Inclusion and the Unknown: Pittsburgh Fringe Festival 2018

10928170_336051573250720_289964796702080005_n (1)“I guess I’d call it…an interactive Bingo comedy.”

I’m sitting at a coffee shop in the North Side, typing away at first draft of my coverage for the 2017 Fringe Festival, which (for me) began with Joey Buchecker’s Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace. I think about Roger Ebert’s old maxim: when in doubt, write what you saw. It’s a good rule to live by as a critic, because there are times when you become overwhelmed by a show, or in this case a series of shows, and your only recourse is to succumb to experience.

I look up from my laptop to my theater companion, who is unwrapping a piece of hard candy she had been pelted with earlier. In a rapture of Bingo euphoria during Bingo Palace’s first act, Betsy napalmed the audience with an assortment hard candy; one surprised elderly woman had gasped as the projectile hit an adjacent audience member square on the head.

My friend peers over the notes strewn across the table at our schedule to see what’s next, and asks, “One Man Apocalypse Now…that can’t be a literal title, right?” It was. “I mean, you’d have to be out of your mind to make a one man show out of that movie.” You would. “It would be an insane thing to do.” It is – and it was beautiful.

The thing with the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, which is gearing up for another weekend of art and mania on April 6th through the 8th, is that it is an experience. Nearly two dozen shows, each an hour(ish) long are performed throughout each day at a variety of North Side venues; some are from local artists debuting new work, others from seasoned Fringe vets returning with fan favorites from around the country. There are more than 200 Fringe Festivals around the world and over 50 in North America – ours is one of the youngest.

Because attending the Fringe Festival is so much like unearthing buried treasure, it’s important to have a few shows in particular to orbit your Fringe experience around. Xela Batchelder, Pittsburgh Fringe’s executive director, had a few suggestions for me when I had the opportunity to speak to her about the upcoming festival:

Voice of Authority, an autobiographical one man show by Dean Temple, covers a period of the artist’s life in which the US Department of Justice served him with a $19,000,000 lawsuit. It’s comedic in nature, and is somehow also – mysteriously – about music and matzoh ball soup.

Peter Michael Marino’s Show Up, “an improvised solo comedy about your crazy life” which premiered at the largest Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, promises to be a perennial Fringe favorite. Armed with little more than post-it notes, stage lights and the anecdotal direction of the audience, Marino uses the precious few tools at his disposal to subvert the comedic one man show format.

To My Unborn Child: A Love Letter from Fred Hampton, performed by Iron Age Theatre’s Richard Bradford, is a likely devastating retelling of true-to-life grief, loss, compassion and empowerment. Hampton, a Black Panther, was murdered by Chicago police in front of his pregnant wife; the show represents Hampton’s final sentiments to the son he’d never be allowed to meet.

Of the shows Xela and I discussed, New Vintage Ensemble’s #vanlife caught my attention immediately because its premise so neatly encapsulates the Fringe’s spirit. It is, literally speaking, a show about people who move into a van. The blurb promises it is about messy folks living in a “perfectly tailored photo gallery” of a world, and so they “become unhinged” and “document everything.” As a set of descriptors, the show promises to be esoteric, weird, evocative and totally interpretable to the reader. The only way for an interested festival attendee to solve the riddle of its existence is to seek it out and unearth it themselves.

Audience members who commit themselves to an entire day or weekend of theater binging should come prepared to feel, more or less, unprepared. Many of the shows are unknowable until experienced, and few adhere to tradition. Xela considers the Fringe’s role to be therefore both instructive and inviting.

“I feel like we – and the festival – have to train audiences to think of theater differently. You’re so used to going in to see a show that you’ve heard or read about, [but with this] you have to go in with an open mind, because [a show] could be anything. You never know what you’re gonna come across. It’s kind of exciting.”

In addition to the value and variety of the Fringe Festival’s content, the unique quality of the individual theatergoer’s experience is an important factor of the festival’s appeal. Even considering the nationally touring shows appearing this year, few festival attendees will have a comprehensive knowledge of the Fringe’s theatric lineup. The ability of a person to zig-zag between the obscure, the conventional and everything in between is unparalleled in Pittsburgh’s art scene. No two Fringe experiences are ever truly the same.

This goes for both audience and artist. Showrunners, performers and audience members weave in and out of the same bars and cafes in between shows. Because of the structure of the festival, the barrier between raw, local indie experiments and budgeted mainstream successes are essentially eliminated.

“Fringe just feels more inclusive. It gives opportunities to people who might be curated out, or who don’t get a chance. Fringes kinda help grow the scene in a city. It gives people chances to go out and try things, and some of them then keep going with it and do bigger things.”

As far as I’m concerned, Pittsburgh’s Fringe Festival has room to grow, and I really hope it does. It’s an environment that is weird, inclusive, friendly, shocking, and occasionally bruise-making (if one participates in the violence of an interactive Bingo comedy, at least). So rarely in art and life are we afforded both inclusion and discovery on a whim, which is the Fringe Festival’s greatest ambition. There’s nothing like it in the city. This kind of artistic translucence makes for a difficult event to preview, but that’s the point.

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