Love at first sight

Fringe

11:14 AM. August 12, 2009.

By now, I expect, you've heard about the 2009 Fringe Festival numbers -- more than 46,000 tickets issued, $330,000 in gross box office, more sold-out shows than ever before.

Here at MinnesotaPlaylist.com, we tried to provide an impression of the Fringe beyond the numbers, through seven thoughtful -- or, at least, long and regularly-updated -- blogs about the experience from performing arts insiders and a couple outsider artists.

Recognizing that our diligent bloggers did a lot of writing, allow me to direct you toward some of my favorite posts from each of them. -- Favorite posts? Who am I kidding? In truth, I love them all, and I encourage you to put your feet up and enjoy the entire journey in each one. Still, in the interest of helping you focus, I've grabbed a few dates for you to scroll down to (for reasons too boring to explain, I can't just link to the exact date). Anyway, here goes:

John's "Ignore this" blog: Read especially 12:00 PM. August 7, 2009. (And the description of dance on August 3 is great too!)

Marya's "Full-on Fringe": So much excellent writing to read about how an individual audience member experiences the Fringe. The beginning posts capture a quick-fire sense of the excitement of the festival, and the later posts capture the exhaustion that sets in. But I especially enjoyed her thoughtfulness about "Women's plays" at 11:15 AM on August 3, 2009.

Matt's "The 'real' thing": Matt is on fire with theory and good writing in this 9:30 AM, August 8, 2009 post on Authenticity.

Ben's "Fringe-Binge TV": Read 12:00 PM. August 6, 2009, then watch the video of Re: Trace at the bottom of the post. Also, his introduction and conclusion are just silly wonderful hysterical.

Travis' "Fringe-chic": Fun, strange photos from 8:30 PM. July 30. 2009

Anna's "Anna stalks Quinton Skinner": Does the Fringe create brilliant and effectively important art? Read about one show's deep effect on Anna at 2:29PM. August 5, 2009

And, in my own blog, people tell me that they enjoyed what I wrote at 10:14 AM. August 2, 2009.

Thank you for joining us. Thank you, 2009 Fringe Festival, for the experiences.

9:39 AM. August 10, 2009.

Some lingering thoughts:

1. Saturday night before the 8:30 shows, I was sitting outside watching the crowd gather in front of Rarig. There were lines out the door for almost all the shows running at that time and people of all shapes and sizes heading into the building. A Fringe volunteer was directing people to the show they wanted, and since the show up in the Rarig was Slow Jobs, I thought I heard her telling people, over and over again, “Blow jobs upstairs.” It took me five minutes before it occurred to me that I must have heard her wrong. For some reason, “Blow jobs upstairs” didn’t sound out of place at the Fringe Festival.

2. What is out of place at the Fringe? And why did the Fringe seem out of place at the Guthrie at last night’s closing night party? Is it because the Guthrie isn’t as welcoming a building as they were hoping to create or is it because Fringers get spoiled over the course of an intense, sometimes incestuous, eleven day sprint? That’s a question I don’t have the strength to contemplate this morning.

3. I do know that the airplane hangar-like front lobby of the Big G is not a good place to make announcements. Because the acoustics were not ideal, I spent a good amount of time during Robin’s speech, turning to the people around me saying, “What’d she say? How many tickets did they sell??” I guess I’ll have to wait for the official press release, but I think I heard that something like 46,000 tickets were issued during the Fest. This is a nice big number and a significant increase over last year. Yay Fringe!

4. Four Humors Theater rules. I could go on and on, but I’d rather just enjoy the real high-quality, real attention-to-detail work that they’ve been producing for the last couple years and I’ll just continue to hope and expect that they keep doing what they’re doing for a good long time into the future. If they had season tickets to sell, I’d buy ‘em right now. When I saw their show Sideways Stories from Wayside School Saturday night, the Rarig Thrust filled up with at least 400 people (I’m guessing) downstairs and in the balcony – and the show still played perfectly. I can’t think of a single flaw in the production, and the size of the audience indicates that this ain’t no simple Fringe Festival company who we’re giving the benefit of the doubt because of the format of the festival. They’re creating shows that work, in so many ways, inside or outside the festival, for intimate audiences or large ones. Yay Four Humors!

5. Daily blogging is a more difficult activity than I thought it would be. We’re contemplating something like it for MinnesotaPlaylist.com permanently, something to make you want to visit the website for new information or insight every single day, but I’ve learned that blogging isn’t as easy as all that.

Next month, we’ll be doing some audience surveys about what you’d like to see on MinnesotaPlaylist year round. Please come back to the website in September to let us know what you think. Help us improve our year-round performing arts coverage. Sharpen your opinions; we want to hear them. . . in September.

