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Theater on the Fringe Visits D.C.


Ticket holders waiting in one line were abuzz about the avant-garde theater event. "We saw three shows yesterday. We're seeing this one here," a man says. "Two women, dancing up and down, and hanging from the ceiling!" And from a woman, "So many different kinds of performers -- so many different acts from so many places. And you don't know. It could be great. It could be atrocious!"

At one small theater, one by one, the audience made its way into a 30-seat room -- so close to the actress they could almost reach out and touch her pinned-up hair and her 1940s-era dress. She plays a cockney character reminiscing about post World War Two London:

"It was funny: everyone not knowing what would happen next day, if their house would be still standing or not. At least we were all together, if you know what I mean. People liked each other. You could talk to people if you felt like it - even upper class people. They're not so bad when you get to know 'em."

On another stage before a hushed audience, playing an American college girl, an actor prattled on about how she left a bar late at night by herself:

"So I was out the other night and had a drink too many, not so bad -- bad enough that I wasn't really caring about where I was walking in the street... I was that kind of drunk."

And in still another theater, a tall, lanky fellow in blue jeans and cowboy hat smiled during a monologue about his larger-than-life father:

"He was like John Wayne, going, 'So Jimmy, you ever smoke any 'wacky tobackee?' [tobacco] -- wearing a big cowboy hat and big boots. I don't even ask for a Christmas present anymore. I know what I'm getting: Wranglers [brand of blue jeans]."

Capital Fringe Festival organizer Damian Sinclair says that what attracts so many performers and so many theater-goers to the Fringe Festival is that it's a venue where anything can happen: "'Fringe' has a lot of connotations," he says. "What a Fringe Festival's goal is to do is to be as open as possible for artist to participate. Fringe becomes synonymous with experimental work, edgy work."

Fringe Festivals originated in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1947, when actors excluded from a traditional theater event decided to camp outside and perform on their own -- on the fringe, so to speak. Their plays were rather offbeat, as well, and so the tradition of the edgy, avant-garde Fringe Festivals continues today in Canada and across the United States - in cities like San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia… and this first one in Washington,D.C.

Cowboy actor James Beard was one of the standouts of the DC festival. In real life, he's a cattle rancher from California, who decided he wanted to be an actor on the New York City stage. Beard found out he had to fulfill his dream another way. He spent more time as a waiter in restaurants than performing. Too many auditions, he says, and too many rejections.

"This auditioning thing stinks," Beard exclaims. "It's not a good thing for actors to be out of control of their own destiny. That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in control of my own destiny and write something that was mine. I was really tired of people saying 'no' to me. You know what? This is who I am. I am my own character. I've created my own show. I can take this anywhere I want. I've been to a lot of places and (I'm) looking forward to carrying it on even more.

Fringe Festival director Damian Sinclair says fiercely independent and offbeat actors like James Beard are a natural for the Fringe because the festival gives them complete artistic freedom.

"We don't audition. I don't even see [video]tape [of applicants' past performances]. I didn't even get a description of the shows when we had our first application process. In fact, I don't care," he says. "This is an open outlet for everybody. That's what we're here for."

Other highlights of the DC Fringe Festival -- included the Star Wars movie trilogy, as performed by one actor playing all the parts in 75 minutes; a magic and mindreading act -- and a sword swallower and fire-eater. Among the more traditional performances was D.C. actress Hilary Kacser's solo performance as World War II era English cockney character, Rose. The actor explored themes of love, loss, and the horror of war. "All these big issues come out of this little story about this one ordinary, working class British woman," Kacser explains. "Rose survives by her English stiff upper lip and wry British wit."

The downside of the Fringe Festival was that because it was a relatively a low-budget affair, actors sometimes experienced technical difficulties -- like bad lighting; makeshift theaters often cramped and hot; and odd locations for staging shows, such as a Baptist church and a synagogue.

But no matter, says K. Bryan Neel. A Festival performer who plays an early 20th century American vaudevillian, Neel and his old-style ukulele traveled over 4600 kilometers from his Seattle, Washington, home all the way to D.C. to be in the Fringe.

"I love the interaction with the audience you don't get on TV or anywhere else, and it just drives (excites) me, and talking to people afterward about their experiences - whether they liked the show or didn't like the show," Neel says. "That kind of interaction is something you just don't get in any other venue except a Fringe Festival."

And actors say that during the festival's ten-day run, many developed a bond with each other, a sense of community. "You meet people organizing the event, and tons of great volunteers," the Seattle native points out. "Yeah, it's a great time, tons of parties and all kinds of ways to meet lots of people. It's sort of a collective effort, instead of a competitive effort. With the Fringe festival, you have lot of people all cooperating to create something together."

In tiny theater spaces -- and in the common search for the energy and excitement of live performance -- the Fringe Festival brought little-known actors and theater-hungry audiences together. 'See you at the next Fringe!' was the common farewell.

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