Friday, September 17, 2010

2010 FringeNYC Round Up

In the Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing (see how handy it is for theater companies) Dave Sim wrote about comic book conventions:

The basic point is that you can go to a convention, set up your table, and sit there obviously hating everyone and everything within sight, assuring yourself all the while that your stuff is just too good for these lowlife fan boys; or you can decide to take a few positive steps toward creating a core following that you can build on in the years to come.

This is true of Fringe Festivals as well. In 2009, Jennifer and I spent so much time worrying about our show that we kind of missed the whole experience of the festival. We ended up seeing only a handful of shows: Jack and the Soy Beanstalk, Ukrainian Eggs, The Boxer, Scattered Lives, and Viral. Since Jennifer was the lighting designer for Ukrainian Eggs, I’m not sure that it an optional viewing experience.

This year Playlab NYC did a much better job participating in the Fringe experience. I took a couple days off of work to be able to take in more of the shows at the festival. Jennifer volunteered so much that she ended up being named an Honorary Volunteer Staff Member at the closing night party.

Between us Jennifer and I took in nearly double the number of shows from last year. We might not have put much of a dent in the 197 titles available, but we are getting better.

So what did we see? Well…

As You Like It - BAMA Theatre Company

I’m a sucker for Rosalind; she has all the wit of Hamlet without the angst. The BAMA Theatre Company presented such a straightforward production of Shakespeare’s text that I wouldn’t have thought that it was a Fringe show at all. With eight actors and one trunk of costumes and props, the show was very well acted and cleanly directed. The actors, who came out of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival together, worked well as an ensemble. Usually when I see As You Like it I fall for the Rosalind and the others disappear into the background. The BAMA Theatre Company presented me with a Rosalind who was a part of the company as a whole and many of the other characters, including Celia, had their moments to shine.

Bagabones - Jonathan Nosan

Jonathan Nosan is a contortionist who presents audiences with a collection of vignettes that explore confinement. The whole show is presented in around and on top of a black box that Nosan’s assistants roll around the stage. The sound design was amazing and many of the images from the show I will never forget.

Energy Man - Hope Theatre, Inc.

This was the biggest disappointment of the shows I saw at this year’s festival. I felt like it was a bait and switch on the part of Hope Theatre, Inc. Based on their postcard and blurb, I believed I was going to a Fringe show about comic book heroes and instead got a Sunday school sermon about how being a good person isn’t enough if you haven’t accepted Christ as your savior. I had such a visceral dislike of the moralizing of show that I contemplated leaving at intermission, but since the house was only a quarter full I decided to stay.

Good Good Trouble On Bad Bad Island - Endstation Theatre Company

In this well conceived children’s show, a good good girl finds herself challenged by the ruler of Bad Bad Island to complete a series of impossible tasks in order to be allowed to journey home. The script and the production are destined to travel the country in a van like a TheaterworksUSA production. The script could use one more draft, especially at the end when it suddenly turns into Aesop’s fable of the lion and the mouse for little reason.

The Great Galvani - The Magpies

The Chicago based company, The Magpies Project created one of my favorite shows at this year’s festival. Presented as two short monologues, it hit a few of my sweet spots, dime museums, carnies, circus freaks, and a mash-up of historical research and fictional biographies. The opening monologue was about a Bearded Lady who had an encounter with the artist Toulouse-Lautrec. In the second and longer piece we meet Luigi Galvani Junior, the fictional son of an 18th century physicist who was himself an inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Running of only half-an-hour long, I was glad I paid for a $5 participants ticket. I’m not sure I would have been as happy if I had spent $18 for the show. It seems as though the two monologues are just fragments of a larger show. Perhaps The Magpies cut back on the show in order to easily get it to the Fringe, but I was left wanting to see more. And isn’t that a good thing?

The Hyperbolist - bang-bang-fou!

As much as I had hoped to get to it, Jennifer saw this one alone. She tells me that it was a collection of little Buster Keaton inspired movies, and live puppets, and even a flea circus all performed by Joe Mazza. The evening was built around an investigation of Love. Jennifer was enthusiastic about the show and Joe Mazza as a writer and performer, feeling that he seemed like a good fit with Playlab NYC’s sensibilities. Sorry I didn’t get to it.