3:05 PM. August 8, 2009.

Why are people trying to destroy something always more newsworthy than people trying to build something?

Even with the Fringe going on, you can’t avoid the news that there are angry mobs around the country disrupting town hall meetings with elected representatives who are trying to talk to their constituents about health care reform. There has been a little violence (so far only a little, thankfully), and a few arrests, and a lot of just ugliness. If you’ve looked at the news at all in the last week, you see this everywhere.

Meanwhile in something like 22 different places across the metro area, at the same time, 20-200 people a shot are sitting together and sharing stories and theater and dance and artistry with other people. Some of what they’re watching and reacting to may be considered offensive by some people, some of it is obnoxious, some of it is bad – and some of it is transformative, and you can feel the sense of elevation in the audience as you sit with them. (I just saw Scream Blue Murmur's The Morning After the Summer of Love. I'm bleeding the idealism right now, I suspect.)

And this isn’t particular to the Fringe, after all. This happens in theaters across the state and the country every weekend. Only its even more people, 50-1000 people for each show then. This happens in movie theaters too, and in music clubs, and even in people’s living rooms when they gather together to hang out.

These mobbed town hall meetings usually involve 70 to maybe 300 people total, from what I can tell from the news reports. They’re not a bigger cross-section of society than the fringe festival or the theater or music communities. Actually, they’re a lot smaller if you do some simple aggregating. They’re just louder, and uglier, and they want to break things. . . Why is this more newsworthy? I don’t mean to say that the media should report more “good” news instead of “bad” news. They should report what’s news, I think. I’m just asking, why is it more newsworthy always, it seems, to report on what gets destroyed instead of what’s getting built?

My wife, Leah Cooper, has spent the last month out in Eureka, CA with the Cornerstone Theatre at their “Cornerstone Institute.” Cornerstone Theatre builds plays collaboratively with communities under stress, places that have perhaps been forgotten by the rest of the country, places in need of attention. They cast community members from business owners to army vets to the disabled to teenagers to whoever they can get involved, and they bring professional artists in to work them on creating a production that both tells a good, entertaining story and represents the stories of the community.

They just opened their show in Eureka on Thursday, and when I talked to her on the phone, she couldn’t stop talking about – she didn’t even have time to tell me all about – the ways in which this type of theater has literally transformed the town, the community’s attitude toward their town, as well as the individual lives of some of the participants. She says she didn’t know she could cry from joy so much. When you see her, ask her about the homeless kid who suddenly knew he had to call his family finally, or the. . . There are too many stories to tell.

Again, I ask, why are people trying to destroy something more newsworthy than all the people – the larger number of people – who work in groups with others to build things?

. . . Give me a blog, and I’m afraid that I reveal that underneath, I’m just a ridiculous and naïve idealist at heart. You kind of have to be to still be doing theater, don’t you?

11:20 AM. August 8, 2009.

Last night was my best night of the 2009 Fringe Festival. It helps that I finally got some sleep Thursday night and caught my second wind sometime Friday afternoon, second winds always being better than first winds because you appreciate what you’ve got more. It’s like falling in love at first sight for the first time, a second time. . .

It also helped that the night was capped by a beautifully theatrical thunderstorm. Did anyone see an old man, who used to be a King and was betrayed by his daughters, wandering the streets railing against the vagaries of nature and his own human frailty? It was that kind of storm. Shakespeare was happening in the sky outside my apartment when I got home from Bedlam last night, and I was feeling happy to be a theater person.

Here’s the thing, the thing that I wish weren’t true, the thing that I’ve also said outside the Fringe but feel the need to say again here, the thing that keeps me working in a field where no one expects really to make any real money and where we often don’t get the respect we think or wish we deserve or that our level of training and discipline might normally have earned – The thing is that I just think theater is great. It’s better than movies and television by far. There isn’t any question, and I don’t know why people question it. It just is.(If only this were not true, I would have worked harder to break in to television a long time ago.)

For example (he writes as though he were on trial): I saw Mike Fotis show at Mixed Blood last night, An Intimate Evening with Fotis, Part III, and I laughed until my side hurt. He told three stories – about boy scouts, not smoking, and buying a dog, for cryin’ out loud, not exactly the most inspired subject matter – and I laughed and nodded and smiled more than I ever laugh, nod, and smile at even my most favoritest movie or television comedy ever. They don’t even design movies and television shows to make you laugh that much. Seriously. You will get more laughs and feel more of a sense of fun when you’re watching a top-notch (and Fotis really is as good as anyone at what he’s doing right now) performer in a room full of people. It’s the live performer, it’s the room full of people. The cello was a nice touch too.

