The El Paso Community Foundation's Jewel Box Series, a Gift to Artists?
The EP Community Foundation's Tool Box Series, the giant circle jerk, and how Waldo self-destructed
by Mari A. Gomez
In 2014, Waldo the Amazing Hypnotist, the ten minute play written by Ryan Johann Perry, that had four years earlier cost us, stress wise, the equivalent of 10, 000 cigarettes to the lungs in trying to produce, was finally going to become a full length production. The initial “production” if we may call it that, mounted on a plywood stage with inexperienced actors, zero budget, an alcoholic lead actor who quit days before leaving us scrambling for volunteers, yes, nearly made our lungs collapse, but was filled in the end, with an invaluable sense of accomplishment and pride. After so much went wrong, it frequently induced laughter at our own desperate attempts to make things work.
So a proper revision of one of those plays as a full length, was for a moment, an exciting prospect for the Rift because it meant that one of our writers would have his work produced in a real theater with, who would have thought: curtains and lighting and a real fucking stage!
We imagined this Jewel Box Series, as we soon learned it would be called, might be the outlet that would finally lend out a space to artists not affiliated with what I would call the El Paso 'theater establishment.’ Yet, not long after we found out about this, details began to surface that made the process far less inviting. An exciting prospect, quickly revealed behind its curtain just another El Paso facade. Worse yet, it quickly turned nightmarish as this production of Waldo, the Amazing Hypnotist, with so much potential, would morph into an Ouroboros, a thing that ate itself alive, that chewed at its own heart and tore its insides until what was left were unrecognizable bits of a good piece of writing and what should have been a good group of friends.
Let’s back up. We’ll get to that part of the story soon enough.
The Jewel Box Series is a project by the El Paso Community Foundation whose official description on their website reads as follows:
The shiny new performing arts series, produced in partnership with El Paso Live, is designed to showcase homegrown talent in one of the city’s most dazzling-and intimate-spaces, the Philanthropy Theatre, part of the Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Centre. The idea is simple: take our region’s best talent and put it in our region’s best venue.
The project sounds very exciting on paper. In theory, having a space with built in credibility and class should inject new force into an artistic community and encourage new and exciting artists to emerge from the shadows. Instead, it's shown itself as a lazy, disengage, and half-hearted attempt at the above. My hope is that the third season shows the first and second were trial and error, but that is left to be seen. The space is beautiful and perfect for small intimate theater, but thus far the project has failed to live up to its own description. One, because of lack of support and promotion for the artists that participate and for what seems to be a rather limited process of engaging new artists. The artistic community in El Paso is not lacking, rather it suffers from stagnation because of an atmosphere that resembles that of a giant circle jerk.
The process to get involved, as it stands now, mostly entails the Jewel Box Committee, composed of artists or leaders of organizations already receiving support/funds from the Foundation, nominating themselves and their friends with, possibly, the occasional newcomer squeezing through. As Kathrin Berg Pettit, the Vice President of the Community Foundation, explains, the first season got off the ground early and they seemingly scrambled to fill the slots, so they used organizations they already supported. The first season then, was their experimental season to some degree. Yet, they didn’t make it public until the organizations involved were already locked in. These groups then became the committee, who would nominate and/or approve any future performers.
I read everything associated with the Jewel Box Series and nowhere does it openly state that local artists can get involved, or how, or what the criteria might be. Berg Pettit suggested this was understood, that people that wanted to get involved would know to call her office. They turn no one away, she said. So if you are an artist, a comedian, a performer, mime, exotic dancer, the Jewel Box Series wants to hear your idea: 915-533-4020.
When I asked Mrs. Berg Pettit about the process of becoming involved, she replied:
“They have to have some kind of a vetting process, so it’s not the guy off the street, it’s got to be something that’s bona fide, someone that’s already proven themselves in the world of art. The Committee is comprised of people who are already performing or have a role in the arts. The beautiful thing is that it’s such a small world that everyone kind of already knows everyone.”
