My low-key Fringe

The 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival is half over, and so far….I’ve seen only three shows.

This isn’t so much by design or choice, as it is by circumstance. Sometimes life gets in the way of art.

Or, in the way of what could be, should be, oh-I-wish-to-God-it-were, art.

Two of the three that I’ve seen have been fascinating, inventive and fun rides. The third one….not so much. Could’ve been. But wasn’t.

It’s not important which is which.

And I write that not because I don’t want to write a “review” or critique the work or am afraid to criticize. I write that because it’s not important. That’s part of the Fringe experience. People try things, and sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.

But…nothing has been a waste of time.

I was having a great chat the other day over lunch with a couple of talented Fringe artists that are also just observers this year. We agreed that in performing and writing, either do it well or get the F out of the way.

We were more eloquent than that.

Fringe tests my patience with mediocrity. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m a know-it-all, or a snob. But really….no. I’m just an audience member. One who happens to know a thing or two, but truthfully I’m just audience member this time.

And everyone’s experience of a show is valid.

I want to be charmed. I want to be pulled in to a story. I want to the world to disappear as I travel the road alongside the characters and storytellers and the pictures on stage.

Fringe festivals give us the chance to experience such a wide range of shows and performers. I only wish I could make it more a priority.

Tonight I’m off to see my fourth show, which is highly anticipated.

This may turn out to be the year I see the least, and in some ways that’s disappointing. Which only puts the pressure on to spend those few hours the best way I can.

After all….that’s part of the beauty and magic of live performance. See it when it happens, or never see it all.

What I’ve Learned at this Year’s Fringe

Today is the last day of the 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and due to various reasons this is my least attended Fringe in several years. (I will not likely hit the dozen shows mark.) However, just like all other years I’ve learned something, but this time it might be more about myself than about art, performance or experimentation.

courtesy of Minnesota Fringe Festival

The ten shows I’ve seen thus far have been a bit of a mixed bag of things. Some were on my schedule because I felt obligated or had a personal connection to someone involved or to the show itself and I needed/wanted to find out how it evolved. Other shows were on my list because the topic intrigued me and I thought it would be interesting. And then there were the sure-fires, though few.

Part way through the week I realized my first truth about how I like my art:

I will put up with weak writing and good performance more than the opposite recipe. One of the shows was Ash Land, which had some good word of mouth, an interesting preview and it was getting a lot of buzz. The creators had done a few previous Fringes with some success, but I hadn’t seen them. I thought the show was beautiful, creative and intriguingly staged. The audience seemed exuberant in its reception. I was enthralled, and even jealous at times that someone had done some creative stuff on a topic I’ve been toyed with approaching.

Upon leaving I commented to my partner, “That was really good.” He didn’t share the opinion. He thought it was “good” but that it could’ve been so much better. After reviewing the audience reviews more closely, and talking with others whose opinions I trust (aka understand) I saw that there were really mixed reactions. I could see the weaknesses others pointed out, but somehow I over looked it because, I think, I enjoyed the approach they took to the work, the quality of the staging, and the performances of a couple of the people. (A few performances were significantly weaker.)  But all in all, I finally said, I guess I’ll value performance over writing.

These words would soon get modified.

A few days later I was watching a one-person story-telling piece by a writer/performer whom I’ve known for several years, but have seen little of his work. These stories were interesting, clever and even a bit funny at times. I’d love to read them, in fact. In a published form. But the performance was weak, clumsy and painful to watch. I wasn’t sure if the whole thing was memorized or not and there were several moments where I thought the whole thing had come crashing down.

So: ok writing but weak, amateurish performance and I wanted to slip out the back door. (Sadly, I couldn’t.) I considered the whole thing a waste of my time.

The lesson: I value performance over all else. The material can be crap or brilliant, but if the performance is weak I won’t care either way.

My favorite experience, if there can be a favorite, was probably Carol and Cotton. I was intrigued because it was a local, historical crime story. I’m a bit partial to stories of real people and have always been fascinated by things like crime, wondering what it is that can take a person to the extreme of humanity with something like murder. I was almost turned off by the promo video, which I felt was lacking in its enticement. But it had a strong cast and it’s a company with a good rep. And as the writer and director of a previous successful Fringe play about local history, I felt I should go. It was a strong, powerful production, with finessed details in the performances. Good writing and solid acting with effective staging. Like real theatre. This was exciting to me.

