Entering its 18th iteration this year, the Cincinnati Fringe Festival describes itself with an iconic slogan: “Kinda Weird, Like You.”
From June 4 to 19, 37 oddball performances will be available, with presentations shaped by the pandemic. A few will be in-person outdoor events on two stages near Over-the-Rhine’s Know Theatre, which puts on the annual fest; some will be livestreamed shows online at specific times; and others can be watched as video-on-demand.
That’s a lot of weirdness.
One of the 37 productions embodying the Fringe slogan comes from a theater troupe with Cincinnati roots. Hit the Lights is a five-performer company based in New York City with an origin story at the University of Cincinnati, and they’re returning to the Queen City with a video-on-demand show that revolves around puppets.
Horsetale is a video production that weaves together handmade shadow puppetry created using vintage overhead projectors. In it, two Country Western musicians share their story of love, heartbreak and redemption through the story of a horse that’s been separated from its tail. Interlaced with live, original music, homages to Looney Tunes cartoons and American iconography, the Hit the Lights show is self-described as “a story as wild and expansive as the West itself!”
But this won’t be the first time Hit the Lights has entertained Cincy Fringe audiences.
Back in 2015, their very first show, Dungeon — inspired by video games and Japanese Kabuki — was awarded the Audience Pick of the Fringe. And they returned to the Queen City in 2016 to collaborate with Know Theatre on The Other Rhine, an original, site-specific immersive experience.
The group is now well established in New York, but their path has a deep local connection. Four of the five members of Hit the Lights are drama grads from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Casey Scott Leach, who conceived of Dungeon, was in the class of 2010. Mikayla Stanley graduated in 2011, and Claron Hayden and Kristopher Dean were classmates in 2012. Leach and Stanley are now married. Dean’s wife, Samantha Blain, who majored in musical theater at Boston’s Emerson College, is the fifth member.
Leach, Stanley, Hayden and Dean found their way to CCM, attracted by the creative curriculum at the core of the school’s drama major, especially its annual Fringe-like set of student-produced shows, Transmigration.
“The tools that that festival gave us were so invaluable, just the confidence that we could do something like this,” Stanley says. “It also gave us the business skills we needed to create a company. We’ve been able to make this come to life and keep on going.”
When Stanley was still a high school student in Tampa, Florida, she surprised a CCM interviewer by describing her aspiration to start her own theater company. No applicant had ever voiced such a goal. She remained true to that vision throughout her time in school. Once she and the others landed in New York City, Hit the Lights was almost inevitable, building on their experiences crafting productions for Transmigration.
But the quintet had to get past five individual egos to create and focus on the human element that makes their work appealing.
Hit the Lights’ modus operandi is “Less Talk/More Rock.” Hayden explains that they seek out “a beautiful moment where you have an idea that’s fresh and vibrant, and you feel inspired. Too often what happens is that you talk it to death, and you don’t know how to start doing anything with it.”
Instead, they take that idea, let it briefly be, “then immediately just work,” Hayden says. “Just jump in. It’s a way to never let stagnation happen, never let things become too intellectual or conceptual. We always put the focus on ‘Do you really need dialogue here?’ The first thing is just tell the story.”
Cincy Fringe’s 2015 Dungeon was Hit the Lights’ first production.
“We hold this place and this festival very dear in our hearts,” Stanley says. “It was the place where we decided, ‘Oh, this is something.’ Our first show was Casey’s brainchild. He’s a video gamer, and he wanted to do a show that created the world of video games. He gathered together our friends from Cincinnati to make the show. It was a magical moment: We knew this was what we wanted to be doing.”
And Hit the Lights has been very busy since then: Dungeon was an editors’ pick at the Minnesota Fringe, and another show, Whales, was nominated for three New York Innovative Theater Awards. They created a live cinematic puppet adaptation of hit podcast The Habitat, collaborated with the New York Botanical Garden and contributed to a live music video for Grammy Award-nominated Sammy Miller and the Congregation.
Among other Off-Broadway credits, they were nominated for an Off-Broadway Alliance Award for “Best Family Show” for their theatrical adaptation of Rita Marshall’s children’s book Taste the Clouds. They also host workshops and return to Cincinnati to share their skills and experience with students at CCM. Recently, they developed original shadow puppets for Vogue magazine’s March 2021 cover shoot featuring international supermodel Gigi Hadid.