It's not beautiful at all, unless you are 'popular.' Everyone knowing everyone is not a good thing because people base themselves on who they know and what they know, or think they know, about people and not about their work, or ability to work. The story of Waldo, is a prime example. It almost didn’t happen because of what someone "knew." We’ll get to it in a moment.
A vetting process makes sense. That is, finding out about the prospective artist. Ensuring that your potential performers have some background in their proposed projects and have serious intentions about making their art is logical enough, however many independent artists might seem like people off the streets, because they kind of are. If they don’t have awards, or have never had the opportunity or don’t happen to be friends with members of the committee, it might just seem that way, but that would be the beauty of it. To truly take chances on people and their visions.
Perhaps establishing some kind of open application and review process where people present an idea, a script, a synopsis, a budget, etc. That is having it open to the public. They only have nine slots, yes, so it would have to be competitive. That’s the point.
Is there no potential conflict of interest in having the very people that fill the initial slots become the committee that get to approve everyone else? We can clearly see that from the first and second seasons it’s practically the same people. (Note: Season 1 has one less performance)
Hey, I know someone….Me!!
Even if it’s not the same organizations, which much of it is, many of the same people are involved. I attended many of these performances. The director of one show last year, is the head actress in another show this year. The director of one of the shows was also the director of another. The director/writer and head of one of the organizations of the show in November, starred in one of the readings of the show in September.
If the Foundation sold the JBS as a coalition of artists that put together a new season every year, then fine. We get it. It would simply turn into another El Paso Playhouse, recycling the same people endlessly. Yet, it is not sold that way; it is sold as a wonderful opportunity to showcase the region’s incredible array of talent. Berg Pettit, recognized as much, and she did tell me that they wanted to have some kind of "branding." I guess that means keeping some of the same artists on the bill consistently. Yet, there is not much outreach for new artists, so what is the point of the Series if not to develop and incite healthy competition and explore new acts?
The Jewel Box Series is also sold as a project intended to showcase “locally produced work,” a criteria emphasized by Mrs. Berg Pettit herself.
"It's supporting local theater, it's supporting local playwrights which is probably the most important thing," said Berg Pettit.
Yet, the outreach for new artists is simply absent. Many of the people involved the first and second seasons didn't even live in the region. Their only connection is someone in the committee or a clear already established relationship with the Foundation.
Take for example, Frank Levering, who wrote the play Far Appatomox. His play happened early in the 2015 season with a staged reading. Frank Levering does not live or work in El Paso. His only connection to El Paso that I could find was a member of the Jewel Box committee, Frontera Rep’s Camilla Carr.
The official blurb for Far Appatomox from the El Paso Community Foundation website states:
“Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) and Frontera Rep co-founder and three time Hollywood Drama-Logue award winner Camilla Carr (All About Bette) are producing…”
We get it Community Foundation. You write it so it sounds like you have important people working this series. The kind of thing El Pasoan’s fall for. And yet the truth is that Frontera Repertory Theater, as far as I'm concerned, is irrelevant and inactive. Their last show was 2014. Their website is abandoned. Their last Facebook post was in 2014. What work are they producing? Why should I care about their friends? One of the co-founders, Kathryn Smith- McGlynn, who did the last production, doesn’t live in El Paso anymore. This is not a working company exploring new work or giving local actors an outlet and yet somehow they get to bring their friends from the outside and sell it to the El Paso public as something we should care about? And Beth Henley, yes won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981, her connection to El Paso is perhaps that her film was shown a few years back at the Plaza Film Festival and she taught Camilla Carr’s son play-writing at Oxford, wherein she offered the advice of how to start a play:
“Take two people and get them into an argument," she said.
(It was probably this kind of advice that contributed to that unbearable movement of college theater wherein two people sit in a room and just fucking talk.)
