INSIGHT Stahl in 'Monocular Man.'
With the launch of Providence’s first-ever fringe festival on the horizon — FringePVD kicks off Wednesday, July 23 — it’s worthwhile heading to the United States Association of Fringe Festivals’ website for a reminder of what, exactly, a fringe is.
Fringe fests originated in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1947 “as an alternative festival that played concurrently with the Edinburgh International Festival,” fringefestivals.us tells us. The page goes on to explain that present-day descendants are known for being affordable (low ticket costs for attendees, low production costs for performers), uncensored (“no one gets too fussy about swears or nudity”), passionate about original works (look elsewhere for Cats or A Chorus Line), and rapid-fire in their presentation of low-fi, usually-shorter-than-60-minute performances. A fringe is a “performing-arts smörgåsbord,” the site says.
When scrolling through the USAFF website’s “Festival Directory,” though, it’s tough not to also notice just how late to the action Providence is. With our inaugural fest in 2014, we’re following in the fringe-steps of New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Kansas City, and Minneapolis, which isn’t particularly embarrassing. But there’s more. We’re also trailing Syracuse, Rochester, Cincinnati, Missoula, Wilmington, and Orlando. We repeat: Orlando.
What took Providence — self-described “Creative Capital,” and home of Trinity Repertory Company, among other qualifications — so long to get on the fringe train?
This was the question Wilbury Theatre Group founding artistic director, Josh Short, and Trinity Rep executive director, Michael Gennaro, asked one another during a conversation this past winter. It was quickly followed by a resolution, Short says: “We could do that.”
“I felt like if we had 12 artists — 12 different performances — then we could call it a ‘festival,’ ” he adds.
To Short’s enormous credit, he and fellow festival organizers have leapt way, way over that bar in the months since (the Wilbury Group is the FringePVD’s main producer). The inaugural Providence Fringe Fest will feature more than 50 performers, 40 performances, and 30 distinct works. Those shows — which, with rare exception, cost $5 or less to attend — span five venues: AS220’s Black Box Theater at 95 Empire Street, Aurora Providence (formerly the Roots Cultural Center, at 276 Westminster), URI’s Providence Campus, the Movement Exchange in Pawtucket, and the Wilbury Group’s home space (where Trinity Rep was born, once upon a time) at the Southside Cultural Center, on Broad Street.
Those offerings include:
• A one-man “mostly nonfiction” show titled Monocular Man, that follows Jamestown-based retired magazine publisher R. Jim Stahl’s life after losing an eye in a fireworks mishap while sailing on Biscayne Bay a week after his Bar Mitzvah.
• A theatrical collaboration between nun-turned-Rhode Island-attorney-general-turned-talk-radio-host-turned-columnist-turned-playwright, Arlene Violet, and retired-NYPD-detective-turned-URI-adjunct-English-professor, Robert Leuci, called, The Centurion.
• A reprise of local artist/writer/teacher, Kate Schapira’s “Climate Anxiety Counseling” booth, which the Phoenix covered in May during Schapira’s month-long residency at Kennedy Plaza. (If you missed that article, here’s her description: “Stop at [the] booth to share your fears and hopes for the changing and warming world, or just what’s pressing on your mind the most. For five cents (donations go to the Environmental Justice League of RI), you can put your worries on the map, walk away with a small piece of art, and learn more about an online library of climate action resources that’s in the works.”)
• A performance by local art-star, of RISD Museum/Dirt Palace/AS220/deCordova Biennial fame, J.R. Uretsky titled Hymn, which she says, “follows three stories about women being stifled by institutions (particularly Girl Scouts and the evangelical church) and ultimately tells how I lost my faith and found a new identity with the help of my friends.” She will be performing in a Boy Scout uniform, she adds.
• A presentation entitled Music Moves from blogger, DJ, activist, teacher, and Phoenix freelancer, Reza Clifton, that veers from recitations of original poetry to citing statistics about the modern media marketplace. Example: according to the Women’s Media Center, Clifton says, “For production of the 250 top-grossing domestically made films of 2013, women accounted for 16 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors.”
• An anything-goes, participatory mock-funeral procession titled El Funeral de la Luna de Fresas y la Procesion Del Trueno (The Funeral of the Strawberry Moon and The Thunder Procession) that begins at 95 Empire Street and ends at Grant’s Block, at the corner of Westminster and Union Streets. The procession is the fourth such public ritual, following the staging of a wedding, a dinner party, and a cockfight in previous months by the performance groups Islands and Fluxus Moon Cabaret.
• A multi-performance dinner theater featuring noise music, experimental dance, avant-garde/activist puppetry, and shadows projected through a nine-foot paper cut scroll illustrating English folk ballads, all of it curated by local artist (and the man behind the paper cut scroll) Erik Ruin. Of the unique format, he says, “By the time the performers begin to hit the stage, everyone’s already on the same team and in a really good mood, because they’ve been eating this delicious food.”
So, what’s the sum of these performances, and many others, crammed into four days in Rhode Island’s capital city?
If you ask Short, the festival pulls the lid off of a town where, “It’s less about aspiring to have your name in lights and more aspiring to do something really cool in a garage somewhere.” He’s already talking about FringePVD it like it’s an annual event.
Beth Nixon, the local puppetry/clown/theater dynamo who will perform her show Lava Fossil (“A suitcase theater show about a dad, a crab, a dentist and where things go when they are gone”) on Friday and Saturday at Aurora is similarly excited.
“There aren’t a lot of venues in the world for doing suitcase theater or mime, or bizarre-o spoken-word when you’re standing upside down,” she says.
A fringe fest, she says, is “about creating a space for people to widen their imagining of what’s possible in the performative arts, and then, ideally, a way to invite audiences in to either celebrate, or be exposed to, or be horrified at whatever stuff they might not see if they were just season subscribers to a regional theater or. . . just went to the movies.”
Oh, and as for that, “What took Providence so long to get a Fringe fest?” question?
Erik Ruin brings up a valuable point: Providence is still a step ahead of fringe-less Boston.
FringePVD kicks off Wednesday, July 23 at 7 pm with an opening party at Aurora Providence (276 Westminster St), and runs through Saturday, July 26. For more info, head to fringepvd.org.