Perhaps too ambitiously, I dedicated my Fringe Friday to visiting 4 of the 9 site-specific pieces this year. As a performer, the privilege to stand on stages of different sizes and steeped in different histories is an incredible high. But what of the unconventional performance spaces that defy the stage-arch-seats structure? What do these other spaces offer? More importantly, how do they infuse their productions with fresh life?
As a concerned audience member, I also wanted to know if I could make it in the allotted time between shows. Can I bike from St. Paul to Lyndale in an hour? (Yes.) Can I bike from Lyndale to Dinkytown between shows? (Stuck behind a bus during rush hour, almost got run over by a car, ended up Uber-ing from Hiawatha. My quiet shame.) How about southeast to the West Bank? (And then back to wherever it was I left my bike?!)
Most importantly, I wanted to know what “edge” or value these site-specific pieces bring. As the clock ticks down on Fringe 2015, why should you spend time out of the Rarig and out on a new adventure?
Nestled between 38th/40th and Bryant in Lyndale, the Lyndale Farmstead Recreation Center includes a playground, community programs, recreation center, and open green space. A quick walk along a winding path reveals a group of theater-goers sprawled on a grassy hill, tucked under the trees and a large blue sky. A gentle breeze cools the afternoon, airplanes zoom across the sky (once perfectly timed with an action sequence from the show), dogs trot through the park, and a few young families stumble across our show and join us on the grass.
Parachute celebrates childhood, dreams, friendship, and morality with warmth and humor. With a piece equally engaging for the 6-year-old in front of me as for the 20-somethings and parental units, Parachute’s high-energy cast romps around the grass, fighting as superheroes and gym teachers and trolls and golfers, sprinting out from underneath their large rainbow parachute until breathless, and overall enjoying the gorgeous afternoon.
Their beginning question—“When was the last time you were under a parachute?”—yanks the audience into a world of being “7 or something,” complete with primary colors, childlike innocence, water balloons, imaginative villains, and lots of prancing and rolling through the grass. These performers manipulate their primary prop—a giant rainbow parachute from gym classes long ago—into everything from an alien spaceship to a bloated turtle on a beach, a frightening dragon to a tornado vortex. Most importantly, the performers so clearly love playing around in the park with their toys and imagination—you can’t help but want to join in. Fittingly, after their piece finishes, the cast invites friends of all ages to join them in the sun to play parachute games.
Hitting traffic leaving Lyndale, I next head to the famed Lang House in Dinkytown. Unsure what to expect, I pull in front of a large lavender house with pastel pink trim on the corner of 6th St. SE and 12th Ave SE. I wend my way through tall weeds, ducking under a wall of bright towels and sheets pinned along a clothesline, which fashion an impromptu theater venue. Grabbing a plastic lawn chair in the clearing, I see an older crowd already seated, gazing up at the back door, which reads simply: “LANG.”
A tall man, later revealed to be Damiian Mario Lang, beckons for audience volunteers via cue cards and furtive looks. The church bells strike 7:00, a volunteer gives some instructions and introductions. And then Lang is off.
Lang reels the audience into stories of his childhood home, gesturing to the window of his brother and best friend; pointing towards the nearby traintracks formerly used for target practice; smiling at the STOP sign where he would pretend to be hit by cars; and painting far more pictures with his words. He explains to us out-of-towners that the Lang House developed its reputation by his mother inviting in all sorts of people, whom he describes as: “ex-cons, delinquents, prostitutes, drug dealers, addicts and runaways,” a guy they met at a commune in VA, and plenty of others. “At any given point, there were between 20-26 people living in this house,” Lang brags—before acknowledging the cockroaches and violence and sex and theft and drugs that seeped through this house. “I tell my West Coast friends this was sort of the Haight-Ashbury of Minneapolis in the 70s,” he says with a smirk.
Lang lights up, often laughing along with the audience at the sheer absurdity of his stories. He tells the audience the phenomenal importance of this house, this location, this place: with the Mississippi River on one side, the Warehouse District on another, the neighborhoods of Dinkytown surrounding on all sides, the nearby U of M campus, and his all-time favorite railroad tracks spinning off in many directions. Arms wide and eyes crinkled with mischief, Lang describes this place as his “urban playground.”
