As the Cincinnati Fringe Festival comes upon its 13th year — starting May 26 and running through June 6 — we thought it would be informative to hear from seven people who work behind the scenes to produce this annual two weeks of theater, creativity and fun. They’re each connected with Know Theatre of Cincinnati, which produces the festival, as staff members or volunteers. Andrew Hungerford and Tamara Winters are the company’s artistic leadership, Associate Producer Chris Wesselman chimes in as the guy who pulls Fringe together, Kristin Ruthmeyer is Know’s stage manager and Doug Borntrager is its production manager. We also heard from box office manager Tom McLaughlin and volunteer manager Brian Wheeler.
We identified seven categories — plays, solo shows, musicals, interdisciplinary works, dance, “FringeNext” (staged by high school students) and the Bar Series (happening nightly in Know’s Underground, the theater’s bar and second stage where everyone gathers after performances conclude). We asked each person to pick a category they enjoy and explain why some of those productions are worth catching.
A total of 40 shows (selected by 24 jurors) will be presented during the 12 days of the 2015 Fringe, split almost exactly between shows generated by local creators and productions from elsewhere in the U.S., plus four international acts representing South Africa, Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom. To give you a taste of what’s in store, we offer brief descriptions of several performances in each category. You’ll find more details about these shows, as well as those who perform them, at cincyfringe.com. If you care about theater, you need to show up — and more than once.
A great way to start is by attending the official CityBeat Fringe Kick-Off Party on Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. There will be complimentary food, a cash bar and music by local bands Pop Goes the Evil and Lagniappe. You can hear the first installment of the 2015 Channel Fringe Hard Hitting Action News Update and mix and mingle with Fringe artists, staff, volunteers and other audience members. A suggested donation of $10 gets you in the door, plus a drink ticket for Know’s Underground bar. It’s the perfect way to launch your Fringe experience.
First, and maybe foremost, the Fringe is a theater festival, according to Producing Artistic Director Andrew Hungerford. “These are some of the strangest and most boundary-pushing shows you’ll ever see,” he says. “They’re shouts from the vanguard of American theater, some of which will rise to become the voice of the mainstream and some of which will remain strident voices, calling from the periphery, demanding to be heard.”
This year’s Fringe offers 15 plays, including Shirtzencockle, presented by Performance Gallery — the only group to perform in the Cincinnati Fringe every year since the festival’s first iteration back in 2002. This year’s contribution, an energetic romp conceived by Performance Gallery’s actors (who apparently dreamed up that crazy title), digs into the moral tapestry and cautionary wisdom of folk and fairy tales — full of surrealism and magical and silly moments, not to mention gory details that make us cringe today.
Some of the plays in Fringe, like Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, hew close to the standard theatrical model, but with odd subjects and demanding performance elements. The British playwright’s show, from 2014, will be brought to life by Ensemble Theatre’s Acting Intern Company, which will play more than 100 characters trying to make sense of what they know. Last year’s Fringe hit was Sarge, a play by Kevin Crowley, about a football coach’s wife in denial. His 2015 script, Hitchhikers May Be Inmates, will feature Crowley — who’s a fine actor, too — with Michael Bath, another familiar stage veteran, in a show about two guys coping with their tenuous grasp on sobriety.
Coming our way from out of town is a show by Animal Engine, a married couple from New York City who won hearts in 2013 with a sweet, two-person show, Petunia & Chicken. They’ll return with Dog Show, about what dogs do when their masters leave (it turns out it’s a French farce). Also heading to Cincinnati from out of town — in fact, from Canada — is Moonlight After Midnight, a hit at several Canadian festivals from Concrete Drops Theatre Company. The production stars the company’s founders, Martin Dockery and Vanessa Quesnelle, in a story intertwining love, loss, memory and mystery when a beautiful woman and a secretive man enact scenes from a relationship in the private theater of a midnight hotel room.
