More than 18 months after the debut of InFringe Fest, a showcase of experimental theater and performance, organizers are ready to do it again, this time with even loftier ambitions.
The inaugural InFringe Fest was intended to be a one-time event, an opportunity to fill a vacancy left in the local performance community when the New Orleans Fringe Festival pulled up stakes in 2014. While fringe festivals happen regularly in cities around the world, organizers of the New Orleans Fringe Festival laid claim to the capital-F “Fringe” name when they left and threatened legal action against any trademark infringement, starting a spat that inspired the new festival’s wink-and-a-nod name.
The official successor of the now-defunct New Orleans Fringe Festival was intended to be the Faux/Real Festival, which made a big splash in the fall 2015 before scaling back to barely-there proportions in 2016. But Faux/Real is taking a hiatus this fall to regroup, and InFringe Fest hopes to capitalize on the absence.
“This year is my bid for InFringe to be the new Fringe Festival,” said Michael Martin, a veteran of the New Orleans theater scene who serves as InFringe Fest’s director of artists relations. “The first one was successful, people were very happy with it, and it’s kind of ridiculous that New Orleans not have some sort of fringe festival.”
Along with Richard Mayer, who manages the Valiant Theatre and Lounge and acts as InFringe Fest’s director of venue relations, Martin hopes that this year’s event will provide a smooth-running, easy-to-navigate experience for both artists and audiences, setting the stage for an annual event that highlights the work of do-it-yourself theater artists from New Orleans and beyond.
“Everybody feels like they’re out there alone, like they’re starting from scratch every time they want to put on a costume and find a stage,” Martin explained. “If Infringe Fest goes even a modest way in connecting the DIY producers to one another, I’ll be happy.”
This year’s InFringe Fest features nearly 40 shows at 10 venues in the Marigny-Bywater, St. Roch and Old Arabi neighborhoods.
Several of the shows examine the history and culture of New Orleans, including “Transposing Omaha,” a never-before-produced play by the late New Orleans writer Danny Kerwick (who was the inspiration for the character Francis in Lisa D’Amour’s Broadway play “Airline Highway”), and “Calisaya Blues” by Louis Maistros, about a turn-of-the-century Storyville prostitute navigating an unexpected pregnancy.
The fest also includes a number of out-of-town entries. “Piece of Me,” by Portland artists Myrrh Larsen and Meg Russell, is described as a “romantic madness musical” about a fictional musician from the 1930s, while Los Angeles collective FreakShow Deluxe draws on classic circus-style sideshow acts for the piece “How to Do Sideshow for Fun & Profit.”
New York-based performer Chris Roe’s creepy campfire tale about the history of a ghost town, “Whales and Souls,” lands at InFringe Fest after appearing at fringe festivals in New York and Prague. Roe, who co-created “Whales and Souls” with director Matt Renskers and writer Andrew Kramer, plays seven different characters in his tour of this forgotten place, often pinballing rapidly from character to character.
“The show starts, and I just never let up, so you get sucked into the story, and you get sucked into the characters,” Roe said. “It moves so quickly that it’s not a sit-back-and-relax kind of show. It really keeps you on your toes.”
Another known quantity at this year’s InFringe Fest is the dark comedy “Is She Dead Yet?” by Brandon J. Simmons, about a dying suburban housewife who is the last black person on earth. Loosely inspired by Euripides’ tragedy “Alcestis,” the play won Seattle’s 2016 Gregory Award for Outstanding New Play. The show gets a new production at InFringe, helmed by local director Kendra Unique Wills, who said she was attracted to the show’s over-the-top humor and touchy subject matter.
“A lot of very strange things happen to this woman, and people deal with it without any sort of compassion,” Wills said. “This play makes me a little bit uncomfortable, but I like theater that pushes you to feel a way that’s uncommon in most entertainment.”
InFringe Fest’s wide range of performances also includes activist poetry (“”The Sleeper Cell Show” featuring New Orleans performer A Scribe Called Quess?), puppetry (“Spoons” and “Kate Culhane and the Dead Middle Man”) and burlesque (“Booze, Broads & Bukowski”).
‘A Fighting Chance’
There’s no easy way to sum up the diverse offerings of InFringe Fest, but one unifying thread is the passionate artists committed to outside-the-box theater and performance, even if it often means smaller audiences and less financial stability than more mainstream productions.
Martin recognizes that many InFringe shows might be “too peculiar, too small or too much by people who aren’t recognized” to be commercially viable in traditional theater spaces.
Therefore, he said, the value of a fringe festival — regardless of what you call it — is “to showcase the stuff that has less of a fighting chance in the marketplace as it stands.”
WHEN: Nov. 15-19
WHERE: Multiple venues
TICKETS: $10/$100 weekend/$90 in advance)