I also saw 3 Sticks ‘ Travelling Musicians last night too. Cool music, smartly satirical in places and sometimes just smart, great performances, very sexy. . . barnyard animals. Very sexy barnyard animals – so not Minnesotan, which makes this particular not Minnesotan very happy.

And, even better, it was performed at the Nomad World Pub. So, all this was happening, in a location where people were comfortable interacting with the show, buying beer – where they were just comfortable. Basically, 3 Sticks provided the bargoers that night exactly what we all want every time we go out to a bar – we want our experience of life to be heightened. We want to be feel and understand more than we would if we just stayed at home and watched T.V. or stayed at the office. And talented theater and theater people can do that. . . do do that . . .

I actually think site-specific work (loosely-defined) is the way most live performance will, or should, be done in the future. (I keep thinking I’ll write about that more, but then I get distracted. We’ll have to do a whole issue on it for MinnesotaPlaylist later. Anyway. . .)

Whenever I do it or go to it, I pay careful attention to the people who actually work at the place where the show is being performed. We used to do Thirst Theater in bars a few years back, and in most places, when we presented the idea, the wait staff would look at us funny, look at us as though they were dreading the lame, espresso-drinking crowd they were going to be forced to serve while some stupid, silly, high-school-like theater thing happened around them. Then, when we finally performed it, they would become our biggest fans. They would drag their friends down to see the shows; they’d stop what they were doing to watch Stephen D’Ambrose deliver a monologue. People who were forced to experience this site-specific work, rather than actually consciously choose to buy a ticket for it (usually people who wouldn’t go to a theater if you actually paid them to go), were absolutely in love with what was happening around them.

At Nomad World Pub, last night, I noticed the three bartenders occasionally grooving to the music and throwing happy glances at each other – and, actually, when I had walked in and ordered a beer, I had noticed that they were simply cranky and acting like they were just too busy.

Good live theater somehow sifts through the experience of life and makes it better.

I also saw two other shows last night, both of which had some elements that made me very happy to be there, and had two great conversations at Fringe Central between the end of the last show and the beginning of the King Lear reenactment that swept through Minnesota weather last night.

What next?

9:20 AM. August 6, 2009

A lot of the plays I write deal with the influence of context on character and perception. When I was in college, I read an analogy that compared life to a billiards table, and the thing has been haunting me ever since. What happens on that table is influenced by where the first ball is placed, from what angle it is hit, how rough the table is, how crooked the stick, also where the other balls have landed around it, and a bunch of other stuff like whether its noisey in the bar where you're playing. Change any one of these things, which are themselves made up of many parts, and you change the entire game. The characters I write are often amalgams of their genetic inclinations, their upbringing, and the circumstances they happen to stumble into. And as the circumstances change, they change. (One of the constant sources of frustration for me when I have to deal with dramaturgy is the demand, or desire, from directors, actors, or lit managers, to “understand” a particular character as a consistent, predictable force when I believe that character and context are ever-shifting, though only based on consistent inclinations.) I once wrote a play that put the same basic characters in three parallel universes, just to make the point more clear.

Hanging out at the Fringe reminds me of the parallel universe theory. I’ve been thinking that there is a more mainstream crowd at this year’s Fringe, but then I realize that I’ve been going to shows that have a certain, more mainstream appeal. Everyone is all excited, rightfully, about the number of sold-out shows; it creates a buzz and energy that feeds on itself and grows. Then, I noticed that the Augsberg studio only seats 53, and the Rarig X space only seats like 70. I’m not knocking those audiences. I’ve played to less myself. I’m just noticing how the sense of the festival as a rockin’ place where tons of shows are selling out would be entirely different (without actually being different) if the venues were just bigger.

Last night, I happened to talk to a friend who said, perhaps in a moment of annoyance just to provoke my uncynical ass, that he hated the Fringe. I think he also said that it was because the shows are half-baked and all those people should come to theater the rest of the year instead. I think that’s what he said. I’m not going to name him or describe him, so I don’t have to feel guilty about misrepresenting his crazy-ass. . . I know that the first year he lived in Minnesota, he only saw three shows at the Fringe, and they were all goddawful. I think this impression, this context, has poisoned his view of the fringe for life. And, in years since, perhaps he has seen a lot of half-baked shows. Hey, this is his experience of the world. Who am I to argue?

