Monday, June 27, 2011

Navigating the Fringe

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Andrea Alton.

Hi Everyone!

Happy Monday! I’m not a big blogger. In fact, I’ve started two blogs over the past few years and quickly abandoned them; but when the opportunity to be a guest blogger for the week arose, I quickly embraced the opportunity. I think it’s the allure of a one-week commitment.

I’m also knee deep in the midst of producing, writing and acting in a solo show, The F*cking World According To Molly, which will premiere at the Fringe in August so I thought it would be a good time to share my Fringe experiences and some insights and tips that I’ve found out, and that friends have shared with me. My next post will be about other people’s Fringe experiences but this one is about me.

Some people have told me they’ve done the Fringe and will never do it again. It was to chaotic, harsh, a money pit and not what they needed. I can understand this. However, the New York Fringe has been a good fit for me. I thrive on a little creative chaos, the chance for my work to be seen by a wider audience excites and motivates me and if it wasn’t for deadlines, some of my work would never go from my computer screen to the stage. I’m now working on my third production with the NY Fringe.

My first foray was the 2003 production of Big Girl, Little World, (written & directed by the talented Jay Duffer). I loved this play, I loved the character, the cast and creative team. After years of playing small character roles in various productions in New York I had landed a part where I could play a serio-comic role, be offbeat, navigate a tricky emotional journey and at the end of the play, the character had a breakdown and breakthrough. It was a dream role for an actor and I got to be on stage for the entire show with the exception of twenty seconds where I exited to get a prop.

It was an interesting and intense experience. I learned to focus the second I stepped into the theatre because there is hardly any changeover time when you are doing a Fringe show. (Usually thirty minutes or less) I realized the importance of having a dedicated team of people that are focused and committed to putting up a good show.

I learned to be thrifty and use my time wisely. I did my makeup at home to save time (not always the best option for hot, humid August days, but it worked). I hid behind a big van outside the theatre and tried to do some sort of vocal warmup before we were allowed into the theatre because I have the laziest mouth in the history of theatre. I would run lines while walking to the theatre. I would do anything I could to save time so I would be ready and somewhat relaxed by the time they called places.

Mostly, I just tried to not let the stress and chaos of the Fringe get to me. I was getting paid to act and play a part that I loved, that’s what I kept reminding myself. The show got great reviews, the audience loved it and I felt like I did some of my best work under unconventional working conditions.

Overall, it was a good experience but still there were stumbling blocks. This was the year of the blackout. We had a sold out show with industry, press and producers coming on the last Friday night, but that show had to be cancelled because there was no power. They rescheduled the show for a Sunday afternoon but the interested producers and press couldn’t make it.

There was also the day the venue manager slept late and all the shows ran an hour behind. The A/C was always hit and miss, and I think we were warned that the lights had a short and could just go out mid-show. Still it was an exciting, challenging experience and one of my fondest theatre memories. I think my biggest lesson I learned was to just go with it. No matter how prepared you are, shit happens. When a festival puts up two hundred shows in three weeks and has a massive audience to get in and out, glitches will occur.

My next Fringe show was the 2008 production of Carl & Shelly, Best Friends Forever. My writing partner (Allen Warnock, also extremely talented) and I wrote a two-person comedy where we played six different characters. We produced it with the help of a few other people. It was a wonderful show and I’m proud of what we did but it was extremely stressful. I walked around with a clenched jaw for a month and ended up getting a nasty sinus infection near the end of the run.

We didn’t have the most Fringe-friendly show from the perspective that we had eight different locations, about eight costume changes for each of us, thirty-five props and no money, but somehow we pulled it off. We ended up barely breaking even, put up a solid show and even got a backer out of it on our first night which enabled us to put up a three-week commercial run in 2010.

In retrospect, I would have done a lot of things differently. We had no money for marketing or a press person and because of this I felt like we were this little production that only a few people knew about. We probably would have made the money we spent on marketing back in ticket sales but it’s sometimes hard to think clearly when you see all this money going out and don’t know how much you’re going to get in donations.

I also would have delegated more. I had people who were willing to help but I would too often say “I’ll do it” because it seemed like it was just quicker if I did it myself. I always had a huge “to do” list and my stress level was high. I also wouldn’t have been such a perfectionist. I tend to fight for things because I want to put up an awesome show but sometimes you have to let go. I think I realized with that production that everything’s not worth fighting for especially when you’re working within the constraints of a festival.

I still ended up with a lot of favorite experiences, like when we got into the theatre and I realized that for the first time since I had moved to New York, I would have my own dressing room. I put my bags down and a smile crossed my face and then I looked on the floor and saw a dead cockroach the size of my foot lying on its back, dead.

My other favorite experiences were the Midwestern couple who asked for our autographs after the show and we chatted for a bit. They were just two nice people who wanted to experience New York theatre outside of Broadway and they stumbled across our show. Then there was the last show, when Allen came out in the wrong costume and the time when I was high on one too many allergy pills and I jumped two pages of opening dialogue. The type of dialogue you can’t really miss because it sets up the rest of the show. Somehow we found our way back but I will never forget the “oh shit” look on Allen’s face when he realized I had jumped two major pages.

So now I’m working on a solo show that will go up in seven weeks. I’m still rewriting the script and have a million things to do but I have complete faith it will come together. It always seems to and this time I’ve got a prescription for Valium so all will be well.

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