Fringe Effect

Now in its 14th Year, the KC Fringe Festival has Transformed the Landscape of the Local Theater

Without KC Fringe, the local theater scene would not be what it is.

The Fringe, which will present its 14th annual potpourri of performances, film, visual arts and youth activities spanning 10 days in July, got off to an unwieldy start in its inaugural year— mainly because nobody had attempted a fringe festival in Kansas City before.

KC Fringe, like other fringe fests around the country, took its cue from the Mother Ship: The Edinburgh Fringe, which began in 1947 in Scotland. Some Kansas City-based artists, such as Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre co-founder Bob Paisley, have performed at Edinburgh. As a producer, Paisley has taken shows to the three-week Edinburgh fest, including Jakob Holder’s “Bedtime Stories,” with local actors Amy Kelly (now Amy Attaway) and Jordan Fox.

Paisley’s experience with Edinburgh indirectly inspired his “British Invasion” events, in which he invites artists from the UK and elsewhere to perform in Kansas City. For two years, Paisley presented the Brits as part of KC Fringe but the festival’s limit on ticket prices made importing talent from overseas untenable.

But Paisley is just one example. Playwright Vicki Vodrey took two plays originally staged at KC Fringe to the Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York. Actor/director/playwright Kyle Hatley, former associate artistic director at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, used the Fringe to refine his epic “The Death of Cupid,” which later received a full production at the Living Room.

A nostalgic comedy, “The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe,” followed a similar track. The show, written by Seth Macchi, Ben Auxier and Brian Huther, was first staged in abbreviated form at the Fringe and later was produced at the Living Room as a two-act musical. Then it went on to be performed at the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival.

You could argue that the amount of grass-roots theater available in Kansas City, from the Fishtank to the Buffalo Room, from the Living Room to the KC MeltingPot Theatre productions at Just Off Broadway Theatre, directly reflect KC Fringe’s influence.

Vodrey said the value of the fringe festival is in its role as an incubator. At the Fringe, writers can get plays on their feet so they can see what works and what needs improvement.

“You hear from many artists that Fringe is a soft place to fall,” Vodrey said. “It’s an excellent place to get experience producing a play without breaking the bank. You can learn a lot about the festival circuit, as the majority of festivals have a lot in common operationally. It is a great training ground.”

Director/playwright Phil Kinen has used the festival as a launching pad for an ambitious cycle of plays about the life of Huck Finn. The “Huck Eternal Cycle” consists of six one-acts that depict Mark Twain’s picaresque hero from childhood to old age. Through the last three years, Kinen has staged the first, third and fourth titles in the cycle. This year at Fringe he’ll present the second, “Huck Finn and the Mystery of the Ominous Shadow.

And if all goes according to plan, Kinen will present the fifth and sixth installments as a full-length play under the title “In Regard to Flight” later this year at Just Off Broadway. In that piece, the 72-year-old Huck and his old pal Tom Sawyer, also 72, reflect on their lives.

“I absolutely love producing for the Fringe Festival,” Kinen said. “It is so conducive for independent producers to get their work produced and seen. Primarily it is far less expensive to produce during Fringe since they offer amenities, such as venues, lighting and sound equipment . . . They also provide a great amount of publicity and a substantial audience following.”

Another advantage, Kinen said, is that the festival demands discipline. Shows have to run 60 minutes — no exceptions.

“The Fringe Festival runs on a very tight schedule and hard-core Fringe-goers rely on that schedule,” he said. “Running overtime is a disservice to those audience members. The past four productions in which I was involved were running overtime — some considerably — two nights before we opened. Having that wonderful constraint conditioned me to recognize the fat in the script that could be trimmed or cut.”

Many of the plays presented at the Fringe are, by definition, works in progress. That offers creators the opportunity to rewrite between performances.

“Don’t stop working on the project,” Hatley said. “Even though it’s open, use it as a lab. It’s exciting to develop your own work and premiere it to an audience, but the Fringe offers a unique opportunity for those generating new work. We kept rewriting and changing and addressing things we learned by having audiences present. Each performance offers a chance to recalibrate the work and take steps towards a tighter, more realized version.”

In 2010 Hatley directed his play “Head,” based on the story of Salome and John the Baptist, for the Fringe. As is his custom, he asked a lot of the actors.

“Natalie Liccardello and Matt Rapport and Manon Halliburton and Allan Boardman received rewrites almost nightly,” Hatley recalled. “And they would let me know what was too much to incorporate into an evening and what they felt confident they could handle — which, thankfully, for me was a lot. But they helped guide me on what was doable and what wasn’t.”

Vanessa Severo, a playwright and actor, has appeared in several Fringe productions, including her own “Advice From a Spider,” a sort of children’s show that deals with the transitory nature of existence and the inevitability of death. She said audience feedback was a crucial part of the Fringe experience.

