The Hidden Room, Palindrome, and PGraph prepare to join the Fringe element
For more and more Austin performing artists, the dog days mean Scotland. Every August sees another area theatre company, solo performer, improv troupe, or school group jumping the pond to take part in the largest arts festival on the planet, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Its international prestige and the chance to be seen by almost 2 million people draw show folk like flies to honey, but with more than 2,500 different shows offering 41,689 performances – imagine South by Southwest lasting a full month! – the Fringe is not a fest to be entered into casually. The three local groups taking the plunge this year – Palindrome Theatre, the Hidden Room Theatre, and improvisational foursome Parallelogramophonograph – are all Fringe newbies, but they've been warned by those with experience to expect "a total madhouse." "Prepare to get bloody, because it's a free-for-all," Nigel O'Hearn of Palindrome was told – and that was by Kath Mainland, Fringe's CEO! (She was in town to check out our monster festival, SXSW.)
At the Fringe, a group may spend just an hour to an hour and a half each day performing, but if it wants anyone watching it while it does, its members must spend many times that amount on the streets drumming up audiences. PGraph was advised by veterans of the Fringe "that we're going to need 20,000 flyers and we're going to need to hustle like crazy to fill our houses," says member Kareem Badr. Festival participants are on their own as far as marketing their shows, and that means also working out how their shows both fit with and stand apart from the hundreds of others around them. Alerted that Fringe improv is heavy on short-form work, the PGraphers decided they'd improvise full plays, focusing on the genre-specific formats that are their specialty. Their plan to improvise French farces, screwball comedies, and Grimm's fairy tales, as well as nongenre plays, "will make it challenging to promote," says Badr, "but we're using it as a strength, touting our malleability and general interest in genre."
Palindrome wanted to take the new adaptation of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler that it premiered here in February, but since the production had to be 90 minutes without an intermission – "Anything longer is essentially unmarketable during the Fringe," O'Hearn says he learned – and needed to travel as cheaply as possible, it had to be reworked substantially. But those limitations, O'Hearn says, freed him to think about his adaptation "in a very different way," to the point that he cut one character, added a poetic overture, and wrote a new first scene and later scenes. "I ended up with a play I'm unequivocally much happier with, that is staged much more effectively and meaningfully, and that has a lot more to do with showing Hedda Gabler in a completely new light."
Of course, getting to Edinburgh from Austin is as big a consideration as what you do once you arrive. To pay for the trip, PGraph has been salting away funds from teaching gigs, including one at a college in Orlando, Fla., as well as a pair of 12-hour intensive workshops on narrative improv. Plus, a Kickstarter campaign raised the troupe another $4,400. "Our expenses are not quite covered," says Badr, "but if we have halfway decent houses – God, let us please have decent houses – I think we will recoup our expenses." Palindrome projected its travel costs at $35,000, and after five months of fundraising, it's only $2,000 shy of its goal, an amount it hopes to make up with a three-day run of Hedda at Salvage Vanguard Theater this week. "Our donors have been so incredibly supportive and encouraging," says O'Hearn. "Not one person has once said, 'This is madness.' They purely greeted it as: 'Well, you have to do this. Let's make this happen.'" Palindrome is also getting a huge boost from Edinburgh company Remarkable Arts, which is co-producing its Fringe debut. By hosting the production and supporting much of its marketing, Remarkable Arts will cover at least a quarter of