Thursday: In which the whole world changes, and it's actually all OK
I am sitting in the lobby at HUGE Theater, waiting to be let into the theater to set up for the first performance of my show. Very soon, that door will open, and in the 15 minutes leading up to the time at which the audience streams into the house, just about every damn thing will go wrong. Very soon, I will be living the actor's nightmare, the clock running down and everything around me breaking; but I don't know this yet. I also don't know that everything will be patched up and more or less ready to go about 30 seconds before the house opens; and the audience won't know that anything at all went wrong.
But that's in the future for me. At this moment, I am sitting there testing out the link between my smartphone, which I will use to trigger my sound cues, and my computer, which will play the sound cues. Right now it's working. In a short time, it won't; but I don't know this yet. I also don't know that one of my props is broken or that someone has parked their car blocking the loading door through which I am about to bring my set. I don't know that, just two minutes before the door opens, we will spill a beer all over the set and that, in the crush of everything else going wrong, we have forgotten to set up the microphone. Fortunately, the audience won't know that anything at all went wrong. They won't know, as they come in, about all of the terrible crap that happened to my show in the 15 minutes before the door opened, and right now I don't know that they won't know, because I don't even know that any of this will happen yet. Time is funny.
Right now, at this moment, I am sitting in the lobby waiting to be let in, and I am watching a patron trying to buy a ticket to a show. He doesn't seem to get the idea that the Fringe is only doing daily all-access wristbands this year. He wants to buy a single ticket, and it takes several minutes of patient explaining from a saintly volunteer that they are only selling the wristbands. He counters that someone else told him that he could buy a day pass. The volunteer tells him that this is what the wristband is. He retorts, "No, they didn't say a wristband. They said a day pass." The conversation goes on like this for several more confusing minutes in which the very ability of English to transfer thoughts from one human being to another will be severely tested, until this incredible volunteer finally convinces him that, yes, in fact, the wristband is the only option on the table. This patron then asks about having to buy a button, recalling that last year everyone was required to also buy one of those. She tells him this has changed and shows him the current 2016 Fringe button, which is literally printed with the words "This 2016 button isn't mandatory," and then the whole conversation collapses back in on itself again like a dying star. Eventually, he does buy the wristband, but I, and another guy who is waiting to see my show, watch this scene play out for almost ten minutes. This may end up being the most inexplicably entertaining moment of the entire festival.
I was reminded of the two fur-generating canines that live in my house. They love nothing more than for nothing to ever change. We need to wake up at 7:00am. We need to have food delivered in the correct bowls. We need to look for that rabbit in the yard at 4:00 in the afternoon. If any of these prerequisites are not met, then surely the sky will come crashing down. These dogs are at their best when whatever happens today is exactly what happened yesterday. The first time I throw the slightest change into the mix (like, say, the water bowl is moved from its customary place in the kitchen to the tile floor by the back door), they will freak out as if the whole world is ending. But flash forward another day, and now the water bowl has always been there by the back door, and that's exactly where God intended it to be forever and ever.
I don't think humans are all that different from dogs. Sure, we have thumbs, and we don't eat rotten things we find on the sidewalk; but we do use those thumbs to buy gas station hot dogs from time to time, so I can't authoritatively say that our judgement of the world around us is that much better. People just get instinctively panicky and confused when the details shift, because we desperately want to believe that there are fundamental truths that underpin the structure of our world. I may find it strange that someone else may have decided that one of these fundamental truths is the existence of single tickets and mandatory buttons, but I don't know what he's got going on in his life. I can't even convince my dogs that a rainstorm is not a world-shattering event.
But, what I can say to everyone out there is this: it's all going to be OK.
Now, if I could just flash forward and tell that to the future guy that is me in those 15 minutes before the show opens. Maybe there wouldn't have been so much swearing.
Friday: In which we rush and rush and rush
My girlfriend has taken up the 56-show challenge. There are 168 shows in the festival, but only Dr. Manhattan or anyone owning a Time Turner, TARDIS or DeLorean (pick your sci-fi/fantasy allegiance carefully) can see all of them. For the rest of us mere mortals, the cap is 56. That means that she will be hauling ass for the 11 days of the festival to hustle her way into seeing a show in every available timeslot. This is a very serious undertaking. A week or so ago, I came home and found that she had printed out the entire schedule of every show and had them arrayed in a vast, complicated pattern in front of her on the floor. This wasn't just a matter of simply picking shows; she was elevating scheduling to a high art. Generations from now, schedulers will tell tales of this moment.