Of course, I argue anyway, and then, when I get home, I wonder why these people actually don’t come to the theater the rest of the year. . . Except they probably do, for one. It’s just a concentrated dose of them at the Fringe, so they look like a larger group (just like selling out in a smaller venue feels more cool than selling more tickets in a larger venue). Two, many people get their first taste of theater at the Fringe and come back for more the rest of the year. So there’s that. (I’ve seen the audience survey numbers in the past.) But, also, I think, there is something special about the Fringe – and its more than just the summer festival aspect of it. . . I think the performing arts at the Fringe is better than performing arts year round, more accessible, more fun, more creative, more worthwhile – It’s often less skillful. I’ll concede that. I absolutely will. But it's still somehow better.

I thought Steve Moulds’ Buyer’s Remorse was an excellent good time, a well-constructed play, well-acted and well-directed. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and so did most everyone else in the very crowded theater. Was it a “great” play, I’m forced to ask myself (because I’m a “serious” playwright)? If it were done any other time during the year – well, it wouldn’t be done at any other time if it wasn’t a self-consciously GREAT play that had something BIG to say about SOMETHING BIG. This play didn’t have a message. It had a story. In that story were characters. They were cool.

I think one of the reasons more people get more excited about the fringe is that the format allows artists to relax, for once, and when artists relax, for once, audiences can relax too. As an artist, if you fail at the Fringe, it’ll be OK. No one will take away your toys for good at the Fringe. As an audience, you don’t have to be able to form an thesis about every show you see. You don’t have to “get it”. You only have to get what you want. This is a result of the format of the festival, certainly, but also I think it is the spirit through we which we, as artists, do the work and we as audience members experience the work. I saw the dance show Pipa and the straight-up stand-up comedy show Animal Cracker Genocide on the same day, and took whatever I could take and wanted to take from both of them without fear of judgement – of myself or the artists. And even though one show was perhaps, on paper, more populist than the other show, I think they were both very vulnerable, open-hearted and personal performances that I rarely see the rest of the year.

I think that’s a big part of the reason that theater is more enjoyable during the fringe. It is more personal, and for some surprising reason that’s appealing. (Sure, we hate navel-gazing artsy shit -- but the opposite of what we hate is what we love. We do want personal art. We just don't want it to be bad.)

All of this makes me want to rant for the recreation of an ensemble repertory company in Minnesota with talented actors, creators, dancers, and writers (wrapped in the same people) who know classical work but also can create their own work – and do it in rep. . . But I’ll save that rant for another issue of MinnesotaPlaylist.com.

My own context for this Fringe, the journey that I’m taking subconsciously through the shows I’ve chosen to see, are I think about artist development. Seeing Joe Scrimshaw come up with yet another challenge to lay out for himself – even if the show wasn’t everything I wish it had been – has stuck in my mind since I saw Tragedy of You. Re:Trace has been my favorite show so far, the one I recommend to everyone who asks, and I think it has been in part because I enjoyed how obviously this young collective had worked together with each other and this building to explore space and each other in ways that they were still discovering. I saw Carolyn Pool and Shannon Wexler in Two Sugars, Room for Cream and agree with every word Matt Sciple wrote in his blog comparing their show with Cherry, Cherry, Lemon. (Go to his blog and scroll down until you find the 2:00 PM, AUGUST 1, 2009 entry, if you're curious.) It was a highly enjoyable show, but I think I enjoyed it even more because I know Carolyn and I’ve seen Shannon on stage before, and I thought they made a wonderful team. I kept thinking about how I hope this is the beginning of a “beautiful friendship,” that they’ll go on to develop more work together. I keep getting excited not just by what I’m watching in the Fringe, but what I think or feel it might mean for the artist's futures. . . I don’t know why precisely, but that’s my Fringe universe right now.

Saturday night, I’m going to see Allegra Lingo’s Crescendo, assuming I can get a ticket. I had underlined Allegra on my list, thinking I’d get to her show if I got there – just as I had underlined philip low and all the other rockstar storyteller crew. They’re good. If it was convenient, I’d go, and if it wasn’t, I’d catch each of them some other time. . . knowing, deep down, that I wasn’t going to get to any of them – cause there just isn’t time at the Fringe to see anything but what you either a) desperately want to see or b) stumble into entirely accidentally.

Then, I heard that Allegra wasn’t just telling stories the way she always does. I heard that she had synced her stories to music by Aaron Copeland so that the entire thing was like a composed experience. . . I have always believed that stage dialogue even without music should be composed like music, almost, and Allegra certainly has the chops to try it, and anyway, cool. I mean just cool. I mean its just cool that she felt confident enough to try something at the Fringe that might be great or might really suck. (Honestly, music is music and it speaks for itself. How many words can you really lay over the top of it?) But I don’t care. What I do seem to care about this week is watching artists make it personal and be personally adventurous. . .