This piece has had multiple readings in other theaters, for example, a staged reading in Charleston in November 16th, 2014, so what exactly is the appeal of doing it as part of the Jewel Box?
I brought all this up to Mrs. Berg Pettit and as an example of the contrary, she told me about a young girl, Ali Dipp, that got involved in the Jewel Box Series, by a stroke of luck. Someone had cancelled so a slot opened up and Dipp happened to call at the right time. According to this early Newspaper Tree article, Frank Levering's Far Appatomox was to be in the first season during March. This means Frontera Rep probably cancelled and were then allowed to come back the second season.
In reference to this young artist that filled the open spot:
“That was one,” she said, “we really had to vet…she really had to come in and sell the committee,” said Berg Pettit.
So how did this seventeen year old find out there was a cancellation? I asked. No one else was privy to that information? At this point no one even knew that the Jewel Box Series was open to any and all artists. There was no notice put out. Potential artists out there had no idea this was even happening.
Mrs. Berg Pettit told me Ali Dipp, the seventeen year old high school student, just happened to call her office and as luck would have it, there was an opening. I find this hard to swallow for the following reasons:
1. On May 11th, 2013 the Community Foundation sponsored Ali Dipp’s play “Red and Black” at the Community Foundation Room when she was fifteen years old. The production was to benefit Frontera Repertory Theater.
2. Ali Dipp happens to be related to Michael J. Dipp Jr., the son of well respected and loved businessman Michael Dipp Sr., who started what is now the Economy Cash and Carry and at some point owned the Plaza Theater. Dipp Sr., coincidentally, has a fund named after him with the Community Foundation.
So I wholeheartedly, respectfully disagree with you Mrs. Berg Pettit. No. You did not just “take a chance” on this seventeen year old artist. She’s part of the family. Literally.
So this seventeen year old artist happens to get a spot on this JBS project. That’s great, having young people participate can only further incite up and coming artists to participate. Yet, I suppose she blows everybody’s mind with her piece about the border, which (in an interview with Monica Gomez on KTEP, she discusses the fact that, although she truly and passionately identifies with the border, she has yet to travel to Juarez.) But it must be so good that she gets to come back a second time, just like everybody else.
Meanwhile other artists in the region aren’t even sought out, or invited, or informed of the possible opportunity?
I suppose part of this is that I refuse to believethis short list of people is all the region has to offer. Perhaps it is precisely this closed off approach to the arts that has propelled many potential local artists to leave the city.
Mrs. Berg Pettit also told me, for example, that Marty Martin didn’t know anyone. Ok, maybe he slipped through the cracks, yet there was so little published about this guys's piece that who even knew it was happening? There are no images, no posters, zero media? A quick Google search of his name with Jewel Box Series yields the same 100 word blurb over and over.
Ted Karber, apparently, took the place of Mark Medoff, who was going to have another piece in May. Karber is doing his piece "Unwanted Laughter." Yet as of today May 1st, 2016 there hardly anything published about this upcoming piece. In fact, the Community Foundation still has Medoff listed on their website as their closing act. (Screenshot)
From the official press release of Lupercalia Uber Alles, the performance of Feb 14th, 2016:
“Stella Perry is a former El Pasoan living in Brooklyn.”
In the interview on KTEP, Perry talked about how she communicated through email with her working partner Mindy Chanson, who lives in El Paso, to put together the piece. How does someone really produce a piece locally (which is a stated criteria of the JBS) when they don’t live here? Why is somebody in New York, the hub of theater and arts given an opportunity in El Paso, where artists lack venues and opportunity?
It’s great to bring in outside talent, people with El Paso connections if they had sought out local working artists first and couldn’t find any, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
When I asked Mrs. Berg Pettit about Perry, she replied that she has a strong connection to El Paso, which is true, but it still kind of breaks their own established criteria of “locally produced.”