I tag along with her today as we race across the city to catch site-specific shows at Matthews Park and the Mill City Museum. We watch a group of people run around in the park, shouting, cavorting and rocking togas. Two boys on bikes stumble upon us. They circle around, come back, circle around again, stop and stare, struggling to figure out what exactly these crazy people are doing in their neighborhood park. At the museum, Tim Uren conjures Lovecraft's dense horror in a room of old, crumbling stone. The sounds of the city echo in through the empty upper windows, but seem to dissipate as the sun sets and we are left alone with a man descending into madness in the dark.
But no time to revel in any of this! We must rush off again to another venue! The 56-show challenge must be met!
By the last show of the night, we are both weary and kind of wanting to skip going to Fringe Central, but end up there anyway. I am sure we will always end up there. We're tired already. How can we be this tired already? There are still nine more days of this. Honey, I love you, and if you accomplish this task, I will sing your praises to the heavens; but right now I'm pretty sure you're crazy.
And tomorrow is the first 7-show day of the festival. This is gonna get nuts.
Saturday: In which I notice that the world isn't nearly as bad as you might think
The shows in the Fringe festival are chosen by lottery, which you would think would mean that there would be no discernible patterns in the shows that make it in. Given the size of the festival, though, there are certain types of shows that are always represented (which is why there is a group of Fringe-goers out there who have made their own Fringe Bingo cards). Already in my continuing deep dive into the 2016 Fringe, I have checked off a number of staples: the high-brow literary adaptation; the break-neck storyteller; the absurd clown piece; the gay musical; the comedy writer who has a philosophical point to make; the funny and touching personal storytelling confessional; the twee devised piece; the goofy kids show. Coming up in my lineup, I am scheduled to see such other Fringe staples such as the local celebrity biography; the irreverent musical about an uncomfortable topic; the Star Trek parody; the musical parody of a well-known property; the serious prestige drama; the abstract, philosophical movement piece.
Every year in the Fringe, though, there are some weird coincidences that we seek to ascribe some agency, some overwhelming force in the universe to. How do we find ourselves in a situation with an adaptation of Patrick Swayze's great trashy film Road House, as well as a completely separate show about Swayze? How could it be that we have two different one person shows about individuals dealing with congenital eye problems? Or two different multi-person shows sharing real people's stories about abortion?
If you know anything about stochasticity, though, you will understand that weird coincidences and inexplicable patterns are actually the markers of true randomness. (See: Benton's Law, which financial investigators apply to see if a set of numbers has been, shall we say, "massaged") Ask a person to generate a random list of anything, and they will consciously avoid putting in items that look like weird coincidences, when, in fact, the lack of coincidence tips their hand and proves that their list is, in fact, not random at all.
Because of this, it's really a fool's errand to try to draw meaningful patterns from a truly randomly generated list like the Minnesota Fringe lineup; but, friends, I say to you: I am that fool. There may, in fact, be a reason why there are two different abortion shows. It's the same reason there are three different shows with "Trump" in the title (as well as a political debate parody). You might not be aware of this, but there is a presidential election going on.
Despite the randomness of the Fringe selection process, it can't hold back the zeitgeist. By law of averages, anything that's tickling our neuroses in the real world will filter down proportionately into the Fringe world. Anecdotes are the worst form of journalism, but, hell, I never claimed to be a journalist, so let me tell you my personal observances. From the shows I've seen so far, it seems like Fringe artists this year are looking to have genuine discussions about hot-button issues, and not the one-sided, rage-fueled tirades that you see floating around on the Facebooks. I started noticing this while watching a show about the gun control debate that actually took a complex, nuanced and compassionate look at both sides of the issue; and it started to strike me as a pattern when watching a show about a devoted Christian finding out his brother has become an atheist. I realized that neither of these shows really took sides, except to say that the extremist reactions on both ends of the spectrum are not helpful to anyone. I watched a one-man show about a guy raised in a conservative Christian household finding his personal salvation in soft-core porn on Showtime, and I noticed that he didn't take the easy route of constantly denigrating the pastors, teachers and parents that tried to keep him on the pure, whitebread path. Even Bollywood Dance Scene, most famous for putting up huge, happy, crowd-pleasing Bollywood-inspired spectacles is exploring a plea for tolerance and reason. Maybe this has always been present, but I'm noticing it more and more this year.
Audiences seem to be in on this covenant as well. I got shut out of of seeing a sold-out show at Bryant-Lake Bowl and ended up trudging back to HUGE Theater with a group of young Fringe-goers in the same predicament. They were still in the middle of a discussion about a show they had seen (whose show description says, in part "Free market capitalists might want to consider another show"). They were torn over what to think of it. On one hand, some of these young folks did instinctively agree with the central message that the people of the West don't think enough about what's happening in the rest of the world; on the other hand, some of the others thought that perhaps another show about a rich, white guy suddenly discovering that poor people exist is not the right way to talk about that in this day and age. The group was split down the middle on their opinion, and they were talking about it without arguing and shouting. This has restored my faith in humanity more than any piece of glurge that I've seen wash across my computer screen.