One-person shows are a special treat during Fringe festivals. Many of them are performed by veterans who travel from festival to festival, so their skills are especially sharp. “For me, solo shows epitomize the spirit of the Fringe,” Production Manager Doug Borntrager says. “They are often about as barebones as can be, just one performer onstage telling his or her story. The intimacy created in the space with the audience can be so exciting. I remember one of my first Fringe solo shows, Slow Children Playing by Anna Agniel. She connected with the audience so deeply, so emotionally, so compassionately in her portrayal of her sister that I’ve been hooked on solo shows ever since.”
Agniel hasn’t been back since 2005 (the fourth year of the Fringe), but someone who fits Borntrager’s “barebones” description is Mike Fotis, who grabbed audiences in 2014 with his understated piece, Fotis Canyon. The Minnesota performer is back this year with You Seem Pretty Great, a show about dogs and meeting new people, combining storytelling, improv and audience participation.
Another performer who knows his way around fringe festivals is Kurt Fitzpatrick from New Jersey; he’s been touring one-man shows since 2004, with titles including Hooray for Speech Therapy, Rebel Without a Niche and The Last Straight Man in Theatre. His offering for Cincinnati audiences in 2015 is called Cathedral City. It’s described as a “rapid-fire whirl of pop cultural references, personal revelations, goofy side-trips into B-movie Adventureland and musings on mortality.” That madcap blend is typical of Fringe.
Kelsey Torstveit spent the past year as an acting intern at the Cincinnati Playhouse, and she’s on her own with Mouthy Bitch, a one-woman piece by Dennis Bush about an “interpersonal dynamics guru” who leads seminars that explore male/female relationships that go right off the beaten path (including adult language and candid sexual references, often a Fringe staple).
Coming all the way from Tokyo is Kiss Around Pass Around by artist Yanomi, who performs under the banner Shoshinz, a renowned comedy act that’s toured internationally. Her show is described as “a hilarious and exciting adventure featuring a mysterious creature wandering the world looking for its daddy.”
Hugo West Theatricals, the company that last year produced a rambunctious musical, Hot Damn! It’s the Loveland Frog!, comes back for 2015 with a solo piece, Zombie-Logue. The show’s premise is that a zombie might have his own story to tell in the event of a zombie apocalypse. What he has to tell us will be eye-popping, as you might imagine. Michael Hall, the zany mind behind the Cincinnati premiere of A Klingon Christmas Carol, is the performer.
On a more serious topic, Mark Murray from Brooklyn, N.Y., will perform CODA (Children of Deaf Adults), a touching and comedic piece about the life of Tim, an interpreter for his deaf parents, as he struggles to find where he belongs between the deaf and hearing worlds.
Musicals can require more ambitious staging, but they are still an essential — and often popular — element of the Fringe. “Fringe-goers should definitely check out the musical offerings,” says Kristin Ruthmeyer, who manages stage productions for Know Theatre throughout the year. “Writing a Fringe show is a huge feat of artistry and logistics. When you add composing original music, it becomes a whole other beast. I am continually impressed by the musical work presented, even when that work is not of my personal taste.”
Since 2008, Cincy Fringe audiences have come to count on Four Humors from Minneapolis for off-the-wall stories with heart. Their 2015 offering, We Gotta Cheer Up Gary, appears to be a story about a commercial product — the UltimateCheerUp® package — guaranteed to lighten your mood, with a variety of options.
Last year the Coldharts, a couple from Brooklyn, N.Y., haunted audiences with The Legend of White Woman Creek. This year it’s Edgar Allan, about an 11-year-old who is obsessed with his namesake, Edgar Allan Poe. This dark musical comedy “for brave children of all ages” was an award winner at the 2014 Minnesota Fringe.
