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The Revival of Sushi

Sushi, to savvy San Diegans, has long meant more than a fish delicacy. The name also represents a performance venue that for nearly two decades has enriched our area with cutting-edge productions and artists that we likely wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The company has changed locations and leaders, but its commitment to quality presentations remains a constant.

These days, Sushi—official title Sushi Performance & Visual Art—is headed by Vicki Wolf, executive director since early 1995. She succeeded Lynn Schuette, who started Sushi in July 1980 as a 120-seat venue in the second story of a Salvation Army building on Eighth Avenue. It was a bold venture in a scary part of the city, but Schuette persevered. Living in the building for Sushi’s first seven years, she steered her little dream through prosperity and poverty until 1993, when the company was evicted so the building could be razed for low-income housing. Schuette decided to devote herself to her painting and turned Sushi over to SDSU dance grad Wolf, her strong assistant for eight years.

Wolf kept Sushi alive with a nomadic and sporadic series of performances around town, then last year found it a home in the ReinCarnation Building, 320 11th Avenue. The name is an apt pun for the 6,000-square-foot site, featuring a 200-seat performance space, newly polished hardwood floors, 18-foot arched ceilings and skylights. The structure began life in 1940 as a dairy association meeting hall, then evolved into a Carnation milk factory. After years of vacancy, it was taken over by architect Wayne Buss, a longtime friend of Schuette and Wolf who’s leasing most of the building to Sushi.

"We’re like the phoenix," Wolf says, then quickly amends that: "Well, not really. The phoenix rose from the ashes, and we were never dead."

Buss and Wolf hope the performing space will spur revitalization of the neighborhood, and the Centre City Development Corporation has helped with a loan and promises of improvements in the area. Wolf says the project is off to a great start, with her phone ringing constantly with calls from people and organizations wanting to utilize the new space. Sushi will be home to Wolf’s Lower Left Dance Company and various visual artists, and will be available for classes, workshops, concerts and diverse special events.

"People often ask me if the area is risky," Wolf says.

"I tell them I’ve worked here alone until late at night and always felt perfectly safe. You see the occasional homeless person, but that can happen anywhere in the city."

After the nightmarish difficulties of trying to schedule productions and draw an audience without a set venue, Wolf is naturally ecstatic over the new location and expects it to help return Sushi to its former eminence. "No other organization could pick up the slack," she says. And she lauds Schuette, without whom, Wolf says, there wouldn’t be a Sushi. "So many arts groups like this exist solely because of the energy of the founder."

Schuette’s tenure did form an illustrious history. From the start, she consistently showed an uncanny ability to showcase (and befriend) an incredible number of talented performers before they became nationally renowned.

There was, for one big instance, Whoopi Goldberg, who in the early ’80s frequently appeared in a comedy act with Don Victor. Then there were monologist Eric Bogosian, Latino satirists Culture Clash and striking performance artist Rachel Rosenthal. Others who got fresh local exposure included top choreographers like Bebe Miller and Donald Byrd, writer-choreographer-performer Rhodessa Jones and local notables like dancemeister John Malashock, the late writer-performer Phillip Dimitri-Galas and MacArthur "genius" grant-winner Guillermo Gomez-Peña.

Notably, there were the writer-performers made notorious by the Bush-era debate over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts—Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Karen Finley. When they had their grants rescinded by then-NEA head John Frohnmayer because of their controversial performances, it was a body blow to Schuette, who had presented—and befriended—all of them.

The performers’ defunding also reflected Schuette’s own problems with financing. Throughout the ’80s, Sushi had successfully supplemented box-office income with money from government and local sources, growing to an annual budget of approximately $300,000. The 1990s, however, brought the double whammy of a local economic recession and government officials who looked with hard eyes at any funding of the arts, particularly the avant-garde material favored by Sushi.

Schuette and Wolf struggled along, but the organization drifted into debt. And the eviction notice was the final blow to Schuette, worn down from years of Sisyphean fiscal efforts and resistant officialdom. She retired from presenting art to dedicate herself to creating it. Wolf carried on with a bare-bones budget, eliminated the deficit and experienced ReinCarnation.

Last month Sushi showed off the new space with a grand-opening gala featuring performances, tours, dancing and general carousing. The celebration signaled a happy new era for an important local venue. April shows include performance artist Joan Hotchkis with Elements of Flesh, or Screwing Saved My Ass, her much-acclaimed work about ageism, sexism and power, and Café Depresso: Where Prozac, Caffeine and Black Leather Converge, based on a local murder case and written and directed by Tom Vegh, who used to head Diversionary Theatre.

Again innovative and provocative—let’s hope Sushi remains a permanent staple on our artistic menu.

In case your attention was elsewhere: Former La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff is still garnering honors for the Playhouse-originated The Who’s Tommy. In England, he collected a 1997 Olivier—the equivalent of our Tony Award—for his direction of the show. It’s especially notable because the Oliviers, unlike the Tonys, don’t separate musicals from dramas in the director category. Tommy itself won for outstanding musical production, as did Chris Parry for the lighting design.