When I put it that way – and I never know what I’m thinking until I write it or say it – then isn’t it obvious why more people get more excited about the Fringe Festival than regular theater? During the rest of the year. we as an audience simply don’t allow, or we as artists simply aren’t brave enough to produce, plays on major stages around the Twin Cities that are viciously personal and ecstaticly daring. The rest of the year, we produce entertainment. We produce professional entertainment. We make Art as hard as we can. We have Something to Say! All of which is important. . . But not so accessible, or necessary, or compelling, with the personal and adventurous spirit as the Fringe, I suspect.

Feel free to tell me if I’m wrong. I often am. I don't mind.

That’s all for now.

2:08 PM. August 3, 2009.

This blog is all about fringe love, I guess, so this hot-off-the-presses press release makes me starry-eyed and ecstatic:

"Fringe first weekend attendance jumps 19 percent!"

Yay. . . and yay. . . and yay yay yay!

You'll probably read more considered analysis in the Star Tribune or Pioneer Press, but let me just expound on what I noticed. The press release points out that there were 9 sold-out first performances, which means either that companies are doing better preshow marketing, all that blogging and video previews are helpful, the Fringe did a phenomenal job of building up to this year's festival -- or, some of the venues are smaller than in the past?

Probably all of the above.

The press release also points out that sell outs occurred at bring-you-own-venue shows as well as Gremlin Theatre. So take that people who were worried about the seeming dominance of Rarig Center as an ideal location. if you do it, they will come.

And, finally, I noticed that nine - count 'em, 9 - of the sellouts occurred on Sunday. Which I think portends a good sign for things to come for the rest of the festival. Buzz is building and people want to see stuff regardless of the fact that they have work the next day.

Now. . . Would someone help me relocate my cynicism bone? I really don't know what's come over me. It's starting to freak me out.

10:18 AM. August 3, 2009.

Quick thoughts:

1. I'm glad I'm not a professional critic.

2. Go see site-specific work, specifically the Ready at Will Dance Collective's Re: Trace which, if its about anything, is about how cool site-specific work can be. Maybe I'll write more on that later.

3. I'm worried about Joseph Scrimshaw. He keeps trying harder and harder and harder things. Improv? Check. Solo improv? Are you nuts? Solo improv in Shakespearean form? What the hell? I'm afraid that for next year's show he's going to do sword swallowing as a mash-up of Pirandello and Brecht. He's like the cirque du soleil of stand-up comedy. Tragedy of You is as close to tightrope walking as you can watch outside a circus.

4. Word. The Urban Musical About the End of Hip-Hop. Here's why I'm glad I'm not a critic. . . I really enjoyed this show. Is it "good"? Probably not. The book is abysmal. The music overpowered the singing so it was hard sometimes to hear the lyrics. The acting was not, well, stellar. But I just don't care about good; I care about what I care about. We see the work that has value to us. And I thought this was valuable. . . There's all kinds of things in here that made it worth seeing -- the dancing, the earnestness, the idea. I'm geniunely glad I saw it on stage. Plus, many of the songs display a definite talent, an odd combination of musical theater cheesiness and hip-hop coolness. Plus, the performers really meant it. I don't mean that they approximated passion, or they indicated and emoted how much they cared. I mean that when they're arguing about the pros and cons of hip-hop, they really mean it. Really really. It reminded me exactly of the arguments I used to have with my friends when I was a teenager.

5. Your Lithopedian This was a strange play but really good. Really strange and really good. Surprisingly accessible, considering. And Kevin MacLaughlin gives the best performance I've ever seen from him. I've seen him mostly do broad comedy but this performance was - how shall I say? I'll say something I never thought I'd say outside a sentence that had the words "James Brown" in it -- his performance was "soulful." Sarah Broude was good too, though I just find it hard to watch plays where women are stereotypically shrewish. In the context of the play, I think I understand what the point of that character was, but I just have trouble watching it regardless. Maybe I'll write more on that later too.

10:14 AM. August 2, 2009.

Why do I always hear about how bad the stuff at the Fringe Festival can be, and how amateurish?

How many shows are really going to be that awful? 15-30?

But how many shows are going to be blow your mind brilliant? What? 5-15? And everything else will fall somewhere in between. . . Sounds about like the theater season the rest of the year too – No, wait, actually, that’s actually more blow your mind brilliant stuff than I get to see most years.

So why don’t think of the Fringe as a place where some incredible artists will have the opportunity to risk and stretch and explore in such a way that you’re likely to see some of the best theater you see all year? It’s not inaccurate. Why isn’t that the way we see the Fringe?

What is it about us that we feel the need to suck the oxygen out of the room talking, warning, apologizing for, and cataloguing for others the bad stuff? Anyone know? Why not just shrug it off, call it the anomaly that it is, and continue enjoying the Fringe Festival, “where you’re likely to see some of the best theater you see all year”?

