that serve diverse communities, and the Globe for All program that takes mobile Shakespeare productions around the region in partnership with schools, homeless shelters and more.

“We’re talking about, how do we serve the public good?,” Bradley-Ballentine says. “We’re talking about how to make theater matter. We need help (doing that) — so when we’re going in asking for help, that changes the dynamic right there.

“It’s all about how you frame that conversation; then you’re finding the equity in that. We’re not coming in as the ‘big Globe’ that knows everything.

“But there is no blueprint. You have to be open to what people are desiring. I think that’s a big problem some arts organizations have. They want to create these programs that make them feel better, but don’t make the organizations they want to serve feel better. Both organizations have to feel they’re getting something from it.”

And getting that right is important: “We firmly believe this is the future of the field. If you do not have relationships with these organizations, you do not have relevancy.”

Sharing the spirit

At San Diego Rep, one key collaboration over the past few years has been the downtown theater’s Xchange Xperience partnership with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. The program makes students a significant part of Rep productions, and along the way perhaps passes along the idea that collaborations can be a powerful force in the arts.

“In our minds it’s definitely a symbiotic partnership, where the students get something they otherwise wouldn’t in their educational experience, says Rep associate producer and casting director Kim Heil. “And besides helping our production budget, there’s an added element of creativity in what we’re able to do.

“It’s very rare to see 30 people onstage these days. When we’re able to invite students to participate in our shows, it obviously is a way to realize our vision in a much grander way.”

Heil adds that Xchange Xperience aims to be a true partnership: “One of the wonderful things about this program is that once the students start rehearsals, they are blended into the ensemble and company in a way that’s pretty seamless. They don’t treat these kids any differently in the artistic process of creating this show.”

For Blake McCarty, co-founder (with Catherine Hanna Schrock) of Blindspot Collective — which has likewise done extensive work with area schools — building real relationships is essential to collaborations.

For us there’s a sensitivity to not appropriating someone’s experience, and ensuring there’s a relationship being built that’s not like a ‘drop-in, do the work and then exit’ kind of situation.”

When Blindspot was developing the multimedia work “Qulili,” about young refugees and immigrants, “the process began with partnering with a refugee service organization in El Cajon,” McCarty says. “So we really didn’t begin the development of anything theatrical for several months. The initial focus was really on relationship-building, and gaining trust, and gaining awareness.”

Before moving to San Diego, McCarty worked in New York, and found the vibe there markedly different.

“Certainly it’s a tight-knit, friendly community” there, he says. “But there’s also a sense of competition that I don’t necessarily find in the same way in San Diego.

“What I find in San Diego is that people truly want to support other people’s work. And there’s a sense of, “‘Can we do it better together?’”

That’s likewise been the experience for Walter DuMelle and Bodhi Tree Concerts, whose next project is the all-day festival Music En La Calle in City Heights on June 15.

And in DuMelle’s view, any way of working that opens up more opportunities for creativity to flourish is a welcome one.

“Arts in this day and age — it’s always been hard, but it’s not getting any easier,” DuMelle says. “So if the world of collaborating just allows us to make art happen, why not?

“Art begets art.”

A look at recent arts collaborations around the county:

· The San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory teamed with the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, Balboa Park Cultural Conservancy, San Diego Museum of Art and other park organizations for the Concert on the Plaza, an annual, free summer kickoff performance by SDYS student musicians.

· The Mingei International Museum partnered with the New Children’s Museum for a pop-up workshop at the latter museum’s Innovators Lab, in celebration of Children’s Day in Japan.

· The San Diego Theatre Network launched as a collaboration among local community theaters; its mission is to promote artistic partnerships as well as volunteerism.

Malashock Dance and Art of Élan teamed recently to present “High Strung,” a fusion of dance and live music. It was the latest in a series of joint works between the two organizations.

· The Little Saigon Mobile Museum, a community based arts program facilitated by the Media Arts Center San Diego, was created in collaboration with the AjA Project, the Little Saigon Foundation and the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association. The museum trains Vietnamese-American youth to capture the stories of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants who make up San Diego’s designated Little Saigon District on El Cajon Boulevard.

· The Museum of Photographic Arts partnered recently with the AjA Project on “Undocuqueer: Stories from Bordertown,” a series of photo stories capturing the experience of San Diego’s LGBTQ+ DACA recipients.

· The Museum of Man developed a creative partnership with the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation and the urban art program Writerz Blok. Artists from Writerz Blok worked with the spray-paint artist Chor Boogie to paint murals as part of an ongoing series of small-scale, community-based installation.

· This year, the NTC Foundation awarded $20,000 in grants earmarked specifically for collaborations among artists and organizations at Arts District Liberty Station.

Recent months have seen the socially conscious and artistically wide-ranging troupe Blindspot Collective bringing its experience in community-based work to Diversionary Theatre, with that long-established company’s expertise in LGBTQ-centered material, for the joint project “Danny’s Story,” about a transgender high-schooler.

The women-centered Moxie Theatre teamed a few months ago with the fledgling, Latinx-focused TuYo Theatre to stage “Fade,” a bilingual play whose director, Maria Patrice Amon, is also a TuYo co-founder.

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