Indyfringe: Forty eight plays over ten days = 280 shows 

click to enlarge Boy in the Basement performs at The Phoenix Theatre. Photo by Stephen Simonetto
  • Boy in the Basement performs at The Phoenix Theatre. Photo by Stephen Simonetto

The Indyfringe Theater Festival has been growing by a steady 2000 attendees every year since its inception in 2006. Fifty-eight theater groups will perform nearly 300 shows across ten days, starting Aug. 19. Now boasting new talent, a new venue and a brand new office, Indiana's favorite performance art festival is sure to make an even bigger impact on the Indianapolis theater community.

As always, 100% of the box office proceeds go directly to the performers themselves. The festival starts off with a bang on Thursday, Aug. 19from 6-10 p.m. at the Indyfringe Opening Night Carnival at the Indianapolis Firefighters Museum at 748 Mass Ave (admission to the carnival is free).

Themes emerge

While Fringe organizers and performers have always been known for their eclectic tastes in performance art — in the past spanning from cross-dressing magic shows to physical comedy and dark drama — a few themes have emerged from this year's selection.

"Interestingly enough, there's a lot of shows with Jesus in them this year," says Pauline Moffat, Executive Director of the festival. Three shows, to be exact: Jesus, Shakespeare, and Lincoln Walk into a Bar, a comedic 'what if' of epic proportions; Hurry Up, Jesus!, a farcical examination of the world's need for faith; and Teen Jesus, a humorous projection of the prophet's awkward high schools years

The structure of this year's Fringe is marked by a number of important changes in both the organization of the event and its venues. One striking change is the elimination, or more accurately the consolidation, of Fringe Next — the festival's high school-produced section.

"Four years ago it was brought about as Fringe for high school students, giving them the foundations for their work," says Moffat. "Well, after four years they asked not be identified as a part of Fringe Next. Now they're going head-to-head [with all other Fringe performers.] I think it's fantastic because some of them are really quite excellent."

While support for the high school students has been strong in the past, both within the Fringe community and audiences, a push to be taken more seriously has dictated the change. The audiences will have no clue whether they're watching students or professionals.

"I think it will add a lot of great dynamics," says Moffat. "It will show that they'll be judged solely on their merit as opposed to whether or not they are students."

A new theater space

An ever-growing attendance in the festival has led to the addition of a brand new theater space, the Marian Underground. "[The building is] a former school on New Jersey, but most people remember it as Essential Edibles, a former vegetarian restaurant. We've run out of theater space on Mass Ave and this is within walking distance of the other theaters. It will seat 100 and be air-conditioned."

The expansion of the Fringe has been done out of necessity, growing to meet the demands of larger audiences. "We have a rule of thumb that if the average attendance of the shows drops below 40, there's no real point in trying to expand the festival," says Moffat. "We've had between 48 and 53 people per show for the last two years. I don't want to just grow for the sake of growing, but we've been able to comfortably expand."

Also making its second appearance is the renovated Indyfringe building. "We had it completely renovated a year ago," says Moffat. "We did it little bits at a time, in between rehearsals and shows."

The building is now completely revamped with sound and light systems and plenty of seating. Some whimsical elements of the building's former interior still remain, including part of a large painting of a nude man right behind the stage. Only his head is still visible, adding an interesting, dated dimension to an otherwise fresh-looking theater space.

"It'd been there for a while, but the previous owner painted over the good parts and left the head," Moffat jokes. "But we like it in the background, just visible over the curtain."

Theater in the streets

In addition to the new and revamped venues, street theater has been given a new vitality this year. "Street theater is programmed this year. Know No Stranger will be hitting it up along with some of our other street performers who have been with us for years now. We try to ramp it up every year and we hope that the city will embrace street theater as an art form," says Moffat.

Part of the push is to help the city's problem with panhandlers, in the hope that more street talents can be discovered and implemented. "[The panhandlers] will have to compete with people who are singing or dancing for their supper. Anyone who wants to embrace their talent can contribute to the street theater."