The reason I care is because I’m afraid that with all the focus on how there can be all this “bad” stuff at the Fringe, we lose sight of how that bad stuff helps to create the brilliant stuff. It does. Actually makes brilliance happen.

Because in the arts, the difference between brilliant and crap is almost impossible to distinguish in advance of the production. I don’t mean that one person’s crap is another person’s genius. (That isn’t really true that much in the arts. Contrary to myth, we all generally agree on genius. It’s mediocre that we debate.) I mean that, unlike other types of production, if something is truly original, you can’t really tell how its going to turn out from its design. In manufacturing, you can design a new product and know what it will look like and do pretty clearly while in the design stage. In the arts, good ideas go bad all the time, and ideas that don’t sound like much often turn out to be the best in production.

In the arts, you can only think you know what something will do if it looks like everything else you’ve ever seen or done. Which is why during the traditional theater season, we see a lot of what looks like everything else. At least we know that stuff works. This doesn’t lead to good work but it does avoid the unpleasantness of irredeemably bad work. (Proof: Most television and Hollywood movies. They look like everything else. They don’t cause you serious pain when you watch them, but they aren’t very good really.)

So the Fringe is a chance to do stuff that no one would normally do, that people have trouble believing in or trusting or understanding – and the freedom to do that allows for the possibility of brilliance to come alive on stage in a way that few other places in the arts allow. It’s not real until its performed; until it’s performed, we don’t know what we made. It may be crap. It may be genius. One thing doesn’t exist without the possibility of the other thing.

So, then, why do we act as though the Fringe is a crap incubator? A “fun” crap incubator? A community-oriented, good-for-a-laugh-and-a-beer crap incubator?

When really its more of a brilliance-maker than anything else we have in the Minnesota right now.

9:41 AM. July 31, 2009.

40 minutes in to the first and only show I saw last night, Something Witchy at the Rarig Thurst, I had my first Fringified Moment. That moment where I thank the performing arts gods for making the fringe so that I can see that thing I just saw.

It wasn’t too big a deal, it wasn’t some kind of glorious biting-the-head-off-a-bat moment. And it might not mean much to you. You might not even notice it or care much about it when you see the play. It was simply a moment when the actress put her face into her shirt and took a deep deep deep breath of the smell of this shirt that had been hers many many years ago, in a life she had run away from.

Something Witchy is a play that I might go see outside the Fringe because I really like all three actors in it. They’re all good generally and can, sometimes, be uniquely wonderful – quirky, powerful, shocking. Yet, even with the cast that it has, it might also be a play that I’d skip because I have no interest in the subject matter. I know there are all kinds of people out there obsessed – obsessed, turned on, whatever – by the Manson family. I am not one. I mean, it’s intriguing, yes. I don’t deny that. But so so so much has been written about it as though it could unlock the key to something profound and, to be honest, I don’t think it does. We spend too much time obsessing about abnormal psychology when really it’s “normal” psychology that most of us are wrestling with and, for me as a writer and a person, I find that complex, subtle, and colorful enough to fill my days happily. “Normal” psychology is multi-colored and significant to all of us. Abnormal psychology is often black and white – and not most of our experience of the world. (Most of the time. Everything has exceptions.)

Anyway, the story’s not my cup of tea.

The script is OK. Has its moments. Has other moments I wish it didn’t have. Doesn’t have other moments that I wish it did have. . . But I’m a writer myself, so maybe I shouldn’t be trusted.

And then, 40 minutes into the play, Catherine Johnson pulls this old hippy shirt out of a box and pulls it down over her head and buries her face in it for ten or twenty seconds, and I have my first, thank-you-Fringe moment.

I am struck simultaneously by a series of emotions and thoughts:

1) I can feel, from the stage to my chair, the way in which the past pulls on this character from the inside. I can feel, suddenly, the weight of it, the forbidden allure of it. And I can feel how it is pouring out of her at that moment, the past catching up with the present, in her face. . . And I am compelled to feel some sense of that in my own life. . .

NOTE that the important thing to remember when you read about an insightful moment in a play is that it is not an intellectual thing. I did not say to myself, “O, look how the past pulls on us even in the present. I understand what the author is trying to say.” The reason some of us love theater is because, sometimes, we feel those revelations in our gut or our heart – and in our hearts, it is a much more complicated, truthful and worthwhile revelation than the wordy aphorism you might put on a bumper sticker.

2) I notice someone is interacting with an object onstage in a real three-dimensional way instead of just as a “prop” that establishes character or a chair that allows for appropriately distinct visual pictures.

I hurriedly make a note to myself, in the dark, that in my next rehearsal we’re having more objects on the make-shift set than we even think we need. Tons and tons.

