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The Fog of the Body

Facing the Stage, Fringe Edition



With the final stretch of last weekend's theatre bombardment in the books, NoDef Drama Critic Jim Fitzmorris pulls together all of the 2011 New Orleans Fringe Fest's two thousand parts.

 

As the fog moved in and I sat with my sexy, redheaded sidekick at The Allways Lounge, I began to get an idea of what this year’s Fringe Festival was all about. Like that fog, it had been accumulating around me for sometime. The answer presented itself in the title and subject matter of the Saturday 11 o’clock show, Welcome to Desire. The show, which deconstructed Tennessee Williams’ great New Orleans play into a reduced id, contained the life force of the five-day event. The answer had been brewing for two days, but the collision between the bar’s image-conscious, young crowd and my knowledge of the show’s subject matter crystallized it for me. Amid Bella Blue’s hard-to-tell-performer-from-spectator audience for her Peepshow, and the slightly, ever-so-slightly, more traditional patrons for the Williams examination, I finally understood. Here were youthful, good-looking people attending two events that celebrated the corporeal shell that serves as vehicle for our anima and animus. To put it a less smarty pants way, the 2011 edition of Fringe was about the body: a window into contemporary theatrical concerns.

 

READ: Views from the Fringe

 

The Fringe obsessed over, to the point of fetishization, our bodies, what Shakespeare called “too sullied flesh.” An unintentional undercurrent of fascination with the outer frame ran through the Marigny/Bywater, an anatomy tome of bodies corrupted by desire, opposed by force, and possessed by literal and figurative ghosts. A series of bodies moving faster than thought and unleashed on the streets under the looming face of the St. Francis Seelos clock tower was the norm, not the exception. Against floors, through the air and onto beds, bodies, frustrated with words and struggling to engender thought, threw themselves with wild abandon not only in traditional spaces but also in attics, warehouses, and street corners.

 

READ: More Views From the Fringe

 

Fringe: bodies pushing the cusp both on and off the stage, bodies for all occasions, dressed to the nines or reduced to their bare essentials. Whether it was the racial transformation of Wake Up, the continued obsession with the alpha/omega blonde bombshell in Marilyn: A Play About our Bodies, or the struggle to escape carnal drive in The Voice: Into Sex Addiction & Recovery, the body reigned supreme. It was rigorous bodies of ticktock’s Sage Cushman, Elizabeth Rose and Rachel Strickland showering, cleaning, and boiling tea as they acrobatically sought the beauty in the mundane of Domestic Variations. At the actual Elysian Fields watering hole John Paul’s, it was sedentary, inebriated bodies trapped on barstools and unable to give proper scope to their love of blowjobs in Jon Broder’s Fellatio: An Open Discussion. It was bodies controlling constructed bodies, hand crafted by puppeteer Pandora Gastelum, sinking into dark water for The Bride of Black Lake. It was Cecile Monteyne as a body as Wonder Cabinet, a magical storage facility, in Le Concierge Solitaire. The more you watched, the more you saw the struggle to gain control, give scope or surrender to the wanting machines that contain our existence.

 

READ: Even More Views from the Fringe

 

On occasion, the body could not overcome its surroundings. Art. Party. Theater. Company’s Zombie, Actually… an undead musical was a show about bodies in search of a great equalizer to lift the shame of the high school food chain, and that equalizer being the neutralizing factor of the body in rigor. However, the small, comic Glee-Meets-Evil-Dead musical could not fill the large bounce of the Maringy Opera House’s acoustics, and this marred an otherwise charming piece. On the flipside, the body and space became one. Along with Broder’s ingenious use of an actual bar, the perpetually challenging Skin Horse Theatre Company used its environs to great advantage with Sarah. A collision course of corpses, stillborns, and possession, Sarah is a tale of a disintegrating marriage told through the filter of 50-plus years of horror film motifs. Watching Veronica Hunsinger-Loe become one with the site specific location was not only horrifying but also a highlight of my three day theatre-going experience.

 

READ: Still More Views From the Fringe

 

But it was not confined to the shows; it could not be contained. An aesthetic atmosphere of the circus, that great performative celebrant of the body, replete with tents, clowns and interesting smells was the outer dressing for the event. And that atmosphere was pervasive with female arm wrestling under a tent between Skeletor and Supergirl, tense confrontations between opportunistically scheduled drag shows and actual Fringe events, and people-watching over coffee with the hip and the undead while debating whether to cross the street to The Shadowbox or race down to The Opera House. Parades marked space with their routes, street performers hijacked corners to pilfer the exiting energy of patrons, and hustlers of consumable product, both the legitimized and unapologetically shady, worked theatrical lines selling their wares. All of it using the body as a stage, keeping the curtain up as long as possible.

