FW Fringe Report
by Mark Lowry and Jill Sweeney
published Sunday, September 30, 2018
Jill Sweeney and Mark Lowry on the shows at the third annual Fort Worth Fringe, and why DFW needs a successful fringe festival
Fort Worth — There are a number of reasons why Dallas-Fort Worth is not quite a “theater town” in the ways that Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Minneapolis-St. Paul are, including that those cities have: multiple theaters over the $10 million budget level and less disparity between large-, midsize- and small-budget groups; more support for individual artists; more risk-taking and more adventurous audiences; and less urban sprawl and/or much better mass transit. I’ll contend that another reason is that we haven’t figured out—or more realistically, haven’t tried to figure out—how to run a successful fringe festival. By that I mean a festival that not only celebrates off-the-beaten-path local work but also actively draws interest from the national and international fringe touring circuit.
The closest we’ve come was the middle period of the 15-year-run of WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, which had the benefit of three performance spaces at the Addison Theatre Centre in an event spanning 10 days. For several years, it brought in interesting fringe circuit performances as well as giving local groups a place to showcase their work. Loop has now turned into Detour, dedicated to development of new and devised work, which is a fantastic concept—but a different animal than a fringe festival.
Meanwhile, Audacity Theatre Lab’s Brad McEntire—one of few local fringe-circuit performers—has struggled with getting audiences to his four Dallas Solo Fests. Teatro Dallas brings in some exciting imports at its biennial International Theatre Festival, but it’s not a fringe fest model. The Festival of Independent Theatres is our longest-running theater festival (it celebrated 20 years this past summer), but that’s designed for local companies. It’s not a fringe festival nor does it want to be. Nothing in North Texas has had the scope or prominence of fringe festivals in the aforementioned theater towns, or even Austin’s FronteraFest.
In 2016, the Fort Worth-based Texas Nonprofit Theatres, Inc. (TNT), launched the Fort Worth Fringe, which was a modest one-day event in the spring of that year. It expanded to two days on Labor Day Weekend in 2017, but still wasn’t much of a blip on anyone’s radar considering the poor audience attendance (I wrote about that festival here). Being on Labor Day weekend and having ticket prices way too high for a newish event were part of the problems (it also came on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, which didn’t affect North Texas storm-wise, but did in other ways).
The 2018 FW Fringe, though, showed big signs of improvement. It remained two days but moved to the weekend after Labor Day (I'd suggest adding Sunday to the mix next year). Tickets were lowered with more pricing options but were still too high for this event (dear TNT: Out of the Loop eventually grew to a $60 all-festival pass, and there were a lot more options). All of the performances happened in just two venues at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, the basement-level Vault and the Sanders Theatre, rather than using the bigger Scott Theatre. Audiences were still low, although not as sad as 2017. These things take time to grow, and money and marketing are major factors.
The two centerpieces of the 2018 event were the return of local actress Sherry Jo Ward in her acclaimed, ever-changing one-woman show Stiff; and in a coup for the FW Fringe, an international entry from Chile.
As for the rest of the event, there were some highs and lows—standard for any fringe festival. But the point is that the FW Fringe gives artists and companies room to try new things, or hell, gives them a venue at all. It’s an important event that I hope continues to grow in size and ambition. TNT is a long-established Texas-wide organization that has the cred to do just that, and it's a great idea in a city that has lagged behind its bigger neighbor to the east in terms of independent theater.
The 2018 FW Fringe was mostly theater and physical theater, but there was some storytelling and burlesque. Would love to see more dance and music in future years. The TheaterJones team of Mark Lowry and Jill Sweeney saw all but three of the acts, and our thoughts are below. (Apologies to shows we missed: Charles Jackson’s In Due Time, Pantomime; Denisov Antrepriza's Two in the Bedroom; and A Night in the Quarter from Va Va Voom Cabaret.)