In addition, "Twilight Revelers," Lydia Burris' fantastical painting will not only grace the posters and covers of Indyfringe guides, but will also be featured as part of a lightbox installation on the corner of Mass Ave and St. Clair.

Certainly no description of Indyfringe would be complete without a mention of the outdoor tent, featuring music and entertainment every night of the festival. "The Fringe tent is going to be great this year," says Moffat. "We've partnered with Indypride, who everyone knows can throw a real party. One of the things we realize as we mature is that our partnerships are important to us and that we need to do things better every year.

"We've spawned a small, vibrant theater community in this city through the Fringe because we want the performers to stay here," adds Moffat. "They're dedicated. They know they can come here and take advantage of it. They know they can put on a great show here."

click to enlarge "Ophelia's Revenge" plays at the Marian Underground. Photo by Stephen Simonetto
  • "Ophelia's Revenge" plays at the Marian Underground. Photo by Stephen Simonetto

Someone's rotting in the state of Denmark: "Ophelia's Revenge"

Story by Josefa Beyer

Practically everyone dies by the end of Hamlet, but that doesn't have to stop the fun. In a new, comic-horror play borrowing Shakespeare's characters, the moody dead prince becomes the King of the Zombies.

The Indianapolis playwrights behind Ophelia's Revenge, premiering at the Fringe this week, are Kevin Burgun and Maria Meschi. They first met as performers in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which Tom Stoppard re-imagines Hamlet through the eyes of two very minor characters. Backstage, Burgun and Meschi spent down time with the actress playing Ophelia, a role with little dialogue that ends with the character's suicide. The only way to get Ophelia more lines, the cast mates joked, was to bring her back from the dead.

"It evolved into how to make Ophelia a central character and a strong character, not a weeping woman, pining over Hamlet," says Meschi, a first time playwright and member of the Irvington theater troupe Q Artistry. The play she developed with Burgun takes on a quasi-feminist bent as Ophelia enlists two other Shakespearean heroines — Juliet and Lady MacBeth — to avenge her father's death and defeat the zombies. Meschi hopes audiences will re-think the way Shakespeare portrayed women and enjoy their re-working of his soliloquies, which are repeatedly interrupted by zombies noshing on human necks.

"There's Shakespeare and there are zombies," says Burgun, who also directs. "How can that not be fun?" Although the play was inspired by Stoppard's work, the writing team was emboldened by the popularity of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, recent novels that pit classic heroes against the undead.

As they wrote, an unintended superhero theme emerged. Burgun and Meschi wanted to give their three leading ladies strengths that Shakespeare didn't. Rather than making their mark on the theatrical world through relationships with men, here Ophelia, Juliet, and "Beth" each have unique powers—one, for instance, has a deadly sexuality-- to use against the dark forces. Costumed by Meschi, the ladies start out in traditional medieval gowns that morph into superhero-like costumes for battle scenes. One Fringe previewer dubbed the play "a combination of Shakespeare and Marvel Comics."

Ophelia's Revenge, says Meschi, was a good fit for Q Artistry, which formed in 2007 to produce original works, including re-imagined classics. However, the troupe had dedicated this fall to the second Halloween run of their gothic musical Cabaret Poe. In order to produce Ophelia's Revenge this year, Burgun and Meschi applied for a Fringe spot as Plagued Productions. Burgun, a high school teacher, had previously directed three teen productions in Fringe Next. This year, as youth productions merge into the main Fringe line-up, he will have two productions in cycle: Ophelia's Revenge, largely with Q Artistry talent, and Hostage, with teen talent.

