Filling the time capsule

IMG_6310 In two weeks of covering the Fringe, I created about 200 files that will land in the archive. These include photos and video recordings of performances at Venue 13 as well as a few audio recordings of interviews with cast and crew members. Then there are all the dozens of fliers and ticket stubs that I collected from other shows, as well as another hundred photos from other parts of the Fringe. Add these to the hundreds of files that my classmates have created or collected, and we’ll have a fairly sizable archive for this year’s Fringe. It’s interesting to think about how much ephemeral information we captured that would ordinarily have persisted only in the memories of the people who took part in these events.

But what or who is the archive for? On several occasions over the past few weeks I’ve been asked about who might use all of these files. The theatre people from CalArts and York University seemed happy to be recorded and delighted at the thought of having representations of their work preserved in a library, but many of them wondered about who might use this archive one day.

I’ve asked myself this question, too, and found myself imagining several possible users, including scholars and practitioners. Maybe some historian one day will want to study the evolution of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival or of CalArts productions at the Fringe. Maybe in 50 years a scholar will want to explore what sort of social, political, economic, or gender issues were involved in American college theatre of the early twenty-first century. Maybe a biographer will want to examine the early work of an actor or dramaturge who went on to become very successful. Maybe a producer will want to consult the video recording of a particular drama because they are thinking of restaging it. Or maybe one of the actors we filmed will want to show their grandchildren something from their days in drama school.

Because of my experience studying musicology, it’s a little easier for me to picture the possible scholarly applications of archives in the performing arts. When I was researching a particular piece of music from the 1930s written for a play, I would have loved to have access to any documentation from the original production, let alone oral histories of those involved, yet there seemed to be little available because the show was not very successful. At the time, who would have thought to invite a team of archivists to capture and preserve information about the production?

I hope that future scholars and theatre companies will discover and use the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe archive that my colleagues and I worked so hard to put together. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll want to explore it myself for research or just to be reminded of a very rewarding experience.

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13 ways of looking at a black box

Some observations and reflections on Venue 13:

1. The fringe is economical: it fills every available street corner, nook and cranny, every possible time slot. A dark theater is a sad theater.

2. The productions conform to the space while transforming the space. They have to accept the restricted size but they also make it an element in their story.

3. Pomegranate Jam limits itself to two dimensions of the theater. Silhouettes of puppets and actors and props are projected against a scrim. With no dialogue, the play relies instead on movement and music to tell the story of Persephone’s descent into the underworld. In a predominantly black and white world, the appearance of colored projections and a very red sparkling pomegranate stand out.

4. The 15-minute gaps between shows are breaks only for spectators. For everyone involved in the theater, it is a mad rush to strike the previous set and install the new one. The crew frets over the main overhead projector at the venue, which seems at times to be slow to load the new projections and get centered. Stage managers call out how much time is left until the house is supposed to open. When it does, the audience has little idea how much sweat was spilled in the last 15 minutes.

5. Things From Before builds an elaborate set of 17 window or picture frames hanging from the overhead light rigs and includes a jumble of some 30 alarm clocks piled up in the back. The eight-member cast fill every inch of the stage, dancing at the opening before settling into an anxious family drama that gets interrupted by absurdist dance and musical interludes. It’s Tennessee Williams by way of David Lynch.

6. The space accommodates the narrative, the lyrical, the literal, the abstract; the wholesome, the risqué, the avant-garde; the minimalist, the mannered. Likewise, the space accepts all types of spectators: young, old, traditionalist, adventurous.

7. Victims of Influence features four young women who awake frightened to discover their human forms and the destinies that are laid out for them. Bits of story come through in movement, expression, projections and recorded snippets of dialogue. The characters have few lines of original, live dialogue; much of what they speak on stage is a direct quotation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The effect is often unsettling but very thought provoking about how perceptions can shape one’s identity.