La Criatura Theatre Company (Santiago, Chile)
Written by the company
Directed by Manuel Ortiz
Performed by Christián López
Any Fringe Festival in the country would be proud to book this performance (the Fort Worth Fringe was its second U.S. appearance). It’s a fascinating one-man show that uses futból (soccer) and the personal history of the actor in the role, Cristián López, to comment on the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and how it affected the youth of the country. Costumed in a soccer uniform, López told his story all while kicking and tricking a soccer ball up, down, and across the Sanders Theatre black box stage; a different kind of physical theater with an added element of unpredictability, just like on a sports field. It was performed in Spanish with English supertitles projected on the back wall. I hope the second one was better attended than the first (which was on a Friday evening). More folks needed to see it; it will no doubt go down as one of my theatrical highlights of the year.
— Mark Lowry
Risk Theater Initiative (Dallas)
By Sherry Jo Ward
Directed by Marianne Galloway
In this latest iteration of her critically acclaimed one-woman show, local actress Sherry Jo Ward, diagnosed in 2015 with a rare neuromuscular disease called Stiff Person Syndrome, continues to explore her feelings about life after her diagnosis with humor and sort of bright-eyed pragmatism. Directed by Marianne Galloway, Ward, with the help of projections on a screen behind her, covers her initial symptoms and diagnosis (she is one of only around 300 people in the country with SPS—as she says, she’s “literally one in a million”), as well as the bumpy road to a tentative place of acceptance of her condition. From conversations with people who saw earlier performances and from earlier reviews, it seems that Ward’s condition has worsened recently—while previous performances saw her utilizing a cane and a walker, she is now brought onstage in a wheelchair, and employed a helper to keep her on track during the show, performing part of the piece from a mat on the floor. These moments (choreographed or not) of more visible struggle, even tears from Ward at one point, were emotionally challenging to watch, and created perhaps a newly difficult dynamic for the audience making the shift from moments of deep grief and pain back to humor. But none of this detracted from Ward’s performance, and from her uncanny ability to transform pain into art. But then, what else is an artist to do? And Ward, regardless of her condition, is a consummate artist, and it’s a privilege to watch her work as long as she able.
— Jill Sweeney
[T]iny [P]latform [S]hakespeare
The Cloud Nine Collective (United States)
Directed by Felicia Bertch
I love this concept, of performing with five actors cramped on a four-foot-by-four-foot stage. I’ve love to the innovations possible in performing an entire Shakespeare play, or a workable cutting of one (no one does the complete text anymore). Cloud Nine Collective is a “loose ensemble of physical theatre creators who live all over the country,” This performance, using students from the University of Texas at Arlington, where Bertch is on the faculty, offered excerpts from Henry V and Twelfth Night, and most ingeniously, a mash-up of the A Midsummer Night’s Dream Rude Mechanicals Pyramus and Thisbe scene and the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, a story originating from Ovid’s original Pyramus and Thisbe myth. Costumed in black with white Elizabethan ruffs, the five actors onstage were choreographed to use their bodies in creative ways to tell each story. Olivia’s “make me a willow cabin at your gate” speech was expressed in rap. Another performer sitting at the side of the stage provided props, sound effects and silently announced each play, or theme (there was an “On death and dying” section) on a cloth scroll. Fun concept; I want to see more.
— M. L.
Ashes to Ashes
DragStrip Courage (Fort Worth)
By Harold Pinter
Directed by Lark Wallis-Johnston
Usually clocking in at around 50y minutes, DragStrip Courage’s production of Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes galloped to a close at around 30 minutes, making the unusual choice of eschewing the usual deliberate pace for which Pinter’s work is famous. While the show’s two actors, Seth Johnston as Devlin and Natalie Gaupp as Rebecca, invested some real emotional depth in the deliberately opaque characters—a man and a woman in an adversarial relationship, who may or may not be married, who may or may not be lovers, who may or may not have a child together, etc.—the show’s pace kept it from establishing the mood of creeping dread the script seemed to be reaching towards, and in the end, left a certain sense of, “Well—that happened,” at least with this reviewer. This production needs to give the script—and the actors—time to breathe.
— J. S.