And, of my sure-fires, I wasn’t disappointed. The comedic talents of Nightmare Without Pants alone could have their own festival.

As I was thinking about my limited availability to see shows during this final weekend, and as I contemplated what I had seen I came to the conclusion that my time (and money) are worth something. I’m willing to take a risk, and I’m eager to see new works, new writers, new performers. But I’m not willing to waste my resources on mediocrity. I’m a more demanding audience member.

My top five take aways this year, thus far:

  • Fringe Festival is a performance festival. I want to see a good performance. I would think the performers (and directors) would want that too.
  • Any topic, no matter how mundane or pedestrian it might seem, can be turned in to an engaging and moving story with the right words, staging and treatment.
  • Dated material is ineffective, even if its subject matter is still relevant.
  • There is nothing more boring to me as an audience member than self-indulgence, and if it’s in the performance, writing and subject matter, all at once, then it can be deadly. It should be avoided at all costs.
  • Simplicity can be powerful, and anything in a script or production that doesn’t support the spine of the play in some way should be eliminated.

Actually, let me throw in one more lesson:

  • Never start a play with a group of guys sitting around on stage and have the first line be “What do you guys wanna do?” I think I sprained my eyes as they rolled.

In the end, these aren’t new truths I’ve realized for myself, and these aren’t things I’ve never said before here. It’s just that my experience over the past week have brought these once more to the fore-front of my critical mind.

I think I can catch one more show, in just a few hours, and I’m hoping this leaves the positive after-taste I need to sustain me until next summer.

Happy Fringing!

Breathe in…

Last night I spent an hour with some of my favorite performers, a group of people who I jokingly refer to as “my favorite Irish poet group.” I mean, they’re the only group of performing poets I know of, Irish or otherwise, and frankly they’re all I need.

I’m a bit of a fan-boy. That’s how someone described it anyway, and I’d have to say it’s fairly accurate. I am enamored of Scream Blue Murmur.

I first became aware of them several years ago when they were performing in the Fringe at Red Eye, where there was another show which I had worked on. A friend from that told me about them and said they were really good: “You should see them.” I trust her judgement so I went, even though my first thought had been “Irish Poets?….Spoken word kind of stuff?…Stand there and read poetry?….hmm. Ok.”

I expected perhaps, an enjoyable, pleasant, literary event.

What I got were powerful words and beautiful images that flowed out of them, filled with anger, regret, hope and, somehow, peace. I was enthralled, and I wanted more.

Since then I’ve seen them a few more times, whenever they’ve come to town. (I mean, they live in Belfast, Northern Ireland, after all. Google maps tells me…well, actually it refuses to calculate it.) If you haven’t seen them it’s unfortunate because their work is rather hard to describe, but I’ll try.

Their current show, Something’s Gone Wrong in the Dreamhouse is essentially about how life in America had been good and then suddenly the economy tanks, unemployment sky rockets, people lose their homes, and there’s anger and resentment everywhere, some pointed at those whose skin color is darker than many.

No, this is the 1930s.

I know, right?

It’s poetry, at the heart. Modern, lyrical, sweeping poetry, typically with a kick or a twist or an edge. There are no rhyming pretty pieces about flowers and puppies. There are, instead, flowing words like “persistent reliving of traumatic experience” and“southern trees bear strange fruit” on topics like the ravages of war, racism, violence, hunger, poverty, class struggles, human rights.

It’s political. If nothing else, it’s about politics. Like all their shows. They’re kind of modern day hippies, screaming at the establishment. But quietly, with a lilt.“if you see them massing in the distance/Mobilise – don’t let them rise.”

