I needed a few days to process the 2018 Fringe Festival. Once again my company, Hot Chocolate Media put on a show in the Fringe. We followed up the successful Waiting for Gygax with a new children’s play Remy Raygun of the Space Brigade. The show was a choose your own adventure style narrative where the audience could make decisions that impacted the plot and endings. It was an ambitious undertaking, and it was a blast to work on. Below is a picture of the outline my co-writer Jacob Gulliver and I created for the script.
Creating A Show
After the outline was completed, Jacob did most of the heavy lifting on the script, we worked on some jokes together, but largely it was his work that made the script happen. I’ve been collaborating with him since 2012 and we work well together. Jacob and I understand each other on a level many other people don’t that creative space is very rewarding and fun.
The task of directing the show came to me. This was just my third time directing a stage show, and it’s something I really love to do. Everytime out, every rehearsal, I learn something new and I grow as an artist. Jacob and I took a new approach in writing and casting this show. We wrote the script in they/them pronouns so we wouldn’t have any preconceptions regarding gender, ethnicity, age, or physical appearance of the characters. In auditions I just had a list of adjectives to describe each character - Remy Ragun was professional, and playful. Baroness Badmouth was intimidating and bombastic. Skip was energetic and optimistic, and so on. This process led to me selecting with and working with a cast that was simply amazing. They were fun to work with, hard working, and got along like best friends on day one. I've worked with many amazing actors, but this cast takes the cake of amazing.
Our run at the Fringe went well, we had good houses, a beautiful venue. I feel I could have polished the show a bit more as a director and a producer (I think many Fringe directors would agree with me). On a personal note I took on too many hats on this production for a project this ambitious. The show was a success and I’m super proud of it, but like many artists I will always go over in my head things I could’ve done better like blocking, rehearsal time, script revisions etc. At the end of the day, I put on a show with a team of incredible artists and had fun doing it. I even had several kids that saw the show recognize me around the Fringe after the show and told me how much they enjoyed it. That’s a win no matter how you slice it.
Putting your own original story on stage for an audience is thrilling, but the other wonderful thing about Fringe is watching a plethora of amazing shows by other artists. Seeing the art put on stage by awesome creator expands your own creative muscles revealing to you what is possible and challenging you to up your game the next time around. On that note here are 10 shows that I loved and will make me a better creator going forward. Please note there is no particular order to this list.
Shows I Loved
Blood Nocturne (The Winding Sheet Outfit) - the story of a Hungarian Countess and her many evil transgressions. This play was hauntingly beautiful, and I learned how much movement can impact a play on a visceral level elevating theater into pure artistry. I;ve now seen two plays by the group of amazing creators and I can’t wait to see more.
Hamlet, But Hamlet’s A Chicken (Grand Island Theater) - absurd, hilarious, and magnificent. This play was perfect example that if the entire cast and crew buys into something over the top, it can totally work. And this show did. I will likely never be able to watch another production of Hamlet again.
Not Fair, My Lady (Colleen Somerville Productions) - a fun and entertaining fuck you to mid and early 20th century musicals (and some more modern ones) and their misogyny and ugly messages. The show also addressed the issues women in entertainment face that in a clever and funny way. The whole production was slick, the choreography was stellar, and the cast was phenomenal.
Illinois Boy Blues (Deacon Gamzee Productions) - this show hit me right in my wheelhouse. The fictional account of a black man growing up in Illinois during the era just after the Great Migration. The story of loss, family, music, and finding one’s voice. Actor Khalil Muhammad commands the stage in this solo show. While fictional, the research into the history of Quincy, Peoria, and Cairo Illinois was spot on. I loved this show so much.
Aphrodite’s Refugees (MonTra Performance) - this show paints a picture, figuratively and literally. Monica Dionysiou weaved a wonderful story of her family and their trials and experiences during the Turkish Invasion and division of the Island nation. Simultaneously Aaron young paints on a piece of paper backlit by a projector, illustrating Monica’s words and adding animation as well. It was pure beauty and also very relevant and important to our times.
Whales/Horsetale (Hit The Lights Theatre Company) - I’m cheating a bit but grouping two shows here, but I loved both of these shows by the creators of the wondiferous Dungeon from the 2017 Fringe. Whales was the whaling facts section of Moby Dick presented in a punk rock show complete with shadow puppetry, audience interaction, and sea shanties. I loved every minute of it. Horsetale was a shadow puppetry/live music show at the Inaugural Family Fringe. It was pure fun and I took my wife and son to see it. My son sat on my lap enraptured by it every minute. It’s a theater experience I won’t soon forget.
ABEYANCE (Tyler West) - I’m a huge fan of physical comedy, mime, and clowning. This show is an absolute blast of a show that combines all of these things, plus a gleeful use of sound and music. Pure joy for 50 minutes.
Fruit Flies Like a Banana (The Fourth Wall) - this was another show I saw with my family and was a blast. My son still talks about the show and has asked to play his trumpet (well his mom’s trumpet) several times since the show. Fun and impressive for kids and adults, it’s joy incarnate on stage.
Attention Seeker (That’s Enough Drama) - comedian Gerard Harris makes 60 minutes feel like 6. His frenetic, hilarious show is an insight into the mind of a creator fighting against their own internal obstacles and challenges. Full of hilarious jokes, entertaining stories. It was just damn fun.
Walking While Black in Moscow (Les Kurkendaal) - a wonderful storytelling show by a charismatic and entertaining performer. Les weaves a story that you can imagine the smells, sounds, and sights in vivid detail. He brings humanity to the characters in the story in a way only master storytellers can.
I saw an additional 27 shows to the ones listed above. I learned something from each and every one of them, and I’m super proud and impressed by all of them. It’s not easy putting on five shows in 11 days, but 132 groups did it, and it was amazing.
How Can We Get Better?
One of the most evident things in this year's Fringe were the sheer number of women as directors and producers. This is awesome, we wil never grow as artists or a society with a homegenous group of creators. We need more voices from more walks of life putting shows on stage. Women of Fringe 2018 (eand every damn year for that matter) I salute you!
Once area where representation was lacking this year was people of color on stage. So. Many. All. White. Cast. And. Crew. Minnesota, we can do better. We have to do better. I'm including myself in this as well. Casting just two actors of color and one musican in the last two years of Fringe doesn't make me a beacon of inclusivity, it just means I'm doing a little better than I have been in the past. If you want more insightful info on this topic don't listen to my white cishet self, check out these blog entries on MN Playlist: Commarrah Bashar and Denzel Belin.
Fringe once again was a highlight of my year. Watching and creating amazing art while talking and hanging out with amazing artists is the best thing in the world. Our world is a very dark place at times, but art shines a light in the darkness and can change the world, or at least provide a reprieve for us when we need it. Thanks for reading, and I can’t wait for the 2019 Fringe Festival!