Eight-year-old Zia Quetzali Carrasco
Eight-year-old Zia Quetzali Carrasco in “The History of Joy” by Vanguard Culture. Image from film

Prior to the premiere of his latest cross-discipline production, internationally acclaimed director Peter Sellars stressed “the importance of sharing — more deeply, more beautifully, more imaginatively.”

No local organization has a better sense of that artistic imperative than Vanguard Culture, a nonprofit formed to produce events that inspire creative collaboration.

Susanna Peredo Swap

Founder/Executive director Susanna Peredo Swap, who has experience as an arts administrator, actor, jazz vocalist, arts advocate and public relations specialist, knew that “the visual, performing and culinary arts have the unique ability to bring people together from diverse backgrounds, interests, and resources.”

Having worked in multiple creative industries, she “realized that none of these communities were talking or intersecting. Everyone is fighting for the same piece of pie, but there are a lot of great collaborative opportunities.”

So, her organization has produced a wide range of activities and experiences to bring these diverse creative communities together and inspire interaction and collaboration.

Since 2012, Vanguard Culture has published over 450 pieces of original arts journalism, collaborated with over 500 local and international artists; hosted over 60 free or low-cost professional development programs for creatives; promoted over 2100 unique local arts and culture events; and produced over 40 cultural events, in partnership with some of San Diego’s most notable visual, performing and culinary creatives. Over the past three years, the organization has won 11 awards for excellence in journalism.

And in 2018, Vanguard Culture was featured on the National Geographic Channel for its innovative programming.

Their journalism offerings include The Buzz, which provides reviews and commentary about San Diego’s arts and culture community; and Vanguard Culture Weekly, a curated cultural newsletter/calendar with over 15,000 subscribers and more than 9,000 monthly website visitors.

Other offerings include The Forum, with its marketing, branding and other workshops for creatives; The Art Shop, a visual arts series featuring artists whose work responds to contemporary issues; Brain Candy, a salon-style virtual conversation with curators from a range of exhibition spaces, convening to discuss pandemic challenges; Story Circle and Creative Industry Roundtable, which bring together local leaders in the arts, culture and tourism to discuss cross-industry support and collaboration.

“We want folks from the dance, music, theater and visual arts to come together, so culturally curious people can tune into what’s out there in the broader community,” says Peredo Swap. “During the pandemic, we’ve expanded to include artists across the nation and around the world.”

Vanguard’s latest venture, “The History of Joy,” is a four-part series of cinematic performances inspired by real-life stories of struggle, beauty and triumph. Each segment focuses on a theme, and creative interpretations of the theme by some of San Diego’s most innovative organizations in dance, theater, opera, puppetry, visual arts, and more.

“It’s another of our cultural events that brings completely different creatives together,” Peredo Swap says, “to see what happens. For example, we asked a scientist, a poet, a visual artist and a chef to respond to the subject of ‘Climate Change.’

Gill Sotu performing. Courtesy photo

“We had a robust season planned for 2020 and 2021 which, like so much else, was stopped in its tracks by the pandemic. Now that things are starting to look a little brighter, it’s time to create something of beauty and hope. And nobody is better at that than award-winning poet laureate nominee Gill Sotu. I’ve worked with him many times; he’s inspired by joy.”

Sotu, a Navy veteran, is a multi-faceted poet, playwright, musician, DJ, and performing artist who’s a two-time Grand Slam Poetry Champion. Among his many prolific personal projects, he also serves as creative director for TEDx San Diego and teaches for The Old Globe.

“The title, ‘The History of Joy,’ just popped into my head,” says Sotu. “I was inspired by ‘The Book of Joy,’ by [His Holiness] the Dalai Lama and [Archbishop] Desmond Tutu [with Douglas Abrams]. I structured the four segments around their Eight Pillars of Joy, grouping two of them together for each segment.”

The first segment subject is Social Justice, and the two Pillars are Humility and Perspective.

Five arts organizations are involved in each quarterly segment, which comprises the first 90 minutes of the production.

The March 25 event features presentations from Pacific Arts Movement (a documentary created by teens of color in the predominantly white Poway schools); the San Diego Repertory Theatre (a highlight reel of their We Are Listening roundtable series); visual artist Neil Shigley (in his studio, showing his portraits of the homeless in San Diego); North Coast Repertory Theatre (a scene from their filmed production of “Necessary Sacrifices,” about Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass); and the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art (a documentary they produced, according to Sotu, “about a gal who created a beautiful mural honoring George Floyd’s daughter”).

Each presenter will introduce their piece and say why they chose it and how it relates to Social Justice.

Then, a 30-minute film follows, written by Sotu.

“I wanted my writing to be inspired by real life,” he says. “I interviewed people, scoured the internet. Sometimes that resulted in a scene, or a monologue. I wrote one poem, which spilled out feelings I was hearing from both sides. I split those feelings into four different characters, suggesting that we’re all part of a community.

“I looked for a place where joy was least likely,” Sotu continues. “I was inspired by a CNN video of a right-wing group vs. Black Lives Matter protesters, facing each other from different sides of a street. At one point, they decided to send one representative from each side, to meet in the center, face to face. After their interaction, they ended up hugging and praying together, and the cops joined in.

“I created a theater version of that,” Sotu continues, “with a white woman (played by Dori Salois) and a Black man (Malachi Beasley), and two dancers from The Rosin Box Project, a San Diego contemporary ballet company.”

A young girl, 8 year-old Zia Quetzali Carrasco, plays Jovi, the Narrator/Greek chorus, “a magical character that reminds you of joy,” says Sotu.”The character’s name means ‘joyful.’”

Peredo Swap is directing and producing the show.

“’The History of Joy’ is by far the most ambitious project we’ve ever attempted,” she says. “We’re calling this 2021 season ‘ALCHEMY: Exploring the Magic of Human Connection.’ We’re breaking everyone’s individual bubble, bringing all these groups, and their audiences, together to engage with the same virtual conversation.”

The next three segments will focus on “Generations and Rituals” (with the associated Pillars of Joy, Humor and Acceptance) on June 24; “WomenX” (Forgiveness and Gratitude) on September 23 and “Our Earth” (Compassion and Generosity) on November 18.

“As in all my work,” says Sotu, “I want people to leave better than when they came in. Even if you leave contemplative, maybe there’s a new perspective, or a little bit of weight off you.”

“It’s a great opportunity to learn about joy,” concludes Peredo Swap. “And how to tap into it in your life. I feel lucky to be able to tell these stories at this pivotal moment in time.”

  • Vanguard Culture’s “The History of Joy” streams a different interdisciplinary segment for four Thursdays in 2021: March 25, June 24, Sept. 23 and Nov. 18
  • Tickets are “Pay What You Can/Pay It Forward.”
  • You can purchase tickets any time during the series and recordings of the previously aired segments will be emailed to you
  • More information is available online.

Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.