Lang uses his stories to entertain but also to invite: he sees his craft as a medium for discussion and healing, for collaborating and transforming. And while this is technically a one-man show, the house and neighborhood help transport the audience into decades past to imagine the formative chaos and unbridled dysfunction Lang celebrates today.
After a short walk from the Lang House, I initially mistake Andrew Riverside Presbyterian Church for an apartment complex. Yet soon its beauty strikes me: blue limestone, stained glass windows, and high ceilings in a sleek union of modern and traditional.
Chatting with a congregation member and Fringe volunteer, he proudly details the recent transformations of Andrew Riverside Pres and their excited participation in the Fringe Festival this year. A pastor heard about the Fringe venue search, people came to check out the space and loved the acoustics, and now Fringe operates in part out of a church sanctuary. And yet, why not?
Walking into this simple sanctuary, I am comforted by its simplicity: a mosaic of water pouring through hands, a small wooden cross on a table by the door, comfortable chairs angled towards microphones and musical equipment in the front. And, somehow, fog. Fog hazy enough to doubt your eyes: Is something on my glasses? Am I that tired? Which pill did I take in the bathroom just now?
The open sanctuary clearly works well for audience participation—an interesting parallel between how this space is used on a Friday night and a Sunday morning. Positioned in a large horseshoe, audience members see one another react to the show and, more importantly, witness the performers interact with the audience.
Inga and Dimitri, the stars of From Russia with Love, kept us laughing through much of this show. Through American pop songs ranging from Cher to the Jungle Book, the two tell their story of moving to the US from “foggy Siberian tundra,” making music and arguing along the way. The duo explores the expectations of becoming American, of testing their faith in one another, of committing to a partner, and of working a crowd.
For a show this reliant on stunning vocals, this space works perfectly: Dimitri’s croon and Inga’s harmonies are unadorned and therefore beautiful here. What could be more perfect than celebrating an immigrant love story in a house of worship?
Stuff that Reminds Me of Other Things: A Walking Tour @ Rarig (Walking tour begins at Rarig.)
Ending with the Rarig Walking Tour was a logistical decision; I could not have planned such a beautiful ending to my Friday Fringe adventure.
As always at Fringe, the Rarig is mobbed in a combination of sweaty theatergoers, tired volunteers, and an air of expectation. With the setting sun, I find my way to two women donned in navy dresses, small backpacks, and glow-in-the-dark necklaces. After they distribute personalized guidebooks and we take a pledge, the tour snakes throughout the West Bank for the hour. Strutting and singing along to a walking-themed soundtrack, the audience also revels in the overwhelming chorus of crickets and warmth of a summer night.
Here our guides lead the audience to stop and gawk at everything from strange bricks to small trees, from a rusty box to a thin bridge--each embedded with a loosely related story from Keely’s life. Told with equal parts humor and sadness, the audience hears snippets of Keely’s life from walking with her and hearing the world from her perspective. We audience members are similarly invited to share “stuff that reminds us of other things.”
So my Friday evening was intended as an ode to the impact of space and place upon performance; but this final piece reminded me that while place matters a huge deal, we ultimately imbue these places with meaning and memory. Anything or anyplace can transport you into another memory, another story. This piece celebrates that emotional work.
Even with four Fringes under my belt, last night was an unexpectedly perfect adventure. Adventuring everywhere from a grassy hill to a church sanctuary, a backyard to the West Bank at night, I remembered the beauty of Fringe: not just in the diversity of performers and performances, but also in the character of the spaces themselves. Would any of these pieces have worked half as well in a traditional theater venue? I can confidently say no.
They are a bit of a trek. That can be annoying. Yes, my body hurts from biking hours yesterday. And it was still totally worth it.
These venues hand performers more tools, more freedom and room for spontaneity. They offer histories and agendas of their own, embedded with memories and stories of countless others. And sometimes, by being in that same space, you can brush up against a memory and find warmth in its meaning today.
By their sheer value of taking place outside the traditional theater venue, these pieces surprise you. You are 8 days in: let Fringe surprise you in these final hours.