Seth Hunter Williams (Mineral Wells, Texas)
Written and Directed by Seth Hunter Williams
It seems appropriate that my first show of the 2018 Fort Worth Fringe Festival was a completely unique experience. Upon entering the Sanders Theatre, audience members were greeted with a masked figure in black onstage. After finding our seats, audience members (including myself) were approached by an aide (The Ringleader) and given instructions to go onstage and read an assigned letter. The letter offered detailed instructions regarding our duties as the newly christened performers of the piece (the cast listed in the program were, unfortunately, executed before curtain), which followed a sort of choose-your-own-adventure format depending on the roles each person was assigned in the (thinly) allegorical tale of Philip Smith. Smith is a political prisoner scheduled for execution by America’s tyrannical new government, led by a boorish, Twitter-happy madman who rose to prominence after executing the former president, and is attempting to stave off execution long enough to dramatize the events that led to his political awakening, and rouse the public to fight back against apathy and fascism.
Williams, a school teacher at Mineral Wells High School by day, is a talented writer, and the piece, while rough in parts, is cleverly constructed and shows promise, especially in its final scenes. It’s difficult to reach a solid critical opinion of the piece, however, for several reasons. First, it’s difficult to be an objective observer when I was a part of the action, and so can’t necessarily speak to how the action would’ve appeared to the larger audience. Second, the success of the piece is, to some extent, out of Mr. Williams’ control, and dependent on the acting—and reading comprehension—of the average audience member. And finally, in speaking briefly with Mr. Williams after the show, it appears that the piece will be undergoing quite the overhaul even prior to its next Fringe performance, so I can’t speak with any authority as to how it will have evolved in the interim. Still, a worthy entry in the Festival, and worth seeing—perhaps even performing.
— J. S.
Maverick Theatre Company (University of Texas at Arlington)
Directed by Felicia Bertch
Also directed by Bertch was one of the more entertaining entries of the fest: a large cast of student performances in a variety of mask styles telling wordless stories, beginning with a mad scientist who drops dolls into a machine and cranks it up, resulting in human-size beings. There was funny material about questionable meat in a butcher shop, family shenanigans, and a doctor’s office scene. My favorite was the vignette called “Disaster Movie,” in which two women in a movie theater had to deal with a noisy patron determined to ruin their experience with his snack-eating and bad cellphone etiquette. For the most part, the students delivered the comedic and stylistic goods.
— M. L.
Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something True
LACA Inc. — Linking Across Cultures and Ages (Fort Worth)
Bridges is a talented and charismatic—two qualities you want in a storyteller. She told four stories to match the four aspects of the show’s title. One was a version of The Emperor’s New Clothes; one an audience-participation piece about a singer auditioning with three different styles of backing bands (we played the instruments; I was electric guitar); and another a personal story involving her sister. Nothing groundbreaking here, but Bridges delivered an engaging experience.
— M. L.
Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre & Proper Hijinx Productions (Fort Worth and Dallas)
Written and Directed by Stefany Cambra
Directed, written, and performed in by Stefany Cambra, the founder and artistic director of Dallas-based Proper Hijinx Productions, Smile, Princess is a series of monologues set in a bar towards the end of the a long night of drinking, which explore the lived experiences of various minorities and left-of-center characters—a gay man who feels pressure to always be “on”; a plus-size woman who won’t compromise just to find love; a transgender woman tired of her identity being treated as a “fad”; a bisexual woman who feels pressure to “pick a team”; a bartender suffering the effects of toxic masculinity; a 31 year old woman whose virginity is the least interesting thing about her; and finally, a woman (portrayed by Cambra) who refuses to let belittling men keep her from living her life. The performances were excellent across the board, funny and outraged and heartfelt, and the show’s concept—the honesty brought about by a night of drinking—provides just enough connective tissue to create a cohesive and thoughtful piece around a number of political and artistic hot topics. Cambra is a threat five times over—director, actor, manager (production/marketing/stage), designer (props/scenic), and playwright.
— J. S.
Lee College (Baytown, Texas)
Conceived and written by Roy Brooks
Directed by Kim Martin
You’ve heard of devised and verbatim theater; Roy Brooks conceived this work about Hurricane Harvey as “magazine theater.” He used interviews via social media with people who had been affected in some way by the hurricane and flooding that devastated coastal Texas and Houston in 2017. Scenes ranged from a woman comforted in a shelter filled with evacuees to the fake news of rescue scenes to a section about pets lost and found. Each section was paired with photos and video illustrating each theme. The college students performing it were of various experience levels, resulting in an uneven production. Still, the work is an affecting look at how natural disaster and tragedy can bring out the best in humans who rescue and help in some way.