And they’re excited to once again have their work showcased at Cincy Fringe.
“We’ve been to a lot of fringes, but there’s something very special going on here in Cincinnati,” Stanley says.
Hayden adds, “This is one of the friendliest I’ve ever been to. It’s not just the staff or the volunteers, it’s also the audiences and the culture. Know Theatre is so good at putting on a vibe — the whole thing ends up feeling like a kind of mini-carnival. I’ve seen some of my favorite fringe pieces here.”
For the 2021 Fringe, Hit the Lights chose to offer Horsetale as video-on-demand, rather than bring its stage production to Cincinnati.
“The original Horsetale was similar to what audiences will see, but it’s also drastically different,” Hayden says. “We find new ways to express ourselves and bring that back into the previous shows. They’re all almost constantly in a state of evolution and growing. They continue to breathe and never get stale.”
The video will combine shots of what a theater audience would typically see, and then goes “backstage” to show how the performers manipulate the projectors to illustrate the story.
“We’ve used multiple close-ups, camera angles and behind-the-screen, even a full overhead shot going down on the entire stage,” Hayden says. “All of that’s been blended together in a way that will give the experience of what your eyes would naturally want to do as the show goes on.”
His video work will give the viewer “the best ride possible, the best you could expect from being in the theater with us.” And Stanley expects that Hit the Lights will find ways to produce video versions of their shows going forward.
Hit the Lights won’t be the only company using puppets in the 2021 Cincy Fringe. In fact, seven other productions have employed this element, perhaps to enable social distancing during a year when everyone is still factoring pandemic precautions into their efforts.
“I couldn’t help but think that lockdown had something to do with it,” says Fringe artist Peter Michael Marino, who will offer Planet of the Grapes Live, a mash-up of the Victorian Era’s toy theater movement, grape puppets, corks and the classic science-fiction film, Planet of the Apes. “As a newly minted puppeteer, I can safely say that a year with no opportunities for in-person collaboration led me in this wild new direction.”
Cincy Fringe favorite storyteller Paul Strickland and puppeteer/actress Erika Kate MacDonald are presenting Away, Now, a video-on-demand piece using a suitcase toy theater, shadow puppets and masks. Cincinnati’s Leave No Trace Productions is performing On Maintenance (How to Keep a Life), an outdoor piece on a stage near Know Theatre; they’ll use life-sized origami and abstract puppets in a dance of construction and deconstruction.
Other video-on-demand shows include puppets on fire and puppets underwater in Unintentional Significance: A Puppet Show About Everything and Nothing, by Cincinnati-based Autumn Kaleidoscope. A troupe from Mount St. Joseph University Theatre Arts has produced a video, Empty Space, a comedic drama about an astronaut saved by puppets. Kaleidoscopic Bone House from New York City’s Cookie Tongue is a Freak-Folk musical that promises a mix of puppetry, original songs and animation about mythology, fairy tales, childhood and ghost stories, plus a bit of magic.
There will also be a pair of livestreamed shows featuring puppets. Performance Gallery, back for its 18th Cincy Fringe in a collaboration with Solasta Theatre Lab, will offer Continuum, a mind-bending take on reality and demons. And Marino’s aforementioned Planet of the Grapes Live.
Of course, the 2021 Cincy Fringe offers more than puppets. There will be humor and music, serious and satiric themes, and mind-bending storytelling. This year's fest promises six outdoor shows, 10 livestreamed productions — plus the popular “Channel Fringe Hard Hitting Action News Update” nightly — as well as 21 video-on-demand shows from artists around the country.
In addition to primary lineup performances, there will be special events, works-in-progress, the popular Visual Fringe gallery exhibits (available to view in-person and online) and the Fringe After Hours bar series. That late-evening feature, which usually takes place in Know Theatre’s Underground bar, will move to the parking lot just north of the theater building, beneath the vibrant “Lookin’ Good” mural facing 12th Street in Over-the-Rhine.
You’ll still need tickets to enjoy this year’s Cincinnati Fringe Festival, no matter if you’re outdoors and in-person or at home. A $275 all-access pass gets you into all 37 shows in the primary lineup (plus special events) and for $80, you can get a six-show Flex Pass. Individual tickets are available for around $10-$15. Fringe divides ticket revenue 50/50 with the artists.
The Cincinnati Fringe Festival takes place June 4-19. For more information, show descriptions, a schedule and tickets, visit cincyfringe.com.