SAN DIEGO — The arts in San Diego lost a special talent in the death Tuesday of playwright Philip-Dimitri Galas.
Galas, who had turned 32 last month, was arguably the finest playwright to emerge from this city. He was that rarity, a native San Diegan who transcended the hedonistic comforts of Southern California to develop an original voice that rang with darkly humorous, sharp-edged satire.
A playwright, director, performer and businessman, Galas was called by some a genius, graduating in 2 1/2 years from UC San Diego at age 18. No doubt he could have succeeded at anything he chose, so intent and focused was he.
He died just as his writing was gaining recognition in Los Angeles and San Francisco, if not being appreciated widely in San Diego. When his one-woman play, "Mona Rogers in Person," played San Francisco's 600-seat Marines Memorial Theater on the weekends, it sold out. What other playwright has San Diego produced whose indigenous works have traveled half so well?
Galas dubbed his theater works "avant vaudeville." It was, he said, "the only performance style to originate in San Diego," and so it may be. "Avant vaudeville" was a series of stand-and-deliver monologues, in which the actors erupt in cataracts of vivid verbiage, a torrential flow of thoughts, the tone usually hard-boiled, the rhythm rat-a-tat.
Galas called them stage tirades for solo, duo and occasionally trio performers. His work was confrontal, Expressionist theater but without the negative thrust Expressionism often connotes.
For his subjects, he drew on his interests, his background in the performing world. Most often he wrote about the smoky dives and the emotionally bumpy life of small-time performers in works such as "Performance Hell," "Baby Redboots' Revenge" and "The Bearded Lady's Manifesto."
The titles of individual routines are closer to the flavor: "Mona Rogers Before She Got Famous," "Dead End Girls," "Baby Cromwell's Polka Hell" and "The Gertrude Stein Choir." The language is dense and rich, but his staging was bare, minimalist, highly stylized, to enhance his works' Expressionist nature.
Galas' mentor was Bram Dijkstra, poet and UC San Diego professor of comparative literature. "He had all the inclusive qualities of the really fine artists," Dijkstra said of Galas. "He saw in everything around him elements of art.
"He could bring a really strong life back into language. He could do that with images that had been beaten to death in the popular culture," such as the covers of 1940-vintage paperback novels that Galas recycled into a thriving greeting card business.
As good playwrights do, Galas was able to engage the minds of the audience with his language.
"What Philip realized is that we are all actors," Dijkstra said. "He set up that link between the audience and the actor." Particularly vivid, Galas' scripts read like open spillways, teeming with words flashing into images.
Galas' best writing had a rhythm to it much like Edith Sitwell's or Gertrude Stein's, only he wanted to be more intelligible. Theater critic Frances Bardacke says that, like some other writers, he continually developed plays around characters outlined in earlier works.
"He had a keen satiric mind," Bardacke said. "He could do five different satires at once."
Ironically, Galas was not embraced by San Diego's theaters and theatrical producers, though his roots clearly were in literature and the theater. It was the visual-art crowd who offered Galas performing venues. He debuted locally at Sushi performance art gallery and appeared there numerous times. But it rankled him that he was often lumped with performance artists, an offshoot of the visual arts. "So much performance art is boring . . . self-indulgent," he would say.
His talent was appreciated at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, which presented several of his works in recent years, including "Baby Redboots' Revenge" in May. Galas' family has suggested that donations in his memory be made to the La Jolla museum.
Galas had a culturally enriched home environment provided by his parents, both respected educators. His sister, Diamanda, is an internationally known avant-garde singer.
Galas' intense urge to create did not abate, even while he was hospitalized at various times this year. From his bed, he wrote another play for actor Helen Shumaker, who has performed his works more than anyone. Galas died of kidney failure and pneumonia, his mother said.
Shumaker appeared as "Mona Rogers in Person" for five months this year in San Francisco and will open another engagement there this fall. She calls him "a major genius."
"I've found in the extended runs that one never tires because the script gives so much energy. No matter what size the house--from a coffee house to the Marines Memorial--the script always filled the room and spilled into the street," Shumaker said. "Imagine the experience of working . . . and knowing every instant that the audience hasn't seen anything yet compared to what they are going to get."
At his death Tuesday, Galas was revising a novel he had composed by rewriting a set of short stories and performance pieces. It still needed "another polishing," his literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra, said. She says it will be published.
Like his ranting theater pieces, the novel had a certain off-color tarnish. It's about a woman whose profession is smoking. "It's 'I Love Lucy,' told from Ethel's point of view," Sandra Dijkstra said.
The title he wanted was vintage Galas. Now it almost seems a metaphor for his all-too-brief life, combining as it does elements of lightness and an edge of darkness.
It's called "Cigarette Waltz."