Because so many of the scripts I see today, at the Fringe and not, seem to forget that our interaction with each other is mediated by the objects that fill up the space around us. Instead of taking advantage of the three-dimensional nature of the theater space and the tactile reality of the world, we get actors talking at each other. Even when I’ve been in heated arguments with significant others, its never just us talking at each other the way that theater staging often presents it, floating heads spewing thoughts, as though the term blocking means only “where the actors put their feet,” but I think – suddenly all while I’m watching this moment on stage – maybe blocking should include thinking clearly and choreographing what is touched and how often, and how many different things are there, and how those objects move around the space too.

Using objects more, more, more can be so powerful (I think all of a sudden).

I feel like I learn something about people; I feel like I learn something about the theater. Then, finally,

3) As the moment passes and the play continues, I think about how I would never have gotten to experience that moment, which I value, if I weren’t consciously willing to work for it.

So many times, I tell myself that if I just write better, then more people will come. So many times, I have the discussion about how we, as theater folk, simply can’t blame anything on the audience, and how we have to entertain them first and foremost, they’re entitled, etc., etc. . . I don’t have any arguments against those ideas. . . And yet. . . During the Fringe, more audience are more willing to try different things. They’re willing to sit through plays that don’t immediately blow their mind, and they are willing to, they want to, take whatever they can from them. I don’t necessarily think that Something Witchy is, at the moment, a great play, and there were moments in it that made me wonder why I was sitting there. But then, as I’m sitting there, I am given the gift of that moment that I’m describing. Which I wouldn’t have gotten if I weren’t willing to wait, if I weren’t patient and hopeful and forgiving, and there.

Theater is a hard thing to make. Even with the best actors, or the best writer, or the best director, it’s very hard to get the moment exactly right. You can’t cut the less good actors out of the picture. You can’t edit the scene to speed it up or take out the clunkier dialogue and replace it with something else at the last minute. You have very few tricks to save yourself onstage. You simply have to do it right– in surroundsound, from head to toe, from every angle – all the time.

It fails more than it succeeds because, in performance at least, its harder than other storytelling forms.

But when it succeeds, hallelujah!

And, when we live in a culture in which we believe that everyone has a right to be entertained, not bored, always engaged and happy every second of every moment, how can we ever find these moments that can be so rewarding and wonderful? If we, as an audience, don’t force – yes, force – ourselves sometimes go to a show whether we’ll like it or not – simply because having a culture and being involved in culture is valuable because it helps you grow and think and feel – even when it isn’t great – If we, as the audience, don’t feel that responsibility to ourselves and our culture, and aren’t sometimes willing to suffer through less than stellar work for it, than I wonder whether we wind up missing not just one little great moment in an OK play but something much much larger.

1:46 PM. July 29, 2009.

I didn’t think I would be getting excited about the Minnesota Fringe Festival this year — until I got my living hands on a three-dimensional copy of the Fringe Festival program. Maybe our brains work that way, or maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but being able to see all of those shows, all of those photos, bound together in one place and hold it in my hands, got my “I love the Fringe” juices going again.

This year, you have to pay $2 for an “Official Festival Schedule,” kind of like you have to pay for a scorecard when you go to a baseball game. The program itself is free and, for the first time, glossy, but the chart where you can see each show in each venue listed next to all the other venues everyday, you’ve got to pay for. I’m sad about it, but I understand this is the price we old-fashioned folks pay in the digital age. If you wanna contribute to the killing of trees and the economic viability of your local printer, you’re gonna have to pay for it, I guess. As a result, I feel guilty and poorer at the same time — but happier somehow because I’ve got the schedule in my hands. (Full disclosure: I didn't pay for it because I edit this magazine, so they gave it to me. . . I feel poorer only empathetically.)

Now, though I have no complaints about the cost for the “official schedule, I’m so old-fashioned that I’m about to criticize, gently, the program for being so glossy and pretty that I can’t mark it up with highlighters. The ink runs all over the place until your attempt to make certain shows stand out has made your program look like someone bled on it.

It took me four tries before I found the right, non-running pen to mark the shows I want to see, have to see, and might be vaguely interested in seeing. I starred the one’s I have a vague interest in, underlined the ones I want to see, and boxed in the one’s I feel like I have to see. Now, wherever I am, I can pull out my chart and see where I want to be next without having to refer back to the website or the program.

What excites me

Why does this obsessive little marking exercise get me excited about the Fringe? Is it because this year’s shows look so good? No. Not really. There’s really no way to tell what will be good by reading the program. It all looks about the same, to be honest. Lots of pronouncements about fun and excitement and coolness and quirkiness and, often, singing or sex, but not enough space to really give an indication of anything specific.