As a teacher, Burgun is well versed in interpreting the Bard for captive audiences. He thinks Ophelia's Revenge has the right mix of Elizabethan wordplay and horror high jinx to hold the attention of Shakespeare buffs and newbies alike.He would even recommend it for his students, as long as they don't start their SAT essays with "When Ophelia rose from the dead..."

click to enlarge Deborah Asante's "Deep in Love/For Adults Only" will be performed at The Phoenix. Photo by Stephen Simonetto
  • Deborah Asante's "Deep in Love/For Adults Only" will be performed at The Phoenix. Photo by Stephen Simonetto

No playing safe: Deborah Asante's first IndyFringe

Story by David Hoppe

Every IndyFringe Festival includes a few firsts in terms of performers and programs. Among the most eagerly anticipated firsts at this year's festival will be hometown favorite Deborah Asante's one-woman show, Deep In Love.

For over 20 years, Asante has built a reputation as one of Indiana's most creative storytellers. She is also embarking on her 21st season as founding Artistic Director of the Asante Children's Theatre.

Originally from the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area, Asante has been awarded the Aesop Cup For Tall Tales by the National Association of Black Storytellers and has been named breakthrough Woman in the Arts and Culture by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.

Despite her involvement in children's theater, this next show will be a little bit different. Deep In Love, a show Asante says is for "adults only," got its start through a Frank Basile Emerging Stories Fellowship she received from Storytelling Arts of Indiana. Her original concept involved asking a group of women to share their love stories as a source of inspiration in crafting a piece about self empowerment called Enough Love.

"They were telling stories to inspire me," says Asante. But the group process proved to be more inhibiting than she anticipated. "The women were not as open as you would think," she says. "The whole point for me is to tell with an abandonment. That's the flavor I wanted to bring to the show. I wanted to bring it to you like a gasp."

After performing the piece, Asante realized she wanted to broaden her concept. "I wanted more variety. My concept deepened."

Deep In Love received its first performance a year ago at the Indianapolis Art Center. Vincent Howard, the pianist who accompanied Asante for that piece, will be back to lend his blues-inflected interludes to her Fringe shows, which Asante promises will be different each time out.

For Asante, part of the appeal of playing the Fringe is the opportunity to perform before an adult audience. "That's part of the excitement. It irks me when I tell people I'm a storyteller and they automatically assume that I only tell to children. I am not the birthday storyteller. That's why I put in my title, Love Stories for Adults Only. It is not new for me to tell sexy stories. I grew up telling them."

Asante recalls that when she was in fourth grade, she found herself stuck in detention with two boys. "I was in a situation where I felt in jeopardy. The teacher left the room and those boys were bullying me. I started telling the stories and I watched their reactions. I had to take it up a notch because they were not trying to enjoy my story. So I got sexual with it, started telling stuff about girls. That's when I thought, 'I have hit the jackpot!' I saw them freeze. They were captivated. That's the first erotic story I told and those guys left me alone because they were sitting there, listening to me."

For Asante, storytelling constitutes a kind of power. "Storytelling has always been some way of connecting myself or becoming the focal point by being able to speak at a certain level that was not allowed to me at my age."

Asante looks forward to expanding her boundaries at this year's Fringe. To that end, she's been both adapting her repertoire and creating new work to possibly premier during her run, including a sequence of short monologues "about being aware of somebody being sexual, but it's not your experience," she says. "A neighbor, the people next door...a little kid hearing their parents."

Asante views her Fringe performances as an opportunity. "I've looked at this show as a liberating force anyway. But then to be part of the Fringe! It's not that the stories are vulgar, but they're adult concepts, and if I can feel the comfort in the audience, I am going to do some erotica. That's part of the draw of an adult audience for me. To be able to speak in terms of your adult experiences and being who I am now: A woman who is confident, who's lived a varied life."

The character of the audience for any given show will have a lot to do with what Asante chooses to present. "You have an exchange – it's a conversation with the audience. You never tell the same story twice. It all depends on who is listening and how they respond. You go deeper one place if the audience yearns for it. Or you skip over and go someplace else. You can feel them."

Asante looks forward to being part of the community of artists participating in this year's IndyFringe. "Being in that community of artists is very exciting to me. I'm hoping that the energy drives me to stretch. That's what I'm trying to do, not just play it safe."

