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Hail to the Fritz!

San Diego's edgy little theater hosts a most unconventional political convention.

July 14, 1996|Pat Launer | Pat Launer is a theater writer based in San Diego

SAN DIEGO — The democratic process is supposed to be all about choice--but it's hard to remember that in San Diego these days. As the Republican National Convention approaches, the city is being stormed by a veritable stampede of trumpeting elephants.

Now there is an alternative. One might even say there's a parallel universe. And it has nothing to do with donkeys.

Only two blocks from the Convention Center, on the edge of the downtown Gaslamp Quarter, the edgy little Fritz Theatre is hosting "FritzCON 96 (the Other Convention)," opening Wednesday. As the farcical promotional materials put it: "It is predicted that the two conventions combined will bring in an estimated $40 million in visitor spending to [San Diego]."

"Let's face it," says Fritz Theatre associate producer Karin Williams, "the Republicans will nominate only one candidate over a four-day period, but the Fritz Party will nominate up to 30 candidates over seven weeks. Now you tell me which show will have a greater impact on our city and the nation."

A free-flowing, partly scripted, mostly improvisational event, the "FritzCON" is the brainchild of local writer-director-performer Todd Blakesley and writer-composer-sound designer Burnham Joiner. Billed as a "total-immersion, interactive theatrical adventure," the production allows audience members (i.e., badge-wearing delegates) to form their own state, design a third party in their own image, create a platform, fight for pet projectsand ultimately nominate their own candidate.

This presentation has its roots in the audience-friendly, interactive style that Blakesley first developed in the '70s, when he co-founded Theatre: Research & Development Inc., which produced 27 new plays, including six of his own, at the former Crystal Palace Theatre in Mission Beach.

Blakesley recalls that in 1972, just after Pete Wilson had been elected mayor and the Republicans were scheduled to come to San Diego for their presidential convention, he staged "The Secret Assassination of Pete Wilson," a fictional, satirical play about an attempt to kill Wilson on the night before the convention. "After that," he jokes, "they canceled the San Diego convention, primarily because I exposed the plot. Pete sent his press secretary down. He never came to see the show himself, and he never thanked me for saving his life."

Blakesley continued to field-test and hone his political-interactive ideas in two prequels to the "FritzCON": "The Convention" (1976) and "Cigars and Stripes" (1984), which garnered a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle nomination for best new play.

In 1988, Blakesley met Joiner, when both were cast in a play that never opened. They immediately began a collaboration that culminated in two versions of the wacko "Laughing Buddha Wholistik Radio Theatre," produced in 1991 at Blackfriars Theatre. Last year, at the Fritz Blitz of New Plays, they premiered "The Mouth" and "Don't Talk to the Fish." In addition to co-creating the "FritzCON," Joiner designed the sound and Blakesley directs.

What's new in the show's current incarnation, Blakesley says, is "a Las Vegas-style voting system. Before, it was one delegate, one vote. Now, each delegate starts with 100 votes and tries to get as many more votes as they can grab or win before the evening's over. This combines the best elements of American society. We thought wagering would get them more involved."

Audience members get involved from the start. When they show up, they either choose or are assigned to one of 12 states (six delegates per state). The choices include Confusion, Euphoria, Bliss, Grace, North Anxiety, South Anxiety and (for those who prefer little or no participation) Apathy.

The first part of the show is the adoption of a party platform. Delegates debate and discuss within their states and then sidle up to a betting booth and wager votes on whether certain resolutions (planks) will pass. A large tote board lists the planks and (horse-race style) the odds, which are set by Jimmy the Fish, official Fritz Party handicapper.

"If they're right on the outcome of the issues," Blakesley explains, "they win more votes, which increases their influence, especially on the presidential balloting at the end."

Sample Fritz Party planks are tax pledge drives (replaces current income tax system with TV and radio pledge campaigns) and a Euthanasia Center (an alternative for those unable to afford health insurance).

The cast of nine includes two candidates (others come from the convention floor), a convention chair and vice chair, a TV news reporter, a chief investigator for the Committee on Security Rules and Ethical Dilemmas and PH238, a parthenogenetic hominid who's demanding equal rights for genetically engineered human life forms.

All areas of the tiny storefront Fritz Theatre will be used, allowing for convention seating (maximum capacity: 72), back rooms for backslapping and deal making, a news booth and designated areas for each state

"The floor is gonna be messy," Joiner promises. "There'll be noise, lights, hubbub, brouhaha, gimcracks and gewgaws." Not to mention bunting and ticker tape and candy wrappers and ballots and badges.

The parody is more about the process than about political preferences.

"The Fritz Party is tired of the short list of two candidates," Blakesley says. "We're against both the Democratic and Republican parties. . . .

"What I've been waiting for, ever since I started watching conventions as a kid, was a wonderful, multiple-ballot convention where there's real friction and debate, and then a deadlock, and a theatrical, emotional fight."


"FRITZCON 96 (THE OTHER CONVENTION)" Fritz Theatre, 420 3rd Ave., San Diego. Dates: Opens Wednesday. Plays Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 30. Prices: $10-$15. Phone: (619) 233-7505.

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