8. Projections, prerecorded sound, light displays: only occasionally are these mere enhancements of the story; often they are critical elements. In a scene at the end of Victims, the house lights come up, implicating the spectator as an influence on the characters’ predicaments.

9. Outside the theatre, a large man in a bear suit hands out flyers to rein in an audience for Fleeced. I haven’t seen it yet so I have no idea what the connection is to the story, which I thought had to do with the Golden Fleece.

10. In Yellow Fever, a tortured painter who aspires to be Vincent Van Gogh is obsessed with the color yellow, personified in a female character who is alternately his model, muse, lover, critic, and tormentor. The stage is covered in a yellow surface and bathed in colorful lights that drip like paint on a canvas.

11. Colorfully dressed people come and go from outside the theater. It is occasionally unclear whether someone in unusual clothing is in costume or just a very artsy/weird spectator.

12. The female lead of Kaspar begins by pounding on the door of the house, staggering inside and repeating a cryptic phrase about wanting to be like somebody else was once. One by one, eight more characters appear, interrogating, lecturing, musing, explaining about language and the spaces between the signifiers and the signifieds, the past and the present. Are we in a mental institution? A coffin? A circus? The story seems at times chaotic and relentless but develops in an interesting way, and the actors do an excellent job.

13. From outside the theater, there is no way to tell from a program or flyers just what is taking place within. The space truly is a black box, its contents known only to those brave enough to peek inside.

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What makes a city a Festival City?

I’ve been thinking about this question since I started planning for my trip to Edinburgh, which is clearly a Festival City and not merely a city that happens to hold a festival. But where does the distinction lie? I think of festival cities as places that get completely swept up in an event throughout the town, where residents and visitors are equally likely to attend events, and where the normal order of things is suspended for several days.

But what causes these features to be present in some cities but not others?

New York, for example, is a worldly city with a million cultural things to do, but those things are about equally available and appealing throughout the year. There are festivals, of course, celebrating an exhibit, a composer, a film competition, or the like, but these festivals tend to occupy just a few pages of that week’s 100-page Time Out. On the other hand, a city like Montreal, where I lived for several years, transforms itself into festival central for the entire summer, starting with the Fringe Fest, Grand Prix weekend, the Jazz Fest, Just for Laughs, Francofolies, and more. Downtown streets become pedestrian-only spaces for much of the time, and there are noteworthy free and paid events happening almost every night. The festivals are able to attract big-name acts, which is great for the period of the festival; however, there may be a relative shortage of, for example, big-name jazz acts visiting during the rest of the year. I think of New Orleans (mardi gras, French Quarter fest, jazz fest) and Austin (South by Southwest) as other Festival Cities.

So, here are some of the qualities I associate with arts festivals and Festival Cities:

1. They are multidisciplinary, mixed-arts festivals. Festivals that limit themselves to a particular medium or genre will also limit their audience. One of the things that is so impressive about the Edinburgh Fringe program is the diversity: comedy, spoken word, theatre, music, and cabaret, each of which can be subdivided into too many bizarre subgenres to count. A man in an animal suit performing a monologue about his mother while riding a unicycle? The Fringe probably has about a dozen such shows. Want Shakespeare or Mozart straight up? The Fringe has that too.

2. They are democratic festivals that include free and ticketed events, in public as well as private spaces. Holding events outdoors and marking a street as “Festival Central” brings extra visibility to the event and allows people to attend while spending as much or as little money as they choose. The democratic nature also allows for an eclectic group of artists who participate.

3. The cities have a notable arts scene outside of festival season. I also think of festival cities as having a significant presence of college students and artists who are eager to be involved in the festivals.

4. The cities have lousy weather for a good portion of the year, which makes locals want to take advantage of the few months when temperatures are pleasant. This was definitely true in Montreal and my hometown of Buffalo, where locals never let a sunny day pass without a visit to a terrace. I suspect it is also a factor in Edinburgh, which can be dark and soggy for months.

What else could be added to this list? I hope that after two weeks in Edinburgh I’ll have some additional thoughts.

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