Some [very] sexual content: Boy in the Basement

Story by Jeff Cox

The Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project has been involved with Indyfringe in some form or another since the festival's inception in 2006. This year, the Anderson University-based troupe returns with Boy in the Basement, a darkly-comic play by New York-based playwright Katharine Heller.

In it, four women discover a man burglarizing their house and decide to keep him trapped in the basement until they figure out what to do with him. Problems arise when each of the women — a dominatrix, a hippie, a cynical sex pot, and a Christian pig farmer's daughter — has a different take on how to pay the intruder back. Plenty of raunchy surprises keep the dialogue fresh and interesting, while the energetic performers set a quick pace.

Boy in the Basement was part of the New York City Fringe two years ago, where it won several audience choice awards and was extended into the festival's Encore series. Callie Burk, this production's director, was drawn to the play initially through her friendship with the playwright.

"When I was asked to direct a Fringe show I immediately thought of Katharine's play and asked if I could bring a little more New York City here," she says. The show aims to appeal not only to those who frequent the theater circuit, but fans of other kinds of comedy as well.

"We really wanted to try to market this play to different groups of people than just regular theater-goers," says Burk, an instructor at Anderson University. "We want all different kinds of people to come see it."

Its immediate appeal approaches stand-up at times, but the play at its core offers the best elements of sketch comedy. The scenes are repeated and polished during rehearsals, but no two renditions are the same. The play performs like fixed-dialogue improvisation.

"There's some improv in there, but it's mostly just physical improv," observes one of the actresses. "We changed around a word or two here and there, but mostly it's just as written."

Much of the actors' physical improvisation occurs when the play's narrator is speaking. As the narrator is describing the scene's actions in detail — like the narration of a comic book — the actors are free to tweak their actions as they see fit for the moment.

"You have to go at it with your own style," says Burk. "It's a play about sexuality and sexuality is something that's very individual. Everyone responds to it differently. Everyone brings their different talents to this show."

The slapstick sex in the play certainly seems to be one of the major aspects of the show's marketing. "It's a play that features sex slaves and unicorns," says one of the actresses. "Who wouldn't want to come see that?"

The raunchiness comes with caveats, of course. "I would say it's definitely a show for only the most mature of children," warns Burk.

Parents should be aware it features both adult language and [very] sexual content.

ClubFringe Outdoor Stage

Sponsored by Reverie Estates, August 20 – 21 & 26 – 28; Thursday/Friday/Saturday 6-11 p.m. Located at College & Mass Ave outside the Indianapolis Historic Fire Museum and Memorial, 748 Mass Ave.
FREE with festival Backer Button or $1 with wrist band.

ClubFringe will feature live music, dancing, DJs, performance artists and more. The social hotspot will be the place for all Fringe goers to stop by and get a drink with performers or a bite to eat from Hoaglin Catering. Entertainment programmed by Indy Pride, NUVO & IndyFringe.

Thurs Aug 19 - Opening Night Carnival

5:30 Come early to get your seat, drink and food

6:00 Fringe Festival Kickoff and Previews

7:30– 10:00 Fringe Carnival Fun!

Bar Open all night long!

Fri Aug 2

7 p.m. Tonos Triad

8 p.m. Walk the Moon

9 p.m. Mark Alexander

10 p.m. Brandon Whyde

Sat Aug 21

Latino Night!

Thurs, Aug 26 - Sponsored by Indianapolis Rainbow Chamber of Commerce

7 p.m. Back Action

8 p.m. The Last Domino

9 p.m. Fundamentalists

10 p.m. Neon Love Life

Fri, August 27

7 p.m. Night Jar

8 p.m. The Working Hour

9 p.m. DJ Logan

10 p.m. IndyPride Bag Ladies

Sat, August 28

NUVO & Indy Cog Night - Extra perks for bike riders!

7 p.m. Motus Dance Theatre

8 p.m. Foreal Art Breakdancers

10 p.m. DJ Kyle Long and Artur Silva

+ Graffiti Pit all night long!

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