Magical Exploding Boy - Chicago Physical Theater

This mime/clown show was written and performed by Chicago artist Dean Evans. The Magical Exploding Boy presents a variety of little stories including: an evil doll with mind control powers, an amoeba struggling for life, and two men in a fistfight. I had a great time, but felt that a number of the pieces were strong enough to warrant a whole show, especially the finale of an astronaut battling a killer plant in outer space.

The Order of Blattaria, A Kid's Guide to Survival - Arimaw Productions

This was my favorite show of the festival. I liked it so much that I brought Jennifer and Edison back to see the show the next day. Built around the conceit of a summer camp orientation, the three main performers have collaborated on a show that plays to each of their strengths: bug knowledge, bubbles, black light puppetry and sing-a-longs. These men have clearly worked with a lot of children and are great at keeping people engaged. Michael Ari Wulffhart as Dr Z in particular is wonderful at teaching while being entertaining. The show becomes a little disjointed, but with a little more focus it could easily end up as the Beakman’s World of the Discovery Channel.

Stripes: The Mystery Circus - Wayward Productions

Sarah Hayward, the writer and star, built the show around one woman’s audition to get into the circus. She reenacts eight different circus acts including a Two-Headed Lady and Burlesque dancer. The character of the Two-Headed Lady was very inventive and funny - the highlight of the show. The character is so iconic that Hayward features her in all of her publicity materials. Unfortunately the character is the first one out of the gate, and the rest of the show never lives up to the image of a woman wrestling with herself.

I could easily name another twenty shows that Jennifer and I had talked about seeing, but time runs out fast.

Stray Observations:

  • We seemed to be drawn to shows that were coming out of Chicago. Hyperbolist, Magical Exploding Boy and The Great Galvani were all from Chicago, as were a number of shows on our wish lists that we just never could fit in.
  • I found myself watching a lot of shows that were a collection of vignettes as opposed to a whole story.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What We Eat: Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing

Welcome to What We Eat where we take a look at the books, movies, and plays that have influenced the direction of Playlab NYC.

Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing
by Dave Sim

Earlier this year I attended a meeting of the Off-Off-Broadway Community Dish where Nosedive Productions Co-Artistic Director and Blogger James Comtois mentioned that the book that he and his partner in crime, Pete Boisver, used as their bible for theater producing was the Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing by Dave Sim. As a lapsed comic book reader his comment had my immediate attention. At the time the various editions of The Guide were out of print and as much as I wanted to read the book I couldn’t seem to get my hands on a copy. In June of this year Dave Sim published a new edition of The Guide, and I picked up a copy in August.

The June 2010 edition has been updated and expanded, and it is no doubt very different from the slimmer original 1997 book. The 1997 version was expanded from Dave Sim’s Notes From the President column found in issues of his Cerebus comic. I don’t know if it is just inflation or if the new book is significantly different but the original cost $4 and the new edition is $18!

I’ve been through The Guide twice so far, and it turns out that Dave Sim’s advice about self-publishing comic books does, as Comtois suggested, translate very easily into self-producing theater. But the truth is that The Guide probably translates very easily into any one of a number of self-starting enterprises – blogging for instance.

Of course, when approaching the book for theater it is necessary to do a lot of word substitutions. For example: Self-Publishing = Self-Producing, Penciling = Playwriting, Inking = Directing, Publishers = Venues, Conventions = Festivals (at least in Playlab NYC’s case), and an issue of a comic book = a single show.

Some of the lessons in producing that can be learned from Dave Sim include:

“Don’t spend money that you don’t have. Do only what you can comfortably afford to do.” (From page 13) - Amen to that. Jennifer and I would certainly like to spend more money on our productions, but at the same time we are not going to incur any credit card debt to pull it off.

“Enjoy creativity, first, last and always for its own sake. If it isn’t fun, find a new way to do it that is fun. Satisfy yourself every step of the way.” (From page 15) – My reaction to that is a whole different blog entry for another day.

My biggest A-HA! was found on page 96. It not only sums up my reaction to participating in FringeNYC, but in trying to put up shows in an over saturated market like NYC. “It’s a very large crowd and each [theater company] is a unique as a snowflake. In a blizzard that’s a small consolation for the individual snowflake.”

I highly recommend the book to any would-be Off-Off-Broadway producers out there. A lot of the comments in The Guide are common sense I suppose, but it is nice to be reminded of it every now and again. The book is filled with thoughts about needing to overcome your own inertia, creative dead ends, and the pitfalls of relying on other people’s help. I would be curious to hear from any producers out there what they made of the book.