Fringe elements

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The Greensboro Fringe Festival taps into the obscure, the undiscovered and the downright strange.

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.

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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.