Santa Monica Playhouse’s month-long free play festival wants to make live theater your next guilt-free obsession

By Brian Marks

Santa Monica Playhouse’s Binge Free Festival offers a platform for experimental works like Playbox Theatre’s “Monkey — Journey to the West” to connect with local audiences

Those searching for a night out at the theater in Los Angeles usually need to be prepared to shell out a hefty chunk of change. The cheapest seats at the Ahmanson will cost you nearly $100, and the most affordable Mark Taper Forum tickets are around $30.Those are far from the only options, though.

For the third year running, the Santa Monica Playhouse presents its Binge Free Festival (BFF), celebrating new and experimental works at a price point that anyone can afford: $0. For nearly a month the Playhouse will host free plays and performances almost every day, starting Monday, Oct. 15.

The festival is co-curated by the Santa Monica Playhouse’s artistic directors, married couple Evelyn Rudie and Chris DeCarlo, who have held the position since 1973. The current incarnation of their Binge Free Festival is an expansion of last year’s more modest two-week event. Like other fringe festivals, BFF is programmed around brand-new theater works and live shows that don’t easily fit in at the largest or most popular theaters.

“The basic and initial mission of the playhouse was to present unique and unusual, accessible and affordable theater to as wide and diverse a population as possible,” recalls Rudie in a cozy mirrored room at the playhouse. “For many years we would do a pay-what-you-can night, or would pick one night of a run and make it a free night.”

Rudie and DeCarlo’s insistence on affordable theater reaches new heights with BFF, which is not only free to the public but also for the artists presenting new works at the festival.

“The artists get everything for free,” says Rudie. “They get the space for free; they get the technical director, the stage manager, the PR, the marketing, the program.”

“Suffragette!” one of the plays appearing in the playhouse’s alternative theater, The Other Space, is loosely based on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The early 20th-century tragedy resulted in the deaths of 146 textile workers, mostly women, who perished because they were locked inside to prevent unauthorized breaks.

“After the tragedy of the fire, the leading women become militarized,” explains the director, Scot Shamblin. “They become a more violent group of suffragettes seeking the right to vote. The writers call it ‘existential slapstick.’”

The play, though inspired by historical events, speaks to many contemporary social and political issues facing women now. Both the anti-sexual harassment and abuse movements Time’s Up and #MeToo come to mind — so despite the historical separation, this particular work of theater will likely resonate with many viewers.

The BFF’s focus on personal theater is also exemplified in Fiona Goodwin’s one-woman show, “A Very British Lesbian.” The autobiographical piece details her struggles with religion, family and other forces that forced her to pretend to be straight for decades.

Goodwin is also a stand-up comedian, but staging “A Very British Lesbian” required unlearning some of the habits that come with performing comedy on stage.

“Because I’ve done stand-up, it’s very easy for me to be static, since in stand-up you just stand there,” says Goodwin. “But this is a really theatrical piece as well — it’s a mixture of stand-up and a theatrical piece. So it requires some acting.”

“Suffragette!” and “A Very British Lesbian” are merely two plays out of more than 40 performances at this year’s BFF Festival. There are even non-theatrical events, including a workshop on how to create a one-person show and a yoga class designed for artists (though all are welcome). Such an expansive festival allows for a wide swath of programming that’s able to speak to and reflect audiences’ diverse array of lived experiences and backgrounds.

“Theater is always us. It’s always us we’re seeing up there,” says Shamblin. “So that’s why it’s important to continue to see plays. That’s why I support having these stories told to us.”

The diverse stories featured in the Binge Free Festival can resonate with many of our own experiences, but there’s also a transformative aspect to seeing live theater as well, notes DeCarlo.

“Good, bad or indifferent, you step into a theater and it changes your life,” he says. “It hits you when you’re in the room. You can’t escape the impact of what’s happening.”

The third annual Binge Free Festival runs from Oct. 15 to Nov. 12 at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th Street, Santa Monica. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. Visit santamonicaplayhouse.com/thebff2018 for previews and show times.

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