It's also been interesting to notice the things that aren't really political issues anymore. You know that "gay musical" I mentioned earlier? The world of gay culture presented by those young 20-somethings was not one pervaded by shame from the hetero world. To them, being "gay" is not being part of one small, ostracized, monolithic group existing in the margins of society. It's out and proud and complex and multifaceted and generally not worried about the judgement of outside groups. (You know, like the rest of us.) For me, growing up at a time in the not-so-distant past when "gay" was the ultimate pejorative, and living to see today, when gay marriage has been made legal, and the majority of society basically said, "Yeah, that's cool, I guess," this is a remarkable change. To the generation immediately behind me, though, this change will be almost unnoticed. For them, it will have always been this way, like my dogs and their water bowl placement. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. We got there, in part, not by forming up camps and screaming at each other over the ramparts, but by being able to have complicated, rational and personal discussions that allowed the majority to start seeing the minority not as "others" but as integral pieces of the fabric of our society.
If theater has any advantage in our modern world, it's that: you're up close and personal, and, if it's done right, people have to step out from behind their walls.
Sunday: In which we must embrace our failures
I wake up in the morning to a blistering, withering review of my show from a local critic. There's a way to start your day: a swift kick to the nuts. Thankfully, I saw a show that helped me get over it: the helpfully-titled You Suck!, in which a group of performers wrestle with the fallout of a heckler who helped ruin their careers. The whole point of the show is that if you get over your self-loathing and commit yourself to the thing that you love, you will find your audience.
I just have to remember that I missed seeing the show I planned on last night, because a couple who saw my show were so excited that they wanted to spend some more time geeking out over the subject matter with me. That was amazing. The one great thing I can say about the internet is that it has enabled us to sidestep gatekeepers and find that group of people who love the things that we love.
Now that this minor existential crisis has passed, it's time to put the feelers out for the Fringe gossip. Listening in on conversations around Fringe central, you get to hear about all the silly stuff that flares up to fascinate and infuriate us briefly before disappearing back into the aether. I expected more people to be talking about the lawsuit filed against the Fringe recently, but I have heard precious little about it in the real world. I expected to hear nightmare stories from the volunteers about the new wristband system, but all reports are that it's working out. Lines are easier to manage. Patrons aren't waiting around as much. Post-show counts are quicker and easier than ever before. People are happily posting pictures on the internet of their wristbands and wooden nickels. We won't know until it's all over if this will increase attendance or revenue, but, so far, the big confusing world-ending change that would absolutely ruin the festival forever seems to have been working out pretty well.
Remember what I said about everything being OK? Everyone please remember that the next time the ticketing system changes and you find yourself bemoaning the loss of paper wristbands and wooden tokens.
There were other minor emergencies around the Fringe. A performer tried to shanghai Fringe volunteers into helping her move her set; another one tried selling merchandise at a show; another group decided to do a flash mob inside Rarig with amplified sound. These are all big no-no moves, two of which I know are expressly forbidden in the contract that performers sign with the festival. An audience member got up before a show and decided to walk onstage to inspect the set and props. A patron suffered a minor medical emergency in the middle of a show that required ambulance assistance; but the Fringe schedule went on as planned.
Then there is a piece of gossip that breaks my heart. This is no longer a festival with 168 shows. A company pulled out after a good portion of their cast quit. I check their show page (don't bother looking for it now; the page was quietly excised from the Fringe site.). The audience reviews are rough, and I suspect that the performers bailed on the show out of sheer embarrassment.
If anyone from that show happens to be reading this, I just want you to know that I know how you feel. I've been in shows that I was embarrassed by, too. Part of life as a performer is accepting the fact that this will happen from time to time. Ultimately, we're all in this together, and I sincerely want you to know that it is all going to be OK. Time will move on. Things will change. People will forget some things and misremember others. You will learn to leave other things things behind you and take with you only what you need to be better and stronger. And maybe someday you will be at a theater festival, perhaps at the bar afterwards, and you'll be riding high off of performing for some big, appreciative audience, and your castmates will turn to trading old war stories, as we often do, and you will laugh as you launch into yours with "Oh my god! I was in the worst show once…"
Hopefully, that's when you will remember again that everything is really going to be OK. As a friend of mine always says, "Fail boldly!"
In the meantime, everyone get out there and enjoy yourselves. Enjoy performing in your wonderful show. Enjoy performing in your not-so-wonderful show. Go and watch your fellow humans try and succeed and fail and inspire you and scare you and make you cry and bore you to tears and pull streams of laughter from your mouth and etch questions in your mind. All of this only happens now. All of this only happens because of you. Don't miss it.