It’s music. This show is more music than any of their past shows, it seems, although there’s always been music. This time there was lots of music – not only by Aisling, Chelley, Gordon and Brian (I’m wondering where is PhatBob??) but also by the members of the audience, who were given plastic water bottles with a bit of pebbles inside to act as percussive shakers, taking part in the music. The place became a party, with lights up and people singing along and shaking their bottles and tapping their feet. “Sing to me, Billy Sunday…”

It’s visual. In many parts of the show there are videos or pictures flashed on the wall behind, relating the topic at hand. Old black and white newsreels of bustling cities, print ads that you’d never see today (“More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand!”) and pictures of things that are ugly from our history like black men hanging from trees.“Scent of Magnolias, sweet and fresh, / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” No, that’s not comfortable to hear, see or witness. It shouldn’t be. So we think about our fellow man and remember, and re-think our modern world.

It’s communal. Their words are about all of us or at least about all of our lives. At one point in the show they invited members of the audience up on stage with them to sing and shake their makeshift rattles. It was one of the motliest groups I’ve seen, with a wide swath of diversity. The 350 lb man, and the tiny, dread-locked, gay black man, and the girl with pink hair, and the 6′ transgendered woman in heels. A picture of all walks of life, each with their own struggles, or perhaps the same.

I was struck last night on my way home about all the stuff I’ve seen them do. Here you have a group of folks who live in Belfast, and for all I know are born and raised in Northern Ireland. A place with a violent, tumultuous recent history over sovereignty and religion. Where bombings and killing were often too commonplace. Yet the work I’ve seen from them has often been about our own country, our own struggles, and our own shameful past. They know from whence they speak.

No, this doesn’t do it justice. I can’t describe their work. The name belies the fact that there is no screaming. And the most striking thing is the underlying element of commonality, of charity and goodness, of love and understanding. There’s something about them and their words and their utterances. There’s something about the playful glint in their eyes, the sincerity of their smiles, the singing crowd…the sexy accents. I want to sit with them, listen to them, discuss the days’ news with them and buy them another round, in some loud, crowded pub. They make me think, make me feel, make me wonder – about myself, my neighbor, my world.

“Breathe in Scream Blue Murmur / Breathe out humanity.” It’s a breath I hope to take again, even if I have to travel to the UK for it.

The last words I heard were: “We may have saved millions.” Indeed. I hope so.

See them yet this weekend at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.


all italicized quotes, © Scream Blue Murmur.

When good shows go away

Last weekend the Street Scene closed. Done. Over. History.

That’s part of the gift of theatre – its impermanence. It’s an event, an experience, not an object to be revered and enjoyed for now and the future, and even when it is enjoyed for long it’s not the same experience every night.

What remains of my last show.

This was a large cast, which gave us plenty of opportunity for drama and in fighting and awkward moments, or even (to steal a word from reality tv) show-mances. Yet none of that happened. This group of actors got along and supported each other like few groups I’ve experienced before. I think part of the reason was we were all keyed up to take on this mammoth of a play, and were excited by the challenge, by the people we were working with and by the opportunity. Or perhaps we were simply caught up in the excitement which was all around us. We all wanted it to be a good production and we were all proud to be part of it.

Every night was a joy to go out and play. To actually work in tandem with other actors, listening, responding and creating this world. It was seriously a group effort, and I was fortunate to be in the mix. Perhaps the best part was that the show was very well received, most importantly by the audiences and the theatre community, less importantly by the reviewers (though they liked it too.)

We each had our routines for the evening of a show. There were the places we’d set up in the green room, or where actors would warm up. One actor jokingly chastised me for not being in the same spot I’d always been in that moment before curtain when he’d show up ready to go on. There were the conversations and games and puzzles to pass the time, the inside jokes and the post-show drinks (which included the unique cocktail created for this particular show by one of the cast members. It was called an Elmer, and it was tasty.) But then, like all good things, it had to end.

Those people who saw it will remember it, likely for years. Some people will remember that they didn’t get to see it. Others will have just missed out. I will have memories for many years, and several new friends to go with them.

Yesterday the 2011 Minnesota Fringe Festival opened. If ever there were an event that was the epitome of the fleeting moment of energy and excitement around a theatrical production, it’s the Fringe Fest. The time and energy needed to put together just one of the 169 productions is enormous, and it’s going to be gone in what really feels like the blink of eye. And most of it will never see the light of day again.

Ah, the dog days of summer! I’m grateful most theaters have extra-cold air conditioning.

Sanity Scratching

I think I’ve once again proven to myself that any creative outlet I have, no matter what form, helps keep me sane.

