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Ian McKellen And The Chili Cook-Off

October 15, 2007

People are spending up to $1,700 to go and see Ian McKellan play King Lear with The Royal Shakespeare Company in Los Angeles, The LA Times reports. Though I adore the idea of a play creating the same kind of frenzy as a Madonna or Prince concert, I think the inflated prices are absurd.

"People are crazy," I wrote to my LA-based journalist friend Jade over the weekend. "It's not like McKellan's God."
"He's better than God," replied Jade. "He's Gandalf."

My expectations were similarly foiled over the weekend when I found myself sitting in the sun in the back garden of the El Rio Bar in The Mission, tasting 12 different varieties of chili as part of a fund-raising, community-building effort for a few local theatre companies. When I agreed, along with Chad Jones of The Oakland Tribune and Karen D'Souza of The San Jose Mercury News, to judge the event, I had no idea of what I was getting myself into. It sounded suitably bizarre, so I signed up. I was intrigued by the idea of theatre companies making chili and even more puzzled by the notion that they'd want a bunch of theatre critics, rather than culinary aficionados, to vote on the tastiness of their efforts.

When the day came around, I wasn't really in a chili cook-off judging mood. I had eaten a huge breakfast. With horror, I suddenly remembered how much I hate bell peppers. And I wondered whether an angry director or actor posing as a Tex-Mex chef might try to throw some rat poison into his chili in revenge for a negative review.

But the Chili Cook-Off turned out to be one of the most inspiring, fun and slightly bonkers arts events I'd ever had the fortune to participate in. The competition took place between four local companies: Fools Fury, Impact, Crowded Fire and the Playwrights Foundation. Music was provided by a great bluegrass band. The beer flowed. The chili (mostly) smelled and tasted delicious, despite the bell peppers (which I gingerly ate around.) I got to sample ostrich meat for the first time in my life. It was surprisingly yummy.

Best of all, the event brought people from a bunch of arts organizations together for some fun. It was a terrific community-building event. I'd love to see more of this kind of thing on the local scene. Theatre groups - especially small ones - should be there for each other. It's only through sharing expertise and pooling resources that the environment can thrive. The Chili Cook-Off was a powerful step in the right direction.

You can't think of two theatre experiences more radically different than paying $1,700 for a ticket to see McKellan's Lear and paying $1 to sample a bit of a theatre director's home-made chili. Yet the art form encompasses both experiences. The question is, is it possible to imagine a world where there are crossover audiences for both kinds of events?

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