— M. L.
Art of the Tease: Burlesque at The Fringe
Fort Worth Wild West Burlesque & Variety Shows (Fort Worth)
Good burlesque is a combination of wit, good storytelling, and titillating performance. I’m sorry to say Art of The Tease failed on all counts. The humor fell flat; the storytelling was nonexistent or clunky; and the dancing was, with a few exceptions, stiff and lacking in sex appeal. As a huge advocate for neo-burlesque and its message of inclusiveness and body positivity, I so wanted to root for these ladies, who are without a doubt far braver and ballsier than I am in putting themselves—ALL of themselves—out there onstage. But the ghost of Gypsy Rose Lee—the burlesque legend who perfected the “tease” in striptease just down the road at the original Casa Mañana—whispering in my ear compels me to be honest. For a red-hot art form, this show left me cold.
— J. S.
Oh, Jesus! Or an Actor, A Cynic and A Savior Walk into a Bar…
Written and performed by John S. Davies (Dallas)
Directed by Matt Lyle
I’ll admit it—John S. Davies fooled me with this one. For the first 15 or 20 minutes, I was pretty sure I had his number, then he zigged unexpectedly. The concept for Oh, Jesus! seems fairly straightforward, if a little bizarre: Jesus Christ is back, reincarnated as an actor of (self-admitted) middling talent, and he’s looking to recruit followers before the end of the line. This time around, the Resurrection will be livestreamed.
Davies’ Jesus seems at first to be a funny, if predictable, collection of profanities and internet slang—a Saturday Night Live routine about the modern-day Christ trying to set up his Facebook account, and bemoaning the current American political landscape. But as the piece progresses, the Jesus character is overtaken by someone else, described in the program as “a cynic with a stick up his ass.” Is this the Holy Spirit? The Devil? An alternate personality of a man suffering from mental illness who only thinks he’s the Resurrection and the Life? Although seemingly unaware of the interludes at first, Jesus eventually admonishes the audience not to listen to “Billy Budd,” a reference to Herman Melville’s novella about a handsome, popular sailor who is driven to murder a shipmate, and later executed for his crime. Budd is often discussed as a metaphor for Christ, but Melville leaves his true character somewhat ambiguous—was he an innocent? It’s an interesting little tidbit for Davies’ audience to chew on: is this so-called Jesus really who he says he is? Are we as foolish in believing the cynic as we are if we believe blindly in Jesus? “It’s a mystery,” the cynic says of God, religion, and all the rest as the show ends, “It’s supposed to be a mystery.” Kudos to Davies for taking a concept that could be hackneyed in the wrong hands, and pushing it into deeper, richer territory.
— J. S.
SceneShop Productions (Fort Worth)
By Straton Rushing
Directed by Sam Paige Wierick
I think it’s fair to say that the “ex-Mormon in New York” trope has been pretty thoroughly exhausted at this point, given that we’re in a post-“Angels in America” world. Ms. Delightdoesn’t really have anything new to add to the conversation. Stella Delight, queen of the New York drag scene, is preparing for a performance when her son, Roy Jr., bursts into her dressing room and demands an explanation for why she abandoned him and his mother all those years ago. What follows is a fairly tame back-and-forth explaining how “Stella” (Roy Sr., prior to his reinvention) was married and in the closet before his wife discovered him and his male lover en flagrante, putting him on blast to the Mormon community and essentially excommunicating him. Roy made the decision to protect his son’s relationship to his family and the Mormon community by staying away, for which his son resents him. The two come to a tentative rapprochement by the play’s end.
The play’s emotional stakes never feel particularly urgent, and neither of the production’s main actors (Beau Thompson as Stella and Forrest Swanson as Roy Young, Jr.) can rise above the middle-of-the-road material. Thompson’s Stella is not hugely distinct from his Roy—the drag queen persona is simply not big enough, or campy enough, to make the transition into Roy particularly interesting. Drag is about exaggeration, flamboyance—Ms. Delight just doesn’t go big enough.
— J. S.
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