And happy.

But mostly sane.

This is a picture of the way the sky looked this morning as I headed out to work. (I certainly don’t want to even think about the ol’ day job, but it’s been a bear lately.) This morning there was this strange sunrise, where there were clear streaks of pink in the west, and this pink and purple and golden streaks in the east. It was really odd, and had a weird feeling. (This picture is completely untouched.)

So I snapped a picture. It was unexpected and beautiful. It made me think about the uniqueness of life, and the changeability. I knew those colors would be gone very soon, never to return. It made me think about living in the moment, in the here and now, and taking control of what’s happening. It made think about enjoying what’s in front of me and making the best of whatever that is at the moment. It made me realize life can be unexpected and surreal. Yesterday the sky didn’t have streaks of yellow or pink like this, but why today?

All this from a sunrise.

It also reminded me of the projects I have percolating. In some strange way, it made me think that anything’s possible with them.

Odd perhaps, but that’s how I felt.

Tonight I made some last minute changes to a script for a short (short) video, that we’re shooting tomorrow. Over the next week I’ll edit and tweak it in to something. I have an image of what it is. Whether I can pull that off or not is yet to be seen.

This coming week is the Fringe drawing, so I’ll know whether it’s time to buckle down and start on that project or not. That puts me a bit on edge, mostly due to pressure I’ll put on myself if we get in.

Tonight I chose this picture for my photo project. It seemed appropriate. And timely.

The itch is getting scratched. Slowly.

And ain’t that a helluva sky?

Edit later

The other day I started outlining ideas for that new play. Yesterday I mailed off the Fringe application, and have only to wait for the drawing. And today I started working on one of those other projects, writing a draft for a short video I hope to shoot next weekend.

It felt good to just sit down, focus on something and get it down on the page. I wouldn’t say it’s done (and in fact I’m in need of a way to button it at the end) but I feel fairly good about it for a first run.

I realized while writing it that I can change things later. I just needed to get things down, on paper. Don’t edit myself. Put it out there, and shape it later.

This is different than I feel I often work on things, which is cautiously, carefully and very intentionally. Almost editing as I go. I wonder if perhaps my daily photo experiment, now in its fourth week, (along with some other day-job work related projects) is forcing me to make decisions more quickly, and is having an effect on how I’m working?

I wonder how, or if, it impacts the final results.

Whatever it is, it’s the kind of energizing activity I needed.

10 Things about 2010

  1. I completed my full-length play, which lives in limbo waiting for its knight on a white horse of a production.
  2. I work-shopped and staged a challenging script with a committed and fun group of actors. Ari Hoptman is the funniest man I know and almost made me piss my pants in rehearsal. fyi – The script was a drama.

    self-portrait, silhouette on rocks, north shore, fall 2010

  3. I jumped in to the fray of commercial and industrial work (again) and met and worked with awesome people.
  4. I dipped my toe in the pond of Twin Cities independent film, and had some of the most fun acting experiences I’ve had in a long time while shooting a film. I look forward to seeing the results this coming Spring.
  5. I started reading more blogs, finding new ways to write, just for kicks and exercise.
  6. I exercised my creativity while helping design our remodel and construction project, and I now have a comfortable, cozy home. (Side note: in 2011 I need to find that right piece of art to hang over the new fireplace.)
  7. I witnessed a number of spectacular productions, including Unspeakable Things at Sandbox (extremely creative,) The Homecoming at Gremlin (extremely polished acting and directing,) two Minnesota Fringe Festival production: Standing Long Jump (a beautiful new script) and Missing (a beautiful real, one-person show,) and saw some astonishing work in the Tony Award winning August: Osage County.
  8. I took part again in one of the best theatre experiences possible, with Chicago Avenue Project.
  9. I enjoyed my photography hobby, taking over a thousand pictures throughout the year and shared a few here.
  10. I failed to expand my horizons, having only completed 1 of the 5 items I listed on that 2010 Resolutions…or What I’ve told myself back in January. The only thing I accomplished was #2 which didn’t even get me out of the house. Maybe I’ll blame it on having spent so much time, energy and money on making the new house this year. Yeah, that’s it.
Happy New Year!