 

READ: Yet More Views From the Fringe

 

Fringe was the body defiant. And that is my one reservation. After a time, a sense of unease began an inward creep. Despite the glut of performance, something was missing, perhaps shrouded in that encroaching, invasive fog. It began to feel like Prince Prospero’s masque sans the final, clock-tolling room. Fringe was a world with few elderly: either onstage or off. While I am all about singing the body electric, I am not sure if a hipster’s version of Logan’s Run is the universe in which I want to exist. Where were the old people? Too often the shows seemed in denial of the body’s final journey… unless it ended suddenly with the deceased frozen in youthful stasis. With notable exceptions like the entropic ’33, most of the body discussions felt borderline narcissistic, defiant of the decay endured through the auspices of old age. Young, pretty and hip are certainly alluring, but they seem rather vapid and shallow without the wisdom of old age gained through the acceptance of death. It just felt a little too close to the Levi’s Jeans commercial, O’ Pioneers!

 

READ: Fringe's Final Lap

 

Or perhaps I have just succumbed to old age’s dangerous illusion of wisdom. It is a quality better known as cynicism. Either way, I am thinking and writing about this through the fog, and I suppose that is the point.

how shows come to the Fringe

how shows come to the Fringe ...

A note about how shows come to be in the New Orleans Fringe...BYOVs, Fringe-managed, and Free-for-All...

Most of the shows mentioned in the article are BYOVs - Bring Your Own Venues - shows that are self-produced directly by the artists. These shows are not curated or selected in any way by the Fringe organizers - if a performer or group wants to present during the festival, he/she/they can simply line up their own venue, register for the festival, run the venue and production themselves, and avail themselves of the opportunities that the festival tends to create. There is no screening of BYOVs - if a group wants to present and they register, they are included in the Fringe.

As such, BYOVs are a direct manifestation of work or themes that performers themselves want to present. In the 2011 festival, there were 45 BYOVs presenting work by both local and out-of-town performers.

Three of the shows mentioned in the article are "Fringe-managed". In total this year, 24 of the 69 performances during the 2011 Fringe were presented at "Fringe-managed venues". These groups went through the application-and-review process. For two years now, Fringe has used a carefully constructed peer-review process to select the Fringe-managed line-up. In 2011, 16 artists in the New Orleans performance community participated in independently reviewing the 110 applicants, using a matrix that gauges each applicant on ten points related to artistic merit, fringe-factor, and suitability for the festival format.  Each application is reviewed by four peer reviewers, and the peer reviewers reflect experience in a broad range of genres, an age range from late-20's to mid-60's, and diverse backgrounds. The line-up at Fringe-managed venues is selected based on the highest scoring shows.

As such, the shows at Fringe-managed venues are works that a fairly large, diverse, and accomplished group of New Orleans performers think demonstrate artistic merit and fringiness. The list of peer reviewers changes each year. A full description of this process and a list of the 2011 peer reviewers is available on the "Selection Process" page of the Fringe website...

Free-for-All events & shows are exactly that - free to the audience, free and open to performers to use the opportunity to work or play as they will. While tickets to festival shows are an intentionally inexpensive $8, the Fringe hosts a wide variety of performance, music, and activities that are completely free in order to open the widest access to the festival for everyone. Free-for-All ranges from Artspot's Element of Surprise movable theater-in-your-lap to ladies' arm-wrestling at the tent to a half-dozen spoken word poets at a Frenchman St club.

With Free-for-All, some of these events Fringe helps to catalyze, some are totally at the artists' discretion or lack thereof..

So, in a very real way, when folks look at the New Orleans Fringe, they're looking at both work and play that in-town and out-of-town performers themselves chose to show. If there are themes and streams, it's the artists who are determining that. The dozens of folks who make up the various parts of the Fringe organization are just happy to kinda facilitate the opportunity, and we thank the performers for bringing it, the community for supporting it, and the audiences for eating up the tasty goodness.

Cheers and best...Swamp Deville

 

 

I'm not sure if you were able

I'm not sure if you were able to check out My Mind Is Like An Open Meadow, but I would've loved to hear your thoughts on it. Its exploration, although led by a youthful force in tribute to her elder grandmother, achieved a respect that left me stunned in my seat. It was also the only show at which I saw a truly old audience member amongst the crowd. If you ever get the chance to see it, my hope would be that it helps to create a clearer image of the elusive older figure in the fog. I've never said this to you before but have always meant to: Thank you for your thoughts.

It is quite simple. People of

It is quite simple. People of a certain age with a certain amount of financial freedom and fewer responsibilities are able to present Fringe shows. People with mortgages and children and bills are not. The Fringe would love nothing more than a bunch of middle aged aspiring theater professionals to submit and present shows.....but....they don't exist. At a certain age you a.)are not going to spend hours upon hours of rehearsing and performing for under $10 a ticket, or b.) have given up on a theater career and got a paying job but continue scratching your itch at JPAS.

Dennis, As always, you make

Dennis,

As always, you make your points with wit and class. But I will admit I am troubled that your only comment seems honed on my one paragraph of reservation for what I otherwise thought was as enthralling weekend. Since you seem to have some insight into the minds of older artists, I am curious for you to turn your keen thoughts on the fascinating obsession with the body that permeated the weekend's work.

Congratulations on your continued success both as an artist and proprietor.

Yours in Theatre,

Jim

I can't say I disagree with

I can't say I disagree with you, although I made far fewer shows this year than last, but reading the program and the rest of the NoDef reviewers I think your summary fair.

