The Miss Julie Dream Project and Time Machine: The Musical: Not Extended, but Still Winners

hff13-hollywood-fringe-festival-2013-poster-lgThe “Best of Fringe Extensions” program has swung into full gear, and, excited for the chance to see some of the shows I missed the first time around, I went to the Hollywood Fringe website looking for a list of shows. I went to the home page, then the blog, then the “about” section. Nothing. No list of shows and no link to the Best of Fringe Extensions (a separate entity) home page, despite the fact that the shows are all still selling tickets through the Fringe site. Even the Extensions home page only provides lists of shows once you’ve already clicked on a venue.

Hmmmm, I thought, doing my best Marge Simpson.

This communication gap reflects a frustration I’ve had with the Fringe website all along–it does nothing to help potential audience members who don’t know the artists and haven’t been personally invited figure out what to see. The broad and seemingly overlapping categories are not further broken down by any meaningful system of tags, meaning that A) clicking on a category only narrows down your choices to, in one case, 67 shows, and B) that potential audience members who don’t see what they’re looking for in the categories have no other way to peruse shows by interest. In addition, the meanings of the categories themselves are opaque. What does ensemble theater mean? Why is there comedy but no tragedy? Does comedy really mean stand up? Why are so many solo shows listed under comedy and not under solo performance? If an audience member clicks on solo performance, shouldn’t she be able to assume that all of the solo shows are listed there?

The lack of a link to the Best of Fringe Extensions page also illuminates a larger confusion about what Best of Fringe Extensions means. According to the Best of Fringe Extensions website, the shows are chosen because they have “artistic merit, commercial viability, and development potential.” However, I saw many shows that met all three criteria and yet were not extended. At least one show that sold out every performance, for example, did not “win” Best of Fringe.

It’s not just the participants who need to know. The audience should know what it’s being sold. For example, how does the Extensions program define “artistic merit”? Does “development potential” refer to artistic development? In other words, if a show is finished, is it not considered? Or is development potential really another way of saying commercial viability? Best of Fringe Extensions is framed as a competition which certain shows “win.” A public statement as to criteria for winning would make the win more plumb for the artists and more meaningful for the audience.

Mind you, I say these things out of love. Cindy Marie Jenkins‘ made a great list of this year’s successful engagement strategies and I agree with all of them. As someone who is  just getting involved in the Los Angeles theater community, the Fringe provided an invaluable opportunity for me to meet fellow travelers on the artistic road. By training producers and bringing most (not all–more on that later) of the Los Angeles theater community together, the Fringe provides a valuable service, not to mention fosters a lot of great art.

Speaking of art …

The Miss Julie Dream Project, created by the relatively new group Fell Swoop Playwrights, made the most of the likelihood that audiences at Fringe Festivals would be theater people by creating a piece of theater that could best be appreciated by them. This is not to say you can’t appreciate the show if you don’t know Strindberg’s Miss Julie and A Dream Play as well as say, a theater professor. In addition to drawing on those dense texts, the play engages as its central trope the nightmare we’ve all had in one form or another: Some people dream that they have to take a test for a class they never went to. Some dream that they have to play a concert but don’t have their instrument. Theater people dream that it’s opening night and we haven’t rehearsed.

Blending pop culture references with the fever-dream logic that characterized Strindberg’s inferno of a mind, the show delves into sexual politics, desire, and authorship without ever resorting to the dogmatism that characterizes the originals. Rather, Miss Julie and her dreams are effectively removed from the birth-is-destiny philosophy of Naturalism, enabling us to examine them in the context of a modern woman’s life. Turns out, we’re still being objectified and put on pedestals of off which we are bound to fall.

Time Machine: The Musical made the most of another moment: The current popularity of genre fiction. The dystopian themes of H.G. Wells’ 1895 futuristic novel–social degeneration and human devolution–can be found in contemporary films like The Hunger Games, Elysium, and Oblivion.

This full-length musical was on its way to production when the market crashed. For creator Steve Altman, the Fringe provided an opportunity to keep the show alive on a small budget. It’s musical style is suited to Broadway, and  a well-designed production would no doubt dazzle. But in the context of the Fringe, this stripped-down, hour-long version, complete with moving performances and elegant staging, proves that unlike film and television, theater has the capacity to engage the audience’s imagination without a lot of tech.

In a Fringe as focused on entrepreneurship as this one is, the shows that have the resources and the personnel to market themselves are, with a few exceptions, going to be the ones to attract the most audience, win awards, and get extensions. Neither the Hollywood Fringe nor the Best of Fringe Extensions program may see it as their job to level the playing field, but defining the terms of the competition would at least allow smaller groups the opportunity to find creative ways to compete with fewer resources. Entrepreneurship should not just be about money, but when money is the only thing that buys success, it’s hard for it to be about anything else.

Holly L. Derr is a writer and director and professor of theater. Her final piece on the Fringe will appear in a few weeks on HowlRound. Follow her @hld6oddblend.

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