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Columbia Festival of the Arts quenches 'artistic thirst' with British invasion

Columbia Festival of the Arts quenches 'artistic thirst' with British invasion
Classic Albums Live will join the Columbia Orchestra at 7 p.m. on Oct. 3 in the Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia for the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band performance. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Festival of)

He was a self-made man. He was an English writer. He was Charles Dickens.

A novelist of the Victorian era, Charles Dickens rose from an impoverished childhood to achieve his dream of communicating to the public through literature in the mid-1800s. More than 200 years later, his great-great-grandson, Gerald Dickens, has transformed Dickens' works into one-man shows, performing throughout the United Kingdom and the United States.

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On Oct. 2, Gerald Dickens' will stop at the Slayton House Theatre in Columbia, where he will perform "Great Expectations," leading the Columbia Festival of the Arts into its British Invasion Fall Festival.

"It just sounded fantastic and I can't wait to be a part of it," Dickens said. "I'm doing two shows on Friday; one for students in the morning, [and] then, there's the main show in the evening. It's an area of the country I have not performed in, so that's going to be exciting."

British Invasion will blend the English culture with the Columbia community Oct. 2 to 4, featuring tea times, musical performances and staged readings (for a full schedule and ticket information, go to columbiafestival.org). According to festival Executive Director Todd Olsen, the upcoming festival will be the first of four as the organization begins introducing four festivals each year, one each season.

"We thought if we curate four really interesting festivals and sort of take this trip around the world, that might be an interesting first year," Olsen said. "We wanted our festivals to match what I think is a cultural curiosity in Howard County. People travel. It's a very diverse community [and] there are populations that are growing rapidly here."

Comparing the upcoming festival to the British cultural invasion of the '60s and '70s, Olsen said he's recognized America's affection for the culture and wanted to organize a festival to serve it justice.

"I think, in some ways, England is the grown-up country and we're the wild adolescents they bore," he said, laughing. "I just think there's this line from us to England and it's still affects our art and we still cling to it a little bit."

"We're trying to reach out to a much wider audience," added Marketing and Communications Director Robert Marshall. "I think there's a whole new modern approach that we're moving forward finally in this new style."

But does Dickens' great-great-grandson recognize America's love for British culture as he resides in England?

"Very much, especially as far as Charles Dickens is concerned. I see it very, very strongly," he said. "Dickens, as a person, as a celebrity, is much more popular and widely-celebrated in America than he is in England, which I find absolutely fascinating. It's an extraordinary thing that after more than 200 years, he's still touching people [with] his storytelling, his characterizations and his social messages."

New York's off-off-Broadway show, "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind," also fit perfectly with the organization's mission, Olsen said, presenting the New York Neo-Futurists ensemble's attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. Performer Joey Rizzolo said the ensemble has produced nearly 4,000 plays since it began in 2004.

"We have to pitch new work and that work has to go through a curatorial process before it gets accepted and vetted into the show," Rizzolo said. "Then, it gets developed in the show over the course of its run. We don't just have actors there; we also have writers and directors. We work with each other a lot under very diverse and intense circumstances."

As the audience walks into the theatre on Saturday, Rizzolo said, a clothesline will hang above the stage with 30 numbered pieces of paper pinned across the line. Each person will also be given a program, or menu, with the titles of 30 plays, each corresponding with a number on the clothesline. The ensemble will then start a 60-minute clock and attempt to perform each play in the order the audience shouts.

"The plays are, by design, short, so that we actually have a chance to complete all 30 of them," Rizzolo said. "They are not all funny; they're not all comedies. Some of them are personal pieces, political pieces, dance pieces, [and] abstract experiences."

Olsen said the combination of these British cultural experiences will surely satisfy "anyone with a particular artistic taste." As the Columbia Festival of the Arts continues organizing four seasonal festivals per year, , the executive director sees the organization branching outside of its typical model.

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"We're kind of building this plane as we're flying it and we're making an assumption that there is an artistic thirst from people who live in this area," Olsen said. "If we keep bringing them interesting things, they'll keep coming and checking us out. I think as we head on into our 30 anniversary next year, we'll just build our audience, our brand more, [and put] some clarity out there; this is the new Columbia Festival of the Arts."

For dates, times and locations of British Invasion Fall Festival performances, and to purchase tickets, go to www.columbiafestival.org/2015-fall-at-a-glance. Tickets will also be available at the door.

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