The St. Claude Theater District can produce quality productions. Low budget, yes; I read your earlier complaints about the lack of big productions, but the companies working St. Claude frequently deliver the goods on author, director and actors alone with minimal sets and staging. And I have to wonder if the programming of the Fringe Fest cheapens what they've accomplished a little. The last play I saw and reviewed for NoDef, Shylock, was a serious play about Art and Shakespeare delivered with great talent all around, and while the house was small I would have to say the only people under 40 were the couple who knew the actor. If this show had opened earlier in the week, they would have been turning people away in droves by the weekend.

I missed Swimming with Sharks but that performance, essentially a staged reading by the subject of the play about his time at Angola, was by all reports tremendously powerful and serious drama. Diana Shortes' The Baroness Undressed was certainly about the body, in the immense physicality of her performance, but the title was a tease if you were looking for unbridled Desire across the hall.

It is a Fringe Festival, with all that implies. Still, I think the Festival has to give some thought to the overall mix and how that fits into the audience the companies along St. Claude are building, how to bring in more traditional audiences while still bringing in the hipsters.

My favorite last year, Du Fu, Mississippi was odd ball for sure but a tremendous show, based on the works of a historic Chinese poet transplanted to a porch in Mississippi. The result was brilliant, serious theater without resort to the uncontrolled ID. There is room, I think, for both sort of works and the festival would be the better for it.

Shylock was a BYOV... The

Shylock was a BYOV...

The performers of Wanderlust Theatre Co. chose to present their Shylock as a BYOV, and as such, they determined their own schedule. If the show had been a Fringe-managed show, it would have been presented on Wed or Thur, and then Fri, Sat, and Sun in a variety of time slots.

Several of this year's BYOVs chose to begin their runs before the festival, at least a couple are continuing after the festival - a big motivation behind this choice is the idea of building audience. Again, this is a choice that is the artists' to make.

Reviewing the website or program, it can be seen that there were four groups that presented shows that were substantially drama among the 24 groups at Fringe-managed venues. In both 2010 & 2011, the peer-reviewed selection process for the Fringe-managed slots in the festival yielded a generous mix and representation across an impressive range of genres including drama. This year, 13 - about a quarter of the 45 artist-managed BYOVs - also self-identified as, at least in large part, drama. Amoung those 13 were the two above-mentioned, Never Fight a Shark in Water and The Baroness Undressed.

The Fringe-managed shows will continue to represent work across a fairly balanced mix of a multiplicity of genres and cross-overs. It is the nature of BYOVs that they are not curated or selected, so any year's mix will be determined by the mix of BYOV artists who are interested in presenting that year.

A humorous note about Du Fu, MS...at least one of the Du Fu cast & crew was involved in this year's peer review process. And because many of the cast & crew were involved in Loup Garou in the 2009 Fringe Fest, and many of the cast & crew were involved in Flight in the 2008 Fringe Fest, they collectively decided to sit bac , attend, and enjoy the Fringe shows this year instead of presenting. Afterall, the festival is a great time to take in a dozen or more shows, both local and out-of-town work, across a wide variety of genres...

Cheers and best...Swamp Deville

 

 

 

Swamp, Thank you from your

Swamp,

Thank you from your clarifying points. However, I am suspicious you are being a little disingenuous in your separating one venue from another. After all, Mr. Folse and I are talking about Fringe as a phenomenon rather than a simple bureaucratic institution. In the end, people are being encouraged by The Fringe to attend these BYOV events. I wonder... if we were giving unqualified praise to a BYOV and its scheduling while assigning its success to The Fringe, would you be as quick to correct, clarify and educate? I will write about the separation on my blog this week, and I hope you will chime in on my thoughts.

That being said, congratulations on a thrilling, challenging and enormous accomplishment.

Yours in Theatre,

Jim

Well, Jim, wisdom often

Well, Jim, wisdom often recommends that unsupported suspicion is a reflection of the character of the observer rather than the observed. Cheers!

On your next week's piece, I'd collegially suggest in advance that a bit of appropriate research might likely reveal the phenomena of Fringe BYOVs, managed shows, free-for-all, and various other activities that we embrace as broad, ever-permeable, and somewhat overlapping ranges on a flexible and accessible continuum - moreso than as "separation" as you put it.

Looking forward...Cheers and best...Swamp Deville

Jim— Beautiful piece. Just

Jim—
Beautiful piece. Just one idea: I wonder if you caught My Mind is Like an Open Meadow, from Portland's Hand2Mouth Theatre?

It was a beautiful, wrenching reflection on aging. Performer Erin Leddy spoke and interacted with the recorded voice of her (now-deceased) grandmother—at times even embodying her. At one point, Erin's grandmother spoke about her own parents passing—about a real feeling of having taken them into herself. She felt that she was the final vessel of their earthly presence. As Ms. Leddy moved around the stage and sang, full-throttle, she was both the youthful body defiant and that vessel for the passed. She was taking her grandmother into herself and also sharing that beautiful spirit with us.

Of course another exception doesn't break the rule, but the piece so adeptly speaks to your point that it does seem important to mention.

Hope you were able to see it. Happy Thanksgiving all.

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