Stella Perry, co-founder of Zemewerk is Rift writer Ryan Johann Perry’s sister, who grew up here and was, in fact, the director of Waldo the Amazing Hypnotist and probably the only reason why Ryan and I were even able to get involved. So, yes, full disclosure, she’s right in the middle of this story, which we’re getting to. But if Zemwerk had already done a piece the first year and within that year they relocated to Brooklyn, why then did they continue to have a spot in the Jewel Box Series intended for local artists? All of this leads me to a question that begs to be asked:
Is there really not enough willing, capable, original artists out there in the region? With an estimated joint population of 2,100,444 El Paso, Juarez, and Las Cruces, is there not enough people able to put on a performance that the well-funded Community Foundation has to resort to the same people over and over? Is that what they are suggesting?
Another limitation of the JBS is their complete lack of promotion and/or support for the projects and the artists. Without reaching out to an audience, it will be harder to get new people interested. I spoke to several artists that performed in the first season of the JBS. All of them told me they didn't even know there was a second season going on or who was part of it.
They all told me they were disappointed at their turn outs and the lack of promotion for their shows. One artist told me she not only walked away with zero payment, but they had a dismal turn out, which was very disappointing. It's possible she said, that this had something to do with the fact that it was a Sunday matinee. It’s true, all of the JBS performances, unless the artist commits to more dates, are on a Sunday matinee, which everybody knows are for kids and old people after they go to church. Matinees are no way to spark up a theater scene.
Another artist came in from Mexico City, was only reimbursed the flight and walked away with nothing.
The Community Foundation has no official Facebook page for the JBS. There is no website. They have a FB page for the Philanthropy Theatre where it's mostly people posting into it. No posts really come from them. Any posts are minimal at best. They don’t have images or flyers. They don't put up posters downtown. They get a mild, usually poorly written blurb and include it along with the same dumb logo on every post. No coverage. No exposure. No support. No attempt to really sell the series and make it grow.
Another artist told me there was zero communication between them and the Foundation. They heard nothing, either before or after their performance. He told me that they had to go out and do their own flyers, their own posters, their own programs and promotion. In fact, the crew of Waldo the Amazing Hypnotist can attest to this. We did everything. The Community Foundation provided zero support on all of this. Completely absent.
However, these artists biggest concern was not the payment, but the fact that nobody showed up and the idea that they felt unsupported.
The El Paso Community Foundation according to Mrs. Berg Pettit covers the rent of using the theater. What I can tell from this document I came across from 2014 is that the $950 rental fee is waived and the Foundation pays the insurance. So, more or less, for an artist to perform for one night, having the fee waived, it's the three employees at $14/hr so $124 + Box Office Set up Fee $50.00+ Box Office personnel @ 20.00/hr is $60 + soundboard $30/hr (for 3 hours) is $90 for an approximate total of $324. This does not include variable costs.
This means at $16 a ticket they have to have at least 20 attendees to break even. Artists get all of the profits from ticket sales, ONLY AFTER they pay the employees working the theater (box office, lights, elevator).So if you’re an independent artist trying to get your name out there, you are expected to mount a full production, be in charge of your own promotion, and still bring in enough people that will cover these costs. Why does running an elevator warrant you getting paid, while writing/ performing/ dancing does not?
“They [the artists] have to pay for the hard costs, for example the lighting guy, the tech guy, that kind of thing.”, said Berg Pettit.
Should artists expect to get paid? Should they just bow down in appreciation for the opportunity?
During the Plaza Film Festival they employ volunteers to hand out programs and take tickets. Why can’t they provide volunteers for the work of these independent artists they claim to so fully support? Why doesn’t Berg Pettit and/or Eric Pearson or hell even ancient Janice Windle, who's still on the payroll and makes more than the CEO himself, run the elevator for that one day a month and let the artist keep the hundred bucks from their ten attendees?
