by Brian Clarey
By the time the Saturday-night crowd left the Stephen D. Hyers Studio Theatre and walked up to Café Europa, Scott Whittemore had become the darling of the first weekend of the Greensboro Fringe Festival.
The UNCG graduate’s one-man show, Dance For Grandma — a nostalgia-ridden, ukulele-laden monologue taking place in his grandparents’ attic — slayed the capacity crowd in its debut, the third on the bill. The title song, a funk number that tested the limits of the uke, anchored the work.
It was a fairly sophisticated piece for the Fringe, which in its 13th year still prides itself on giving stage time to the acts that might otherwise never make it before the public. The Fringe attracts the independents and oddballs, showcasing only original works by performers — dancers, actors and musicians, primarily — who don’t have the benefit of a home stage or studio.
Experimental theater. Burlesque. Abstract dance. Weird music. The Fringe takes all comers; the only stipulations are that all work must be original, and that the artists show up on time.
Whittemore, who graduated from UNCG in 2004 with a theater degree, has been at Disney World for the last eight years doing voice and character work. The stage piece, co-written with Paul Tomayko, debuted at the Orlando Fringe Festival in May 2012 to great acclaim. The Orlando Sentinel said it “has a setup that’s practically genius.”
He’s polished the act even more since then.
The Fringe Festival opened on Jan. 22 with Liminal Space, a feature-length dance piece by Greensboro’s Informall Theater Company, choreographed by Christine Kiernan Fisher, wife of the Fringe Festival Executive Director Todd Fisher.
This isn’t exactly a case of nepotism — Christine is a heavyweight in North Carolina dance circles, with nearly a decade teaching at the Durham School of the Arts and time with the local Jan van Dyke Dance Group, John Gamble Dance Theater and the NC Dance Festival, among other accomplishments since she got her MFA from UNCG.
All of the performers in Liminal Space have years of professional experience; most have advanced degrees in dance. But they’ve put this one together in their spare time, between jobs and family obligations, sneaking off to rehearsals down here in the black-box space.
Most of the shows of the Fringe will be held down in the black box, convenient because Todd Fisher has an office down here.
Six years ago, after orchestrating seven years of the Fringe, he started working at City Arts, the city of Greensboro’s arts department, bringing his festival with him.
“It only made it easier because now I have my own key to the studio instead of asking security to let me in,” he says.
Over the years he’s seen his little avant-garde festival grow to encompass three weekends over multiple venues and preside over a gradual reformation of live entertainment. When Fisher threw his first Fringe Festival in 2003, it was before YouTube and Netflix and video on demand.
“You’re no longer chained to your living room for entertainment,” he says, and in that unshackling, “things got weirder and weirder. People are used to experimental writing styles — like flashbacks within flashbacks or multiple plotlines that are never fully explained.”
Still, the opening-night crowd is thin when the lights dim. Fisher has positioned his cell phone facing the stage, so his wife can watch from Durham via FaceTime.
The dancers emerge in ones and twos, seven in black and one in red. Their movements convey grace and strength, which morphs into martial urgency as the strings on the soundtrack rise.
The statement is one of endurance and growth, the range and emotional limitations. Or maybe it’s about the nature of female relationships and the roles, both supportive and adversarial, they play in each other’s lives. It’s possible that a hunting motif runs through the whole thing. It’s esoteric — an ink blot. There’s always an element of projection when taking in abstract art, and here on the fringe audiences can expect to be challenged.
It’s Friday morning in the Stephen D. Hyers Studio Theatre on the first floor of the downtown Contemporary Arts Center, and Whittemore stands alone under the lights while Lucas Blanchard-Glueckert nails down the technical elements of the show.
“I’ll be holding my breath, and I’ll be turning blue,” Whittemore says. “Then kill the lights and then I’m gonna drop to the floor.”
“Do you have any idea how many seconds?”
“Let’s try five.”
“That last one was four. Do you want the blue light for about eight seconds?”
Whittemore, in a red Arsenal jersey and chunky glasses, stands surrounded by props that make up his set: a ukulele on a stool, a bowling pin, a tiny Christmas tree, a jack-o-lantern and a tennis racket. There are boxes and bins and instrument cases, and a bare bulb hanging down to the side.
They run through the blackout scene one more time, wrapping when Whittemore crumbles to the ground.
“Yeah,” he says. “That’s what they’ll hear, the sound of me dropping to the floor. Hopefully they’ll laugh.”
“For the blackout,” Blanchard-Glueckert says, “I can make it faster than that, like cut to black instead of fade to black.”
His homecoming debut is slated for the next night.
That evening, dancers go through their warm-ups in the hallway that runs alongside the theater for the first act of the evening, Fringe Dance 1, which premiered with Liminal Space the night before.
This one features original works by six companies, with varying degrees of complexity.
“Did you notice on the program?” Amy Smith, a dancer from the second act says to the other. “It goes one dancer, then two, three, four, five, then six.”
“That’s crazy,” dancer Dylan Reddish, responds. Then she slips off her socks, cracks her knee joints with a squat and goes through the stage door.
Minutes later they emerge, breathless from the piece, “Something Subdued for a Cloudy Monday Morning,” and lathered in sweat.
“Great job on the music,” Smith says.
“I know, right?” Reddish says, and gives a little twerk.
Dancers from the fourth act, “Axiom,” shoulder a ballet barre made from plumbing materials and carry it through the stage door. And before they walk on, the five dancers from “Sweet Americana,” clad in homemade T-shirts with elements of stars and stripes on them, circle up and lay their hands in the center while one says a few words.
