Interview with Dr. Max Branscomb 04/27/2020
Introducing Max Branscomb, Professor of Journalism and Adviser for Student Publications at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California. Max has taught journalism and creative writing at Southwestern College for 24 years. Before that, he taught musical theater and journalism at Bonita Vista High School. He has worked in professional news media as a music and theater critic, news writer, feature writer, sports reporter, photographer, designer, and editor. He is also the co-founder and Artistic Director of the 43-year-old Bonitafest Melodrama, San Diego County’s longest-running theatrical production. Max writes and directs original musical comedies based on South San Diego County history. He is also the co-founder and Resident Playwright of Teatro Mascara Magica (TMM), San Diego County’s first multicultural professional theater company. Their signature project is “La Pastorela,” a musical comedy inspired by the Mexican Christmas tradition. They have produced 28 shows since 1991, 26 of which were written by Max. Since 1991″La Pastorela” has alternated between the Old Globe Theater and the San Diego Repertory Theater. This year they are scheduled to produce the show in TMM’s new theater in San Ysidro. Some of Max’s other projects for TMM include “The Journey of the Skeletons,” a Dia de los Muertos comedy that was produced at the La Jolla Playhouse, and a short piece about Martin Luther King, Jr. that was produced at the San Diego Convention Center and broadcast nationally.
What projects are you currently working on? My current projects include a screenplay about the attempt by a former Southwestern College president to shut down the student newspaper, The Sun. A horrifying true story. I was about to do a reading of a dramatic play called “Teresita,” about the famous Mexican curandera Teresa Urrea, but that was postponed by the shelter-in-place order. I plan on writing a new BonitafestMelodrama and a new Pastorela.
How has the pandemic affected or shifted your practice? And how has it changed planning things for an event such as Bonitafest? The pandemic has had a monumental effect on my day-to-day life. Rather than teaching my beloved journalism students face-to-face in our Southwestern College newsroom, I am struggling like so many other professors to find a meaningful way to continue instruction online. We have suspended printing paper issues in favor of an online edition, but I hope to find a way to resume printing in the fall — though it will require enormous creativity. Bonitafest is in peril, though we are trying to hold tight until the last possible minute before canceling it. Most July, and some August, events have already been canceled in San Diego County, but I am hoping there is a window that allows us the produce our September events. Bonitafest has three strands — a street fair-style performing arts festival featuring K-12 students, a democratic everyone-join-in twilight parade and street party, and the Bonitafest Melodrama. We hold the performing arts festival in the main parking lot at Bonita Vista High School. It attracts about 100-110 vendors and food trucks, about 20 performing arts groups, and about 7,000 visitors throughout the course of a six-hour day. Each Bonitafest event has so many moving parts that need to fall into place. We are not certain if the high schools will re-open in July, if our insurance carrier will cover a crowded outdoor event or whether people would attend a street fair on the heals of this coronavirus scare. Some of these decisions could be made for us in the days and weeks ahead, but right now we are proceeding as if Bonitafest is a go. We are considering some “outside the box” ideas to create this year’s Melodrama, including recording it in chunks, stitching together an audio track, and having freelance artists animate it.
What has your journey been like as a creative, whether as a writer or chairman for a committee? My journey as a creative person began as a child but hit many detours because I was a Navy kid and we moved constantly. I attended 13 schools before college and never really met that mentor that could have propelled me. (That is one reason I try so hard to mentor talented people whenever possible.) I could always write but did not start learning guitar and piano — my songwriting instruments — until I was 19. I mostly taught myself. I wrote my first Bonitafest Melodrama when I was 20 and met some people who believed in my talent and encouraged me. I have now written 98 produced plays. Maybe, if Coronavirus doesn’t interfere, I will produce #99 and #100 this year. I appreciate the way you included chairing events and leadership with creativity because good leadership is creative. In 2014 we had to completely reinvent the Bonitafest and it was a highly creative endeavor. We created a format, a motif, marketing, and culture. Some of our early attempts fell flat, but most of them worked and we have continued to polish them. Silver the WonderPony, the Bonitafest mascot, is an essential part of the events because he broadcasts a theme that sets the tone for our events. Our marketing banners, signs and apparel are very creative and quite popular. As you know, we turned our creativity loose during the pandemic and created a Bonitafest banner with our mascot as a doctor and the message “Hang in there Community!” Countless people have told me or other members of the Bonitafest planning committee that they appreciated the banners and found inspiration. As I have gotten older I find more and more that I enjoy sharing my creativity with others as well as helping people to develop their own.
Do you have any tips for up-and-coming, or rising artists/creatives? My advice for up-and-coming artists is to be your own advocate. It took me many years to realize that the mythological version of creative success whereby I write a great play or screenplay that is purchased for millions of dollars by eager Hollywood studios is not reality. I wish I had been more confident in myself and more assertive when I was in my twenties. Creatives should study marketing, business, finance, grant writing, and other skills that are not always comfortable or fun for us. We often need to raise our own money to launch our projects. I see so many absolutely gifted artists of all types who should be making a comfortable living with their talents who don’t because they struggle with the business side of things. I marvel at the teenage millionaires on the internet who sell their art or tutorials. My main advice, though, is to be persistent and keep on your journey. If you have been blessed with talent, never surrender that. You can be an artist no matter how you make your living. The best musician I have ever met is a longshoreman. The best actor I know is a college professor. The best singer I know is a high school librarian. They are creative and brilliant, but they decided not to worry about making money off their art. I’m kind of that way, too