What makes me so excited about the Fringe after I read through the hard-copy of the program is the same thing that makes me excited about theater in general.

I start to learn something about myself.

Except for shows in which I know people, I’m highlighting shows based entirely on an odd series of assumptions that are personal to me, and the experience of choosing them is the first step of that great process in art of taking another look at yourself.

Personally, I highlight a lot of shows done by people from out-of-town. I figure that this will be my only chance to see them (while the local stuff I may be able to see again). Plus, I figure if I haven’t heard of the people doing the local stuff then maybe they aren’t that good. This is a ridiculous assumption, but I do it anyway. I also figure, who would go to the expense of touring a show if it didn’t have some merit? This is also a ridiculous assumption, but I make that one too. I know I will be proved wrong about both these assumptions many times — which makes me perfectly happy.

Tragic and ambitious

I also highlight shows based on Greek tragedy. I expect them all to suck because it’s very hard to adapt any classics to be better than the original, but I love Greek tragedy so much and I want so badly to see an incredible adaptation or reflection or commentary on these stories and themes. If I do see one, my head will explode. And I want my head to explode.

I probably won’t get to every show based on Greek tragedy that I highlighted. Very soon after the Fringe begins, I’ll start hearing the rumors that this show or that show really does, in fact, suck. But, before the Fringe begins, I can wallow in the potential for head-exploding art. It’s like the exciting moments of perfect potential that you feel when you’re expecting and fantasizing about how good that first kiss will be but before you actually experience it.

Plus, I realize, that I want to see ambitious-sounding things just because they sound ambitious — like The man who turned into a dog. . . or Two Short Operas even though I don’t really like opera or performance poetry. It’s the Fringe, so I figure, why not? I think I want to see Visions of Johanna even though I kind of hate when theater artists steal titles from more famous artists. Except, Visions of Johanna is such a great Bob Dylan song that the simple fact that the producers, Pont Media, plagiarized from it, gives me hope about their taste. I’m gonna try to go see People’s History of Love for the same reason.

In the end, though, I probably won’t even see half of the shows that I highlighted. Circumstances, word-of-mouth, who I run into where and where they might be going, will dictate most of my Fringing choices. I know this, yet I still think the manual-Fringe-program-highlighting experience is an essential way to warm-up for the Festival. The Festival requires and begs you to engage in art with all your art-engaging ability — to ask yourself questions about what you assume, what you believe (both thematically, culturally and aesthetically), and what you want. It doesn’t matter which shows I really do see; it’s the abundance of choice and the bold act of choosing your preferences — and therefore knowing your preferences better — that is part of the Fringe Festival experience.

A scavenger hunt for unexpected brilliance

Here’s one more thought on choosing your Fringe show experience:

Somewhere around the Sunday of the first weekend, a general consensus emerges about what shows are “good.” A lot of people actually wait until then to begin, not wanting to get stuck in some eyeball-gougingly bad production. That’s your right, certainly, if that’s what you want to do. Personally, though, I like to resist. One, there will be a few shows that you don’t want to miss — that you really, trust me, don’t want to miss — that somehow fly under the radar until the final Friday because the producers are from out of town, or they don’t understand marketing, or the show is really weird, or something. My experience over the last five years has been that those shows, the real secrets, are the one’s I really come to the Fringe to see.

And, two, along the same lines, I don’t go to the Fringe to see the shows that are “good.” I can see those shows in Minnesota all year round. And, if a Fringe show is considered particularly “good” and “professional,” it probably will get remounted some time outside the Fringe. I’ll go then.

I go to the Fringe to see the brilliant things that are so unexpected that no one in their right mind would take a chance on producing them at any other time.

By the middle of the week, I’m working hard to ignore the consensus on the “good” shows and hunting for the shows that a few people insisted were “brilliant” and a bunch of other people didn’t like. Because in those shows, I’ve found, I’m more likely to see the unexpectedly wonderful. The show itself may not be brilliant; it may be 40 minutes of crap, in fact (I’ve experienced that certainly), but somewhere in there will be five to ten minutes of work that I’d never thought of before and that inspires me to do something new and different in my own work - and maybe even in my life.

That’s why I go to the Fringe — to be surprised, inspired, and challenged in a way that only the Fringe can provide. The “good” shows rarely do that. The good shows are good, exactly as we recognize good all year round.

I want to see the things that are crazy enough to be great.

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Dogwood

Dogwood by Seraphina Nova

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James Napoleon Stone

James Napoleon Stone

James Napoleon Stone Performs in Dogwood by Seraphina Nova playing at The Peoples Center Theater this month.

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