Welcome to "After the Fringe"
Last week at this time I was plowing through the opening weekend of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Now, it's time to work on making that last hangover happen and watch the festival disappear into the sunset. To quote from one of the opening lines from one of my favorite shows from this year's festival: "That's all there is! There ain't no more!
The air outside is cool and damp as I arrive at Triple Rock Social Club for the closing night party of the festival, more "autumn leaves turning" than the "blazing August heat" that we've become accustomed to at the Fringe. The weather this year has been markedly more forgiving that in years past. Sure, one of the outdoor shows had a couple of its performances cancelled due to the occasional drizzle, but, for once, we haven't had to sprint from venue to venue with sweaty underwear riding way up into our unmentionable bits. I'll call that a win.
Tonight, though, the breeze is starting to pick up. There's a strong scent of moisture in the air. This festival is going to close out with a rainstorm. I think that's fitting.
I happen to walk into Triple Rock at the same time as the Fringe's new ED, Dawn Bentley. I ask her how she's holding up, and she admits that she's very, very tired. I can't blame her. Hell, I'm extremely tired, and I didn't even shoulder the extra burden of having to run this whole damn thing. Last night at Grumpy's (our last time in this year's Fringe Central), she arrived to discover that the room where she was supposed to be making the announcement of the Encore winners was filled up with another loud band. Grumpy's had apparently promised that it would be available for her to walk up to a microphone and make the announcement. Instead, some dudes were in there shredding on guitars amped up to 11. But she rolled with it, making the announcement in the back patio, standing on a chair, with a loud-voiced Fringe artist chaining her words out to the audience (with only a few amusing mistranslations). You can't get more Fringe than that. Bentley came into this whole process late in the game, and not from the theater world. She has survived her first trial by fire, so I think she has rightly earned her fatigue.
The general consensus of the people that I talk to at the closing party is that this has been a particularly strong festival. From my personal observations, and the feedback from others, there were a lot of really good shows this year. More than that, there were a lot of really good shows from out of town. (Three touring shows nabbed the Encore slot at their venues.) I think back on the 42 shows that I watched, and I realize that I never had the experience of sitting in a house with only four or five other people, something that I usually suffer through at least once or twice every year. Everywhere I went, there were crowds of people, all giddy and excited at the prospect of whatever show they were in line for. People comment on how many reservations they had to make in order to ensure they got into shows. We all start listing off the great shows we saw this year, and I realize that this has probably been one of the best slates of shows that I can remember in my 13 years of Fringing.
But it's taken a lot out of me. I'm absolutely exhausted after this Fringe. So is just about everyone I talk to. There's only so long you can ride a high.
Even now, the real world is crashing back down on us with all of its stupid little injustices. A long time front-of-house staffer is hit by a car while he bikes across that last intersection to get to the Triple Rock. He's OK, just a little shook up and banged up, but the asshole who hit him fled the scene. The cops try to find anyone who might have witnessed it; but, odds are, the asshole will get away with it. Before the night is over, a Fringe artist will walk back into the bar after discovering that his bike was stolen. That asshole will probably get away with it, too. To top it all off, the Facebook feed on my phone is swelling with news about Charlottesville. Talk about assholes.
Outside, the rain comes pouring down.
This morning, I wake up alone in bed again. My girlfriend, who works for the Fringe and had a show in it as well, got home after I fell asleep and left for work before I woke up. This has been our dynamic for the past 11 days. I look around our house, at the unwashed laundry, the empty refrigerator, the floor desperately in search of a vacuum cleaner, the dogs despondent in their need for my attention. Today, for the first time in a week and a half, my life is no longer structured by the incessant search for brilliance and bliss. The moment after achieving full consciousness this morning is spent realizing that the fun of the Fringe Festival is officially behind us, and the full weight of the real world is back.
I think back to the year 2000, when I was studying abroad in London. Between my flat in Farringdon and the local tube station, there was an old industrial warehouse space that was used at nights to hold raves. Many of my early mornings out for a run before class, in the gloom of a pre-dawn London cityscape, took me past small groups of people looking blissed out and exhausted on the sidewalk. One especially early morning, I spied a lone woman through the London fog, sitting outside of this space, passionately sobbing into her hands. I had never seen a Brit crying in public before. With all the "stiff upper lip" culture that pervades the British isles, it was shocking and surprising, ranking right up there with the first time I saw my mom crying. I had to stop and ask her if she was OK. Her response was, "I just had the best time of my life. I'm scared I'll never feel that good again." She had been dropping Ecstasy all night, and the comedown was coming on hard.
"The world is too much," she said. George W. Bush had just been elected President in the US, despite receiving fewer votes than his competitor. Instead of condemning this decidedly non-democratic outcome, their own Prime Minister, with all his liberal Labour Party credentials, was congratulating the new Most Powerful Man in the World, despite the fact that most of the British people regarded the new American leader as a particularly low-functioning child playing dress-up as an adult. Most Londoners I talked to thought the world was losing its mind. (Man, if they could only look forward into the future about 17 years.)
I think about this a lot as I thumb through the news that I should probably catch up on, since this column is supposed to be News and Notes. Two weeks ago, we had to talk about the strange case of a Broadway show that was particularly diverse in its casting coming under the withering barrage of the internet for replacing its young, black leading man with an older, white man. Now that show, which had a cast featuring numerous people of color, is closing, due in part to all the outrage. The most looked-up-to part of the US theater economy just got a lot less diverse, because a bunch of people were mad that it wasn't diverse enough.
A touring production of The Little Mermaid has been getting vociferous complaints from patrons, because the woman playing Ariel happens to be of Asian descent. (Never mind the fact that these are fictional characters who interact with talking fish and an evil octopus-lady; the reality of the show is just absolutely broken by a character who isn't white.) A nationally-renowned playwright is forced to cancel a production of his show because the company producing it decided to make unauthorized changes to the script, in spite of the fact that our industry vociferously claims its undying support for the artists that make it possible (as long as it's convenient for them). The ongoing debacle over Harvard's A.R.T. theater program angrily outlines the fact that an advanced degree in theater is yet another glue trap of debt in an economy bent on placing itself totally in hock to the credit-industrial complex.
I think back on that girl on the street in London. I remember telling her, as I tell my girlfriend now whenever she gets overwhelmed by this world, "It's all going to be OK." Usually, that works. At the very least, it got that girl up on her feet and in search of a corner shop that would sell her some juice, which is pretty much all she needed at that moment in order to make sense of this world.
After one of my shows in this year's festival, a small group of people came up to me. They had come up from Rochester, and they wanted to thank me for "that article you wrote." For a moment, my mind raced. I write a new article every week, and god knows what thing I tossed off in the middle of the night after a couple glasses of whiskey. Then I remember, it was about the troubles at Rochester Civic Theatre. They were very invested in making their local theater institution be a better place, and they were just glad that somebody listened to them, that someone was kind to them. I would have like to talk to them longer, but you only have so much time to break down your show at Fringe and clear out. After they leave, I remember something that Kurt Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you've got to be kind."
So, anyway, as I clear through these post-Fringe blues, I want to leave you with some precious bit of news that feels good in this world. How about you read this story from the Des Moines Register about how a group saved their former high school from demolition by starting up a professional summerstock theater in the building.
As I've said before, "Art won't save the world; it'll just make it worth saving." You guys down there in Iowa, and all you brilliant, beautiful theater nerds that continue to turn out a wonderful Fringe Festival every year, you should know that you're making it worth saving. Keep up the good work, and let's do this again next year.