Longtime Fringe-goers might recall Sadie Bowman, part of Calculus: The Musical and a deadpan Cincy Fringe staffer for several years. She’s bringing a show from her current hometown, Portland, Ore. It’s The Famous Haydell Sisters Comeback Tour, with comedic Country songs and a supposedly true sad story about a pair of superstar sisters who faded away after a flop two decades ago and left fans wondering if they’d ever come together again. Sounds like a hoot.
While there are plays, solo shows and musicals that can be categorized, there are also some performances that just go off with an unusual mélange of material. Fringe Producer Chris Wesselman calls interdisciplinary shows “the fringe of the Fringe.”
“It might be a solo show, but it’s sung through,” he says. “It’s a play, but there’s shadow puppetry and tap dancing. They can be the weirdest of the bunch, but they can also be the most magical. They tend to be shows that make you step outside of your comfort zone or confront you with theater you never expected to see. If it sounds like something you’d never expect to see, you should probably go see it.”
One show in this category is !ke e: /xarra //ke A New African Folk Tale, coming all the way from Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s described as a light-hearted look at understanding the heavy topic of race, its politics and troublesome history in South Africa. It uses African storytelling, song, found text and some audience participation.
Storytelling and music from a different part of the world has been Paul Strickland’s stock-in-trade for Fringes in 2013 and 2014, when he presented solo shows Ain’t True and Uncle False and Papa Squat’s Store of Sorts, respectively. For 2015 he returns with Erika Kate MacDonald to perform Tales Too Tall for Trailers, another collection of off-kilter trailer park tall tales for adults and kids using funny songs, strange Southern stories, shadow puppetry and more. (Strickland suggests it’s a bit like “Pee-Wee Herman meets Mark Twain.”)
Hit the Lights, Dad Theater Co. is a new participant in Cincy Fringe, calling itself an “artistic agreement from New York City (by way of Cincinnati).” The group, which says it works to tell simple stories in unconventional ways, is staging dungeon, about a young man who falls into the unknown to rescue something he cares about. There will be bits of kabuki, video games, horror movies and Pixar shorts as they create a world in which darkness speaks louder than light.
A group calling itself dog & pony dc (they’re from Washington, D.C.) captivated Cincinnati audiences in 2013 with A Killing Game. They call themselves a “devised theater ensemble focused on creating new ways for audiences to experience theater.” In Squares, they play with the simple rules of the playground — Play nice. Play fair. Have fun. — but explore how these ideas apply to life. This one happens on the playground at the School for Creative and Performing Arts.
Every year Fringe presents several dance companies in performance. “Since I’m a director and once upon a time an actor, I’m immersed in the world of words, words, words,” says Know’s Associate Artistic Director Tamara Winters. “So what I love about getting to see dance pieces is that it’s refreshing to see what happens when a group tells a story by letting their bodies lead the way. Dance lets you evoke imagery and feeling in a way that can subvert language or operate where language would fail. Words have a way of enforcing meaning. Sure, language can be interpreted in many ways, but words certainly have an authority in our daily lives. Sometimes it just feels great to let words go and experience what pure movement can do instead.”
Three dance shows, each with powerful themes for women, will be part of the 2015 Fringe. InBocca Performance, based in Fort Thomas, Ky., offers a piece called My Twisted Face, rooted in the story of the mythological Cassandra who had the gift of prophecy undercut when she denied a god’s sexual advances: She was cursed so that no one would believe the truths she prophesied. InBocca’s performance uses this tale and stories by women who have been sexually assaulted to explore contemporary “rape culture.”
Succession is a solo work by Valerie Green of Dance Entropy in New York City. She explores extremes of human behavior, exhibiting power and vulnerability following the life cycle journey of the archetypal female. A second solo work, In the Midst, the Middle, the Muddle, in Amongst by Nicole Hershey tells her story of dealing with depression as a teenager; the Cincinnati-based dancer uses spoken journal entries and choreography to relive a journey of losing and finding herself again.