We experienced all of this first hand as part of Waldo the Amazing Hypnotist. Our crew did all the press, we contacted the El Paso Times and What’s Up. We ran our own social media campaigns. We got ok turnouts, but we had a big cast and that big cast can sell more tickets because they have grandmas, moms, brothers and sisters, which made up probably most of our attendees. As far as I saw, the only support the Foundation really provided was that they showed up to one of the performances and gave a little speech about how great the Jewel Box Series was.
In fact, the Jewel Box Series, even though they don’t help with the programs or flyers require their logo to be on them, in considerable size.
At the end of each performance, one of these employees that we, as the artists, were paying, would walk around and literally kick us out of the building almost immediately after the curtains closed. (This was probably because they are only hired for 3 hours, so they can't go over that. Artists get one hour before the performance at most.) The fact is, there was never any sense that we were part of something. The one time I saw Community Foundation’s CEO Eric Pearson, he stormed in backstage during intermission with a high sense of urgency and said that he would shut down the performance immediately if he heard another cuss word, even though the program was pretty clear about it being an adult show. There was no, ‘Hey guys great job, but cut down on the cuss words please.' It was not polite or courteous or friendly. He literally stormed in as if he himself had been personally injured by whatever word he was taking issue with. This forced the main actor to alter his lines on the spot, but that was the least of our worries.
This felt like an environment that trivialized art and the hard work that’s put into every production. Surely, if they are in the business of supporting the local independent arts, they would understand that putting together a production where no one is getting paid, comprised of artists who have full time jobs and responsibilities, who can’t even use the space to rehearse for one night unless they pay, that all of this for zero support and ten people in the crowd, is a pretty awful feeling.
Yet, often artists are their own worst enemies and we're getting to that. The heart of this story is the self-destruction of Waldo, The Amazing Hypnotist and how we became the very thing we despised. So, yes, I’m involved here. I know the writer of Waldo intimately and I was part of the production.
It began here. In one of the Jewel Box Series private committee meetings one member took it upon himself to express a personal opinion of our writer Ryan Johann Perry. This committee member, who out of affection, given our lovely history with the guy, we’ll call Boston Massive, head of the Border Theatre, told the committee that he did not want to collaborate with Ryan Perry. He felt he needed to “protect” the Jewel Box Series from Ryan because he was trouble. Boston Massive admitted to this on camera, in a little informal interview the Rift had with him.
“Apparently,” said Stella Maria Perry, director of Waldo, “there were many objections made when the topic of letting my theater group Zemwerk participate in the series. Because I was sister to Ryan Perry, Austin Savage thought that he was a member of my company and since he was the writer of the intended piece, “Waldo the Amazing Hypnotist” he meant to stir up trouble.”
Boston Massive confirmed to us that he did in fact say these things in front of other committee members like Berg Pettit, Vice President of the Community Foundation. Except, someone expressing a personal opinion is NOT the issue, we would expect no less from Mr. Boston Massive who thinks he’s Eugene O’Neill (as he once described his own production in this early draft to the right.) Boston is free to say what he wants. This is America. It was the reaction from the Foundation that is an issue because they allowed a personal opinion to be validated without any kind of follow up or proof. Ryan was never contacted about the allegations against his name. They took that personal opinion as valid information.
“Eventually, I was invited to an impromptu meeting at Kathrin’s office off Oregon Street in the EPCF building." said Stella Maria Perry, "In that meeting she said that there were a great many concerns over my brother’s play and that he was a liability. Because I was already aware of this, my brother Ryan asked me to use his alias Winona Vollace as a last resort-just to get the play produced.” said Stella Perry. “Kathrin was very friendly. She told me that Darci [Georges] had vouched for me and she wanted to put this bad business behind us. But, because these “accusers” were so vocal and so negative, she wanted me to assure her that my brother was not a part of the production.” said Stella Perry.
It was because of this, that Ryan’s name did not appear anywhere in the production. Apparently his name had been tainted. When I spoke to Mrs. Berg Pettit, I did not yet know that I was going to include this part of the story, but I did ask her if she had any knowledge of the writer of Waldo being unable to use his name and she evaded the conversation entirely.
