Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Salt Lake Fringe report

I applied to the Great Salt Lake Fringe on behalf of Theatre Dojo, and did so very much on a lark. Months ago I was looking up various performing arts festivals where Randy Granger and I might perform together and came across the early website for what would be the inaugural of a brand new fringe festival in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Fringe festivals, the eldest and most famous taking place in Ediburgh, Scotland, are festivals for low-budget, no-frills, usually new and experimental works in the performing arts. There are fringe festivals all over the world and a great many in the United States. The first that come to mind are international annual fringes in San Diego, New York, and Orlando. This summer, a determined group of students and faculty from Westminster College and other local artists were banding together to launch a fringe in the Sugarhouse neighborhood of Salt Lake City. I didn't even ask Randy about it, I just applied.

We got a slot and decided this would be an opportunity to try out one of our prospective new works, a play called Killing Buddha, in front of an audience in an abridged form. Salt Lake City is a 12-16 hour drive from southern New Mexico, and Randy had booked a western tour anyway. As it happened, the festival opened just days after we closed Merchant of Venice in El Paso (more about that project here and here.)

Killing Buddha was inspired in part by our performances of An Iliad. Randy Granger had turned the unscripted musician into a distinct character, and our relationship in performing that play was intriguing enough that we wanted to see if the same characters from that play might tell other stories. At the top of this play, the same "Poet" character from that play and the Musician are eating together, the Poet recalls a Pali food blessing, and this spirals into a retelling of a very old folk tale from early Buddhist scripture about a serial killer who seeks forgiveness and repentance.

Buddhism is not something I've addressed directly in my work, in part because I wanted to take some time with how I address it. It is very easy for me to slip into "dharma talk" mode that doesn't work well for a theatre piece; and I did not wish to appear to be proselytizing. In addition to that, I wanted to approach the Buddha as a historical, and human, subject. I did not want to portray him as he is usually portrayed in folklore and scripture.

Since this is our own script, we also had the chance to play some more with the characters, which we can't really do when we perform An Iliad.  In Killing Buddha, our interaction is more playful. Randy speaks and sings. We even sing together.

Indeed, devout Buddhists might take issue with this play. It depicts the historical Buddha as a person who doesn't always know what he's doing or how a situation is going to play out; and it presents the journey of Angulimala (the killer who becomes a Buddhist monk) as an enlightenment story parallelling Buddha's. The title is a reference to a familiar aphorism from zen tradition: If you find Buddha, kill him. This is one detail that will be clarified a bit in subsequent drafts.

Because of Randy's touring schedule and Merchant requiring more of me than I anticipated, I was still working on the script the week before the festival and we never got a chance to rehearse before meeting up in SLC. Our living situation was also uncertain, when our housing arrangements fell through at the last minute. We really didn't have the budget for a hotel stay. We actually reserved a camp site at a KOA in Springville, an hour away from the festival (a location in Salt Lake City was already booked up), but in the last few days a local actor (and volunteer at the festival) and his roommates agreed to put us up. 

Last Wednesday, Randy and I showed up for our scheduled 2-hour tech rehearsal. A wonderful young woman named Macy showed us to our space, which was (in keeping with the fringe aesthetic) the loading dock of an old department store. Perfect for our show and our style. Macy watched Randy and me engage in our very first joint rehearsal of our show and designed some lighting cues based on what she saw - which she did with enormously good taste and creativity. Meanwhile, Randy tried out numerous instruments in the space - it really was an old loading dock, a brick box with a concrete floor. I found a few ways to bring the character and the acoustics of the room into the play. It felt all right.

Randy warming up in our space at the Great Salt Lake Fringe

We were pretty scared when we gave our first public performance on Thursday evening. The crowd was small and very supportive. Randy and I are quite comfortable performing together, so we got through it fine and learned a few lessons. Friday night was a bit larger and we learned more. We heard rumors there was a buzz about our show, which felt nice. Saturday and Sunday were full or close to it, and despite some mistakes and some flaws in my script, the overall intent and potential of the piece came through and the audience response was tremendous. We had feedback forms which several people filled out, offering compliments and also constructive suggestions for how the play could be improved.

Randy and I were also going about to see performances and enjoy the visual art exhibit downstairs. There were 60 artists or groups offering 200 performances in six venues, either at the department store on Highland Drive or on the Westminster campus up the hill. One woman we met, who came to see our show twice, caught 22 shows over the four days of the festival; and she said that cost her much less than it cost for her to see one show on Broadway last year.

By Sunday, we were pretty tired. Our performance was fine though I felt exhausted and off. Still, for the second night in a row, we received a most generous standing ovation. We hurriedly struck our show (that's how it goes at a fringe, break it down in 15 minutes so the next act can move in). And one of the volunteers met us offstage saying, "You should come outside right now."

What was happening outside was a brief award ceremony. We hadn't heard anything about awards. But we were announced as the winners of the "Fringe Pick" award, a sort of "best of fest" award conferred by the staff and board of the festival. What it means for us is that we automatically have a slot at next year's festival without having to pay fees. Randy and I were thrilled, as we really enjoyed our time at the festival and in the city, and were already talking about coming back next year.

Meanwhile, Killing Buddha is informally set to play in Las Cruces in February. Between now and then I'll be busy teaching at CMI and rehearsing a new play by Mark Medoff (which will play at the Rio Grande Theatre in Las Cruces in October). But Killing Buddha, in a slightly longer and much improved version, will open in February; and Randy and I have other works in gestation.