Box Office Manager Tom McLaughlin says the FringeNext component of Fringe enables high school students to completely develop and stage a show from inception to performance. “These students will be our artists of tomorrow,” he says. “FringeNext is a chance to see some of the young talent out there in our high schools outside of the school environment and hear the voices of a younger generation.” There are workshops to help the students get their work to the performance stage, and the kids also serve as volunteers and get to see some of the inner workings of Fringe. “It’s truly part of the Fringe that is growing the community,” McLaughlin says.
Boxed Up is being developed by students from the School for Creative and Performing Arts. It’s the story of a 6-year-old girl who is visited by her future self to help her as she begins to grow up and use her imagination. A group of students from Highlands High School in Fort Thomas, Ky., are staging Escape Routes, about a high-achieving student paired up with a delinquent slacker. And Third Eye Warriors, a collective of students from several area high schools, will present Pangea, a compilation of original monologues, scenes, dance, music, songs, performance art and spiritual writings inspired by the work of Dave Hughes, creator of Liquid Television and Off the Air.
After shows wrap up each evening, everyone coalesces at Know Theatre’s Underground/Fringe headquarters for the Fringe Bar Series. It kicks off every night with the Channel Fringe Hard Hitting Action News Update, a broadcast that can get a little silly as it covers all the pertinent information about goings-on at Cincy Fringe, including openings, closings, sell-outs, schedule changes and reminders about upcoming events.
The news is followed by a Bar Series event offering different activities and themes. On the first night it’s the 60-Second Fringe Previews. Other nights feature the Fringe Olympics, Fringe-a-Oke, the Fringe Prom, Segway Night and a big hit from 2014, Fringetoberfest. Food is often donated, and numerous food vendors will be on site on selected evenings for those who want a broader array of choices.
“The Bar Series provides an opportunity for everyone at the Fringe to come together,” Volunteer Manager Brian Wheeler says. “It’s a nightly afterparty that lets staff, volunteers, artists and patrons have a unique, shared experience. It’s a great opportunity for the Fringe community to gather and celebrate another remarkable night. It’s a time to drink, to laugh, to drink and … did I mention drink?”
Keep your eye on several onetime events that should be worth catching. True Theatre, producers of quarterly storytelling evenings at Know, will be back presenting a handful of Fringe artists in TrueFringe monologues about their experiences as performers.
OTRimprov will offer a sneak peak of the Improv Festival of Cincinnati, which happens toward the end of the summer. There’s also going to be a workshop of a piece in development, Hungry Mother, created by Alison Vodnoy Wolf whose one-woman show, In Rehearsal, was a big hit in the 2008 Fringe. A grad of the College-Conservatory of Music’s drama program, she’s now studying for an M.F.A. in Vermont. Her new work is rooted in Russian folklore, where Baba Yaga is a child-eating crone. Vodnoy Wolf has imagined this fear-inducing character in three different eras and locations. This one is one night only: 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, June 3, at Nast Community Church on Race Street.
Also of special interest is a crossover event with the OTR Performs Series at Washington Park at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 31, when Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park presents a free staged reading of KJ Sanchez’s play Cincinnati King, telling the story of Cincinnati music pioneer Syd Nathan and King Records, the legendary Rhythm & Blues studio where James Brown and others got their starts.
Tickets for Cincinnati Fringe shows are $15 each; artists receive 50 percent of ticket and pass sales. For $30 you can get a “One-Night Stand Pass,” good for tickets to two shows plus a drink at the Underground Bar. The “Voyeur Pass” offers six tickets for $65, and the “Full Frontal All-Access Pass” for $200 is good for as many shows as possible for one person. Tickets and passes are for sale now through cincyfringe.com or by calling 513-300-5669, or during the festival at Know Theatre, 1120 Jackson St., in Over-the-Rhine. For more information, visit cincyfringe.com.
CityBeat’s team of critics will review early Fringe performances. Visit our FRINGE FEST hub at citybeat.com
for updates throughout the week.