Monday, June 21, 2010
Some Thoughts on the Fringe Festival Experience
In 2007, I played in a production of “Romeo & Juliet” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
We were six actors, a stage manager, a TD and an intern, and we had spent the earlier part of the summer playing the show across Europe: at a recreation of the Globe Theatre in Neuss, Germany; in the courtyard of a castle in Gyula, Hungary; at the nation’s largest arts, culture, and food fest in Gdansk, Poland; and in a miniature La Scala Opera House in Syros, Greece.
During that time I: was stalked and harassed by neo-Nazi skinheads. Got an “intimate” sunburn while swimming in a “natural hot springs water park” with “naked Hungarians.” Was taken into a windowless cubicle at the airport and interrogated about the prop daggers in my luggage by a man in uniform with a machine gun. Got drunk enough on some manner of foreign liquor that I woke up an hour before the show missing my glasses, and with my left shoe covered in dog shit.
Suffice it to say, by the time we made it to “Auld Reekie,” we were jet-lagged, disoriented, and beyond exhausted. It was in this state that we first walked the Royal Mile, the historic High Street between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Abbey.
I have seen plenty of overwhelming sights in my day but, for a theater artist, there is absolutely nothing to compare to the sheer madness of that 1976.5 yards packed neck-to-neck with buskers, dancers, performers, poets, clowns, gypsies, and garden-variety freaks, all trying to attract the attention of just as many theater-loving pilgrims. I thought I would cry.
Somehow, we made our way to the venue we would play: the Music Hall at the Assembly Rooms. Assembly Rooms is something like “Fringe Central.” Hosting 144 shows from 22 countries, there are four big rooms, including ours with 750 seats, multiple small rooms, and an exclusive lounge for mingling between performers and VIPs. We received our showtime – 1pm – and the lineup for the other acts with whom we would share the Music Hall space – comedian Rich Hall, international acrobatic sensation “Traces,” a WWII “living room” play starring multiple stars of BBC fame, etc, etc, etc. We didn’t stand a chance.
To get directly to the point, we deranged and exhausted actors never once had an audience larger than 6 people in our 750 seat house. Adding insult to injury, the show just before us and the show just after us routinely sold out. This meant walking into the venue as huge beaming throngs were leaving, chatting about how they’d be back to see it again, leaving the venue to a line around the block for the next show and, in the interim, playing a six-person “Romeo & Juliet” in the middle of the afternoon to an audience of 6. We all found this to be…fairly dispiriting.
This week, June 18-20, 2010, my new theater company, Psittacus Productions, played at the First Annual Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Why anyone who has lived through the trauma laid out above would choose another Fringe Festival – particularly a brand new one in a city which describes itself as “theater averse” – as the venue for their fledgling company’s premier production is anybody’s guess. Punishment Gluttony? Masochism? Basic stupidity?
Or is it something else? Could it be a persistent faith in the power of the art form to transcend, to transport, to deliver to audience and artist alike a sense of family and community in an increasingly fragmented time?
Probably it was stupidity. To be honest, as I stood on Santa Monica Boulevard with a handful of fliers in one hand, a cigarette and a cup of coffee in the other (I multitask), watching happy people line up for other shows and gleefully NOT line up for ours, I began to despair.
One nice gentleman who was passing by asked me what I was doing. “It’s called ‘A TALE TOLD BY AN IDIOT,’” I said. “It’s a 60-minute, comic-book style deconstruction of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth.’ Come and see! It’s like a comic book come to life…you’ve never seen anything like it!” “Cool,” he said. “You got a quarter?” I didn’t. He seemed annoyed. “That’s okay, baby,” he said. “You got some cereal? How ‘bout some milk?” I went back in to the lobby.
Still, as I sit here running the numbers for our show, “A TALE TOLD BY AN IDIOT” at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, I notice something.
Our venue, the beautiful Lounge Theater, has 50 seats. For the entire run of our show, five performances over three days, we had 60 people attending. That’s an average of 12 people per performance – or 25% capacity. Additionally, we streamed our show live over the Internet. We had 85 people watch our show online. That’s an average of 17 people per performance. If we add that in to the “in-person” figure for 30 people per performance, that’s 60% capacity.
Last week, the Broadway revival of “Hair” played to 47% capacity. The Edinburgh Fringe run I mentioned above played to just over 1% capacity. If I’m not mistaken, that means we did really freaking good!!
Here’s the problem with being an actor/producer rather than an actor. To write the 2 paragraphs above, I had to spend about 20 minutes looking at numbers and fiddling around with the calculator on my phone. Also, I used words like “capacity” and “percentage” and “numbers.”
And that, it seems to me, is NOT the actual point, either of the Edinburgh anecdote, or of Psittacus Productions’ labor pains and birth at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. The point actually IS a persistent faith in the power of the art form to transcend, to transport, and to deliver to audience and artist alike a sense of family and community in an increasingly fragmented time.
In Hollywood this weekend, when I would put out my final cigarette, check with the box office, and dash into the dressing room to change out of my monkey suit into my costume, waiting for me inside the dressing room were 8 beautiful actors. Artists. They had come on this incredible, bizarre journey, they had taken a leap of faith, and they were ready to rock and roll.
Together, we huddled in the dark and prepared to pass through that familiar and inscrutable portal. That membrane which is simultaneously tiny and titanic: the little piece of black fabric that hangs between the dressing room and the entrance to stage left. Together, we agreed to put aside all of our nagging concerns - numbers, capacity, parking, rent, car payments, the economy, the heavy-lifting of day to day life – and go on a journey together. To explore the power of the Idea. To share a story with whomever was sitting on the other side of the lights, or at their web browser.
And, somehow, we did it. We survived the Fringe. Moreover, we were a smashing success at the Fringe. Here’s the proof:
We are extending our show!!
A TALE TOLD BY AN IDIOT
@Son Of Semele Ensemble Theater
in Silver Lake
3301 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90004
July 9-25, 2010
For tickets and info: Son Of Semele Ensemble
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An amazing article about Psittacus by Homa Nasab