When you haven’t had a haircut in more than 14 months and haven’t shaved for the last four, you get used to people calling you all kinds of things.
Grizzly Adams. Zach Galifinakis. Billy Connolly. Old web master. Hey, at least they’re mostly actors. Welcome to the life of an actor and producer at the 2012 Winnipeg Fringe Festival.
Each year, Winnipeggers get their Fringe programs, mark them up and start attending shows. Some claim to see upwards of 100 shows over the course of 12 days. Many a Winnipegger volunteers at the festival, from working the doors of shows or peeling off caps in the beer tent, to a host of other duties.
However, even the most frequent Fringer likely doesn’t see the work that goes into each production. Planning usually begins the previous calendar year.
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Fringe hopefuls sat in the King’s Head Pub last fall with all kinds of plans for producing a show in the 2012 Fringe Festival. I was planning pyro, live music, horror. However, the real horror that evening was not being selected amongst the 200-plus hopeful companies in the lottery.
Flash forward to March 2012 and after having shelved any Fringe production plans of my own, I took off my producer’s hat and put on a performer’s cap, looking to be cast by one of the companies who were lucky enough to be selected.
I was selfish and looking for something specific. After too many acting gigs in a row taking place in the "here and now," it was time to look to the past.
Enter One Bird Walking Theatre’s The Plague Doctor’s Daughter. It does go way back. Not the 1950s, but the 1350s. This was the journey I was hoping to take for Fringe as a performer. It could have taken place in 2550. But then we wouldn’t have history to fall back on and mine for performance, set and character. Weekly rehearsals— twice weekly come June.
As luck would have it, the day after being cast in The Plague Doctor’s Daughter, my phone rings. It’s Winnipeg Fringe producer Chuck McEwen.
"We’ve had some cancellations. Do you want in?"
I can’t say no. With less than four months to mount a show, I knew my options would be limited. The easiest solution is always right in front of you. Or right behind you. With some November 2011 workshop shows of my own script Revolver 101 still relatively fresh in mind, it was time to see how deep I could get into Fringe 2012. Turns out about waist deep. I will be taking the stage 14 times over the next 12 days. I think I’m ready. Two shows certainly isn’t a Fringe record of any kind, but I do have a day job.
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The two shows could not be any more different.
Some days it feels as smooth as drumming — learning to divide the body to play four parts at the same time. Other times, it feels like trying to put out a fire with a hammer.
On Plague Doctor, I’ve been cast in a colourful supporting role. It is sole the reason for the hippy length hair and Kubrickian beard length. Then a request to direct the play. This is a misnomer, because Plague Doctor from the outset has been a group creation from the performance point of view. Actors and others on set have collectively hammered out the blocking, or the movements of the play. As playwright David Mamet says, there is no mystical process, it usually gets done over a two-day period while months are spent doing other things.
I know John Sturko, River Heights based writer of The Plague Doctor’s Daughter may let this go to his head, but the production has been very …Shakespearean. Full costumes. Outdoor rehearsals. A big, rotating, multiple-role cast, large set, lots of moving parts. Acting with a group of strangers learning about each other as they learn the play can sometimes can be tough. Not here, though.
Plague Doctor’s production mechanics are a stark contrast to Revolver 101, where the plot and indeed entire production, is based around one essential prop — a handgun. Actors come out, talk for an hour, yell a little, and then it’s lights down. A conversation taking place in real time. No set changes.
This production isn’t a case of strangers getting to know each other, rather a tested piece that myself and another actor, St. Boniface resident and medical student Lacina Dembele, already know back to front. At the same time, the show could be performed anywhere because there is no set to speak of. Give us some space, and we’ll bust it out for you anywhere, anytime.
What makes staging Revolver 101 more daunting is all the production duties. PR. Posters. Handbills. Late nights. Poster monitoring. Best spots to poster. To handbill. Handbilling other shows. Shows that are similar to yours (we’re better!) shows that are different (we’re new/try us!)
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This past weekend was spent in technical rehearsals for both shows. Saturday, Revolver 101. Sunday, Plague Doctor.
Technical rehearsals — it’s a conversation I’ve had with producer McEwen before. It may be single most important three hours for a production prior to Fringe performances.
"It pays for all shows to be really prepared long before the technical rehearsal, regardless of what venue shows might be in. The more prepared the show is, the better accomplished it will be," he says.
Technical rehearsals are for venue technicians familiar with lighting, sound and any other cues related to the shows. Some shows have two light cues: lights up at the beginning, lights down at the end of show. Others are more complex with upwards of 100 cues for a 45-minute performance.