“Each Kansas City audience is made up of individuals who bring their own cultural reference points, political beliefs, sexual preferences and interpretations of a production,” she said. “KC Fringe offers the playwright feedback from a collection of individuals sharing a common experience. I’ve been able to further develop my work by viewing what happens to an audience — watch their experience and see what’s connecting.”

Playwright Pete Bakely said that without the Fringe, local audiences might never have seen his two R-rated farces, “Skillet Tag” and “Drunks.”

“Fringe changed the biology of Kansas City theater,” Bakely said. “After decades of theater productions being available only to those that owned theaters, (Fringe) made it available and affordable to everybody.”

He said the city’s smaller venues — the Fishtank, the Buffalo Room, the Living Room — opened as a result of Fringe. The festival also triggered a virtual explosion of work by local playwrights.

Bakely’s first Fringe show was “Jet Propulsion,” which he was able to stage at the Unicorn for less than $500. He earned back every penny he spent. Later, in partnership with producer Kelsey Kallenberger, he staged “Skillet Tag” and “Drunks,” both of which eventually received full productions in Kansas City. “Skillet Tag” was also produced in Columbus, Ohio.

“I owe my career as a playwright to Fringe,” he said.

Fringe Benefits

Aside from strict time limits, the festival allows artists total freedom to write and perform according to their creative instincts.

Comedian Susanna Lee (aka Lucky DeLuxe) has performed at the Fringe and more than once emceed the opening night ceremonies. She credits the festival for being a major factor in her development as an artist.

“Throughout the 10 years that I produced and performed at the KC Fringe, I learned how to create pieces that honored the importance of my true self-expression over merely being crowd-pleasing,” she said. “As a touring comedian, there was always a lot of pressure to fit into a box deemed safe/acceptable . . . I mean, I was playing places where I didn’t even have to open my mouth to be judged, and I felt like I really had to curtail myself in the interest of getting paid and rebooked into places I didn’t even want to be in the first place.”

But the Fringe, which has never imposed censorship rules on its artists, gave Lee the freedom to be an authentic version of herself.

“Fringe Fest provides an opportunity for artists like me to create without pre-set, rigid boundaries,” Lee said. “No great artist (in any genre) has developed their true voice and gotten comfortable enough with it to allow it to blossom without the kind of nurturing environment provided by the KC Fringe family.”

When Michelle Tyrene Johnson, an attorney and journalist, decided to start writing plays, her first accepted work was a 10-minute play in the Barn Players’ annual 6 by 10 showcase.

“(But) it was my first Fringe Festival outing with a group of playwrights in 2012 that opened the door for me,” Johnson said. “The positive feedback I got from that experience, combined with the deep satisfaction I got from helping to put together a show, lit a fire in me.”

Things started happening fast for Johnson. Before her stand-alone “Wiccans in the Hood” was staged at the 2013 Fringe, it had already been selected for a small festival in New York City.

All told, Johnson has staged four of her plays at the Fringe. And her work has been accepted in other festivals across the country.

“As much as I enjoyed Fringe the four years I’ve done it, I appreciate it even more in retrospect,” Johnson said. “Its built-in marketing (and) camaraderie . . . takes the headache out of finding a venue or finding an audience to tap into. More important than that, however, is that it allows an unconnected playwright to write your heart out and have the opportunity (for) someone other than your dog or your parents to hear and feel the words.”

If a playwright has a physical place where actors can speak the words for a listening audience, “then you go from being someone who writes plays to being a playwright. Fringe lets you be a playwright.”

So has Fringe had a positive impact on local theater? Without a doubt.

But as an artist and producer with experience at international fringe festivals in Edinburgh and Adelaide, South Australia (which attract international artists), Paisley thinks KC has a way to go.

The Holy Grail among big fringe festivals is to be the originating venue for breakout hits comparable to “Urinetown the Musical,” first staged at the New York International Fringe Festival, or “Stomp,” the percussion musical that exploded out of Edinburgh. On a smaller scale, Guy Masterson, Pip Utton and other UK performers Paisley has invited to Kansas City are Edinburgh veterans who tour internationally. Edinburgh introduces their work to bookers and producers from around the world.

“I’d like to see them recruit more experienced performers to come to KC, but there is not yet a real incentive for focused fringe (artists) to take the chance and make the trip,” Paisley said. “If they are guaranteed a financial loss, there is little else in ‘fringe’ benefits to encourage participation — no coordinated reviewing program, no producers looking to book shows. It’s much easier to lose money closer to home.”

KC Fringe performances and exhibits will be in various downtown and midtown venues July 19-29. For more information, call 816-359-9195 or visit www.kcfringe.org.

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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