If all of this, is in fact true, what does that say about how the artistic “community” in El Paso really functions?
Waldo the Amazing Hypnotist is a great play, a challenging piece that had the potential to really get audiences into a hypnotic state, wherein the power of suggestion, like Waldo himself says, can lead you to alter your own reality. It was a play that begged for movement, a play that begged for rhythm, music, like the heartbeat of a prayer that allows you to tap into the collective consciousness. This time, the vision fell apart, not because there was a lack of talented and willing actors or a lack of venue, but because there was something else that would emerge and tear us apart. A rift occurred during the making of this play. Yet, Ryan and I wanted it to work so badly, that after the Plaza performance, we gave it another shot at life and tried to revive this already fatally ill creature. This turned out to be an even bigger act of self-destruction.
In the story, Waldo performs his nightly show to an unsuspecting audience. It all goes horribly wrong and descends into a spiritual and mental collapse in real time. That’s exactly what happened with both productions. The power of suggestion present in every rehearsal, slowly blurred the lines between text and reality. The absurdity of it all. That artists could be so self-involved, sometimes unknowingly so, failing to see the worth of what’s in front of them. I made great friends in that cast, but I also lost them and had some of the worst couple of weeks I’ve ever experienced while doing a creative project.
Waldo had been an opportunity for us to challenge the theater establishment in the city that almost prevented us from participating. It had been an opportunity to prove that independent artists that are not in with the “cool kids” could create good, honest, and challenging work. After all, we had gotten in on a technicality. Boston Massive's attempt to sabotage Ryan had failed in the sense that we still got to do the play, Ryan was co-director and played music for the show, but it had succeeded in that Ryan was officially never part of it.
In the end however, it was us who sabotaged ourselves.
The people that truly matter are those that give themselves to the piece for the sake of it. Who understand that the gains are personal intangible little crystallization of one's own belief and pride in honest work. Those kind of people were part of Waldo too, but their spirit was stifled because of what is still to me inexplicable ugliness. That's probably the worst part of all of it.
We let Waldo rot in between self-interests/agendas/egos/laziness.The ideas crumbled. The vision shot full of holes and left half dead. Nausea. Glares. Petty rivalries. People turning friends against each other. Shit talking. Highly charged and unpredictable emotion. Rehearsals were often torturous, going through an entire production without being able to communicate with certain members of the production. There was a monster inside this play that we unlocked. All of this drove Ryan to drink heavily at every rehearsal in order to function, which of course he didn’t, not well, it drove others to disengage or become stubborn, to lack enthusiasm or any connection to the play, and some members of the cast simply went through the movements, pouting.
So we took this opportunity to say something with the play and turned it on ourselves, failed the characters and the story.
We failed. We had the opportunity to tell the Foundation to fuck off, we don’t need your money or your committees, and instead we collapsed the work, gave in to their demands, and ended up severing friendships. Well played Community Foundation. Well played.
In the end, Waldo the Amazing Hypnotist died a violent death.
Vultures will always circle the marketplace.
Still, embroiled in all the absurdity and chaos, fleeting moments of beauty were created, instances of transcendence occurred, and poetry was infused with flesh. For a few moments, characters would come alive. I guess the reality is, that that’s what we’re all in it for. Those moments, even though everything around it is destroyed.
There is great potential for the JBS to truly make a difference in the artistic community, but if the third season looks just like the second, which looked jut like the first, then we’ll know that the whole prospect was just a joke. If their lack of promotion and effort continues, then we'll know they never really cared about the independent artists. If it begins to change, then I hope artists off the street, with crazy ideas, wearing their wild visions on their sleeve, walk into that office and make the case for their work.
But you better watch out because in this city, someone may have a dis-favorable opinion of you and they’re telling it right now to a group of people who could care less about you, your work, or what you really stand for.