Monday, November 25, 2013

Fringe Fest showcases offbeat productions

"Oregon Trail" photographed by Liz Gore
Past the bar in the AllWays Lounge and Theatre on St. Claude Avenue is a small room where UNO graduate student Carrie Knopf was playing the video game Oregon Trail.
She was waiting to enter the bar’s theater, which is currently outfitted with a general store and half of a rustic wagon for the NOLA Project’s theatrical comic riff on the video game.
If this doesn’t sound like normal theater, that’s because it isn’t. It’s part of the New Orleans Fringe Festival, a five-year-old, five-day theater festival taking place mostly in various venues in the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods.
Known to fans simply as Fringe, it ends Sunday.
This year’s festival — which includes 76 productions, 36 more than when it began in 2008 — is replete with a parade, some family-friendly shows and a walking “yard art” tour, during which patrons pick up cards to prove they’ve visited each exhibit. Ten cards earn a free beer at the box office. Twenty-five get you a T-shirt.
The festival’s crowded pop-up box office/gathering place is in an alleyway behind the Mardi Gras Zone warehouse on the edge of Marigny, where the aroma of burgers fills the air as people wander about. They hold cups of beer and read posters for plays with titles like “House of Lunacy!” and “Ballsy, Offensive, and Funny As F***.”
According to co-founder Kristen Evans, Fringe is about “capturing the spirit of … experimental, weird, offbeat stuff.”
Some people, like local artist Amy Lutz, stop by the box office just to sip a coffee and survey the play schedule while en route elsewhere. Others buy tickets.
Almost everyone wears a white Fringe button — required for entry — on a lapel.
“Every year, [the festival] grows by 15 percent,” Evans said.
That growing popularity might be due, in part, to the growth of small, independently owned theaters and theater companies such as the NOLA Project.
Begun at New York University by New Orleans native Andrew Larimer, the NOLA Project staged its first show weeks before Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, Larimer and several other NYU grads moved to New Orleans.
“There was an artistic void here after the storm,” company member Sam Dudley said.
“There was a lack of what we felt was a lot of good legitimate theater, and what seemed like an excess of community musical theater,” said A.J. Allegra, writer and director of the theatrical “Oregon Trail” and the NOLA Project’s artistic director. “It felt like we were filing a void for some people.”
When the NOLA Project arrived in New Orleans, it was uniquely positioned between the regional theaters and the Broadway-in-New Orleans shows. Since then, more groups like it have slowly taken root in the city.
“We have a season,” company member Keith Claverie said. “We don’t have a home.”
In some ways, Allegra said, the NOLA Project model fits the city.
“New Orleans is a city of start-up business and entrepreneurship, and I think theater has kind of reflected that in its own business sense,” he said, pointing out that many transplants “moved down to be part of the theater scene.”
Locals are getting in on the action, too.
Tami Nelson, founder of New Movement Theatre, participated this year in the festival’s “Bring Your Own Venue” option. Fringe operates six venues, each “a fully functional theater,” according to Evans. But artists of all stripes can be included in the official festival guide. All they have to do is register with Fringe.
Nelson began taking improvisation classes in 2003. Hurricane Katrina forced her to Austin, Texas, where she opened the first New Movement Theatre with Chris Trew. The two always planned to return and open a second theater in New Orleans, and in 2010, “the vibe was just right, and we felt it was hitting this fever pitch and would take off,” Nelson said. “And it did.”
Nelson credits the storm for the surge of small theaters in the city.
“I think a lot of people, when their mettle was tested, a lot of people were like, ‘I’m gonna do the thing that I want to do,’” Nelson said. “‘I’m gonna do my thing to make New Orleans bad-ass, because we almost lost her.’”
Fringe only adds to this fever.
“There were tons of people going around from weird-ass warehouse to weird-ass shop-front to whatever,” Nelson said about last year’s Fringe Festival. “To me, it was super-exciting.”
The shows range from variety to drama to cabaret and everything in between. One, “Invocation of the Androgynous Muse” at Kajun’s Pub, involves an androgynous person sitting on stage while the audience helps create an enormous painting.
The adults-only show “Nothing You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Too Bored to Ask)” takes place at Mag’s Bar and features a Wisconsinite and a Brit.
Much of it cannot be recounted in print, but juggling, jiggling, open letters to female genitalia and something called the “pencil test” are all involved.
Maybe these sorts of shows have always taken place in New Orleans, and Fringe simply acts as a guide to the weird, the offensive and the bizarre.
Or maybe Fringe birthed them.
Either way, as Evans said, “Fringe is going to reflect the nature of the city.”

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