Editor’s Note: For every day of the Fringe, a different writer will provide a kind of tour of their experience that day. More travelogue than criticism, you can find a new essay by noon each day and catch up on the whole package here.
In mainstream, commercial theater and film, work written by women is not often produced. This isn’t news. Think back through the theatrical cannon and names like William, Anton, Samuel, Eugene, and George come to mind. As two young female writers, we wanted to see how the Minnesota Fringe Festival stacked up.
A quick search of the Fringe schedule revealed quite a few shows written by women, which was a pleasant surprise. We did notice that other days had more options, but we decided to see:
Everyone has been killed in an apocalyptic attack, except for the cast and crew of a late night talk show who continue to broadcast the show night after night to anyone who is still alive to watch.
Written by Elizabeth Ess
A man goes missing, and a family tries to piece together what happened 15 years later. Prohibition and Minnesota jokes ensue. Based on a true event.
Written by JL Charrier
Real-life friends and family members reenact their real-life fights on stage.
Created by Anna Weggel-Reed
One woman contemplates her life, the meaning and purpose of art, and what could have been- in the basement of HarMar Mall.
Written by Kara Garbe Balcerzak
What follows is a dialogue between the two of us as we went about our day of Female-written Fringe.
Before Going In
GRACE: I’m excited to see so much local work by women. I’m hoping the audiences are diverse and not just a bunch of people who look like me and you. I’m discouraged to know that many of the shows were directed or produced by men, but that’s okay! It’s still important that a woman’s voice is being heard.
MARY: I’m excited and interested to see four shows in such a short period of time. It’s going to be interesting going into the Fringe with a certain lens in mind. In the past, I have usually just been the Supportive Audience Member, going to see shows my friends were in. This time, we can both get a chance to compare and contrast these female-written shows and see what we make of it!
After The Last Late Night Show on Earth
G: Considering a woman has never actually hosted a late night show, and this one is written by and mostly features female comedians, I had high hopes but it was rough. Everyone seemed uncomfortable and unsure, and when they took their bow, they didn’t even seem proud of their own work. Not a great start to the day, but it can only get better from here. What do you think?
M: I agree that the performers seemed uncomfortable. Maybe it was just opening night (or afternoon) jitters but more often than not the actors stuttered over their lines. The only performer that seemed confident in her work was the stand-up guest Courtney Baka. Maybe our criticism that they seemed unsure in performing comedy is derived from the way women in comedy are treated? These women took a great risk and even though their material could have been better, if they had the social confidence that men have, would it have been more enjoyable?
G: I thought about that, too. I didn’t think Courtney was that funny. Her jokes were rushed and simple. In her bio, it says that she’s a “feminist for the anti-feminist” which makes me feel like she is trying to cater to the same audiences that reject female comedians. I do think that if a set like hers had been performed by a man, it would have been better received by the audience. Actually, I know for sure because I’ve watched those sets.
M: That’s very true. I think in order for women writers, especially comedians to break through the social barrier they have to be more prepared, more in control, and work harder than men. When men make an effort they are rewarded for their courage, when women make an effort they are shunned for their pride. These women needed more pride in their comedy and the show could have turned out a lot differently.
After To Kill a Minnesotan
M: This show is based in the 1920s in Minnesota, like the title suggests. I thought the writing really did a good job of placing us in the time period, with nice historic jokes and inside Minnesotan humor.
G: I agree, but it did feel forced. I think they mentioned prohibition in every scene. Furthermore, the script didn’t do much to help explain the order of events. Additionally, with less than an hour to tell the story, a lot of characters were introduced but were not able to be fully developed. While leaving the show, I heard a lot of audience members trying to figure out who was who and who did what. There were also a lot of white men who looked similar playing many different characters, so that didn’t help.
M: Overall I enjoyed it, and if we hadn’t set our boundary of seeing female-written shows, I never would have seen this. I’m really glad I did. I thought the acting could have been a bit more subtle, and the writing less rushed, but on the whole the story engaged me and left me wondering what would happen next. I also like the way the show dealt with domestic violence. Being set in the past, at first the violent jokes against women just seemed like an unfortunate reflection on the time. But as the show progressed, the author explored how violence towards women can have grave effects.
After Couple Fights II: Friends and Family
G: This is by far going to be my favorite. The idea is so clever. It’s comedy done right. I related to something in every scene, and it certainly made fights I’ve had with friends and family feel more normal.
M: I plan to see this one again. The pace was quick, the comedy simple and complex and all of the pairings were realistic and so well done, in writing and especially through physical comedy. Everyone in the show had their own flair, and because they were playing themselves, everyone did a fantastic job with material so personal. With only four men in the show, the woman/woman scenes were in the spotlight and the women kicked serious comedy butt. Sisters, mothers, daughters, and best friends were all portrayed expertly and attentively – especially worth noting when these relationships are often ignored in other media.
G: Yes. There were so many different female relationships on stage and almost all of them would pass the Bechdel test. The characters were so diverse as well, in terms of personality and goals. I felt that even though the first two shows we saw were written by women, the female characters still fit within common tropes, but in this piece, no type of woman was off limits. Part of that is because real people are different than written works make them seem; especially women.
G: I’m surprised, but not surprised, by how White everything at Fringe is, or at least seems, today. Most of the casts have been almost entirely White, and the audiences even Whiter. I’m not sure if it’s just the day that we’ve decided to go, but it seems that most of the plays written by women are written by White women. I almost feel like in deciding to see shows only created by women, we’ve had to give up seeing anything with people of color. What do you think?
M: I agree that the lack of POC in the audiences is not surprising, but I hate that it’s not. Minnesota theater has always catered to the White, upper-middle class and the Fringe is no exception. However, for a festival that pushes the boundaries of classic theater conventions, they should also try to push the boundaries of who they are reaching.
After If Only: Parallel Worlds Collide at HarMar Mall
G: I actually really liked this one, which I was NOT expecting. The whole show takes place in one room, and I thought it might get stagnant and boring. It didn’t, though, because the writing was so good. Kara Garbe Balcerzak was able to articulate so many fears and feelings experienced by women that are not usually displayed on stage. I don’t think a man could have written this play as convincingly. That’s the first time I’ve thought that today. It was surprisingly refreshing and cathartic to see a story revolve around a female character. It ended up being exactly what I needed to hear at this stage in my life. I actually teared up a few times.
M: Completely agree. It was so nice to see so many different kinds of women, especially artists, portrayed onstage. The plot ran a bit long for me, and although the premise of the characters being stuck in a basement moved the story, it was a bit too frozen for me. I really enjoyed the pair of the mother and daughter, as they both were so intriguing to watch and I wish the entire show had centered around them.
G: I don’t see a show like If Only. . . doing well commercially. That’s why I’m so glad that there’s a place like Fringe where important, personal pieces of storytelling written by women can be produced. The Fringe Festival seems to me to be a place where disparities still exist, of course, but if there’s a certain voice you’re hoping to hear and see on stage, you can almost always find it on a Fringe Festival stage; that can’t be said about most theater spaces.
M: I love how varied the Fringe is, and that can be shown with even our small sliver of it today. Overall I loved going to shows written by women, and was so impressed with all of the local talent we have here in the Twin Cities.
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