The sixth group, the Power Company dance troupe of Columbia, SC, occupies the south end of the hallway in preparation for their piece, “Seed.”
In silence, they form a circle and breathe in unison, limbering their frames and oxygenating their muscles, then practicing their formations, only the sounds of heavy breathing, the slide of stocking feet on the tile floor and the cracks and groans of the dancer’s joints.
Before they go on, one by one they walk past the choreographer, Erin Bailey, and make physical contact: a small hug, a gentle pat, a quick caress, all in silence.
The warm-up, Bailey says, is a form of Qigong, an ancient health practice that attempts to create alignment between body and mind, a discipline that also informs tonight’s piece.
“It’s really about the perfect practice of being present,” she says. “We always think first, but ‘Seed’ is about energy in real time, tracking the pathways of the energy very specifically…. [The dancers] really have an internal clock. The timing is contingent on their sensory feedback, so [the performance] is always different each time.”
On Saturday, all four of the first weekend’s shows run on the stage, starting with a matinee of Liminal Space at 2 p.m.
There’s a bigger crowd for the evening shows, starting with the 6 p.m. performance of Fringe Dance 1, which begins with soloist Ashlee Ramsey’s piece, “Stargaze of the Faraway Other.” She starts by making eye contact with the audience while an actual eye comes into focus on the big screen that’s part of her set. The eye comes in and out of focus, synched with her movement, while muffled voices and sounds of muted laughter come through the speakers. There is no music.
Smith and Reddish’s piece is playful and energetic. They cavort onstage like tumbling kittens. “Axiom,” the dance with the portable iron barre choreographed by Arlynn Zachary, features all four dancers interacting with the set piece alone and in pairs: dancing on and around it, flipping over it and hanging from it like a pig roasting on a spit. The piece seems to be about the transfer of energy, possibly from one generation to the next. “Sweet Americana” is a free-form piece relying on individual dancers’ interpretation of the choreography and set to a Woody Guthrie soundtrack.
The women from the Power Company begin their set with 30 seconds of darkness to acclimate the audience for the piece. A flickering bulb shines above the lead dancer, who struggles and twitches underneath its glow while the rest of the troupe sways in the background. The lead dancer gains strength and rises, laboriously, to her feet as the rest of the dancers engage. The walk patterns on the floor as each dancer in turn is taken in by the glow of the light until its energy seems evenly distributed among them. It ends with another period of darkness, the only sound the purposeful breathing of the dancers.
Whittemore’s Dance for Grandma is the most straightforward piece of the night, and it fills the small theater. The monologue begins in a dark attic just months after his grandmother’s funeral, quickly launching into the title number which describes how he used to perform in her kitchen. Whittemore’s ukulele work is tight.
As a conceit, he informs us that we are all his deceased relatives — he deems a man from the front row “Cousin Bob,” and brings him up for a bit of reminiscence about grandma, how she knit her own wedding dress, and grandpa’s tuxedo, too. This introduces the song “Funky Christmas Sweater,” which contains the lyric, “Handmade or store-bought/ all that counts is the thought.”
Besides the song and dance, the performance features magic, sentimental comedy, yo-yo tricks, polished musical numbers, tap dancing and enough physical comedy to keep things lively.
The breath-holding bit goes down without a hitch. And it kills.
Among the stand-out musical numbers is a beautiful, bluesy piece by “Cousin Sarah,” pulled from the audience to retell the strange circumstances of her death, and the lullabye Whittemore says his grandfather used to sing him to sleep with, a number called “Let’s Go Kill Some Nazis.”
After the line, “So long Hitler and the master race/ gonna knock that mustache off your face,” the crowd picks up the chorus and sings along.
And the closing number, “My Grandma is Cooler Than Yours,” inspires the first standing ovation of the 2015 Fringe Fest. Whittemore soaks it in before packing his ukulele and props and heading back to Orlando and his job working for Mickey Mouse.
The musical group Random Faktor2 holds down the closing set of the first weekend, but his musical partner’s bout with the flu leaves Winston-Salem percussionist Bill Smith alone on stage with his gear.
It’s a cage of sorts, adorned with hanging gongs, towers of cymbals, strings of bells, Tibetan singing bowls and other instruments of metallic percussion, with mallets of different temperaments laid out in rows on the floor.
He coaxes rhythms and melodies from the cage using the mallets, his fingers, wire brushes, a whisk and, at one point, a small rubber ball he uses to elicit moans and cries from the gongs. A horsehair bow run along a cymbal makes a feedback loop atop low vibrations. He gets the big gongs going softly and then creates a melody across the hum with the small ones, using his bare hands to alter the soundwaves. The effect of the gong bath on the audience, just four people at this late hour, is of palpable serenity.
When the ringing subsides, Smith takes questions. He’s been a percussionist for 40 years, veering off into the metallic canon some six years ago and studying the Eastern origins of the sounds.
The Indonesian stuff, he says, “is extremely complicated, and none of it has been notated so it’s all done from memory.”
There are health benefits to the music he plays, he says, positing that the sound waves affect our internal rhythms when they are absorbed by our bodies.
“It’s been shown to put your brainwaves into a theta or delta state,” he says. “Like you’re dreaming.”
For 13 years now the Fringe Festival has brought us the experimental, the undersung, the obscure and the downright weird. The shows run for two more weekends, with community theater, modern dance, burlesque and music filling out the bill. The weirder, the better, Fisher says. That’s what his audiences want.
“Live theater is back in the top tier of entertainment and culture,” he says. “And dance — people are watching dancing on TV.”
Find out everything you need to know about the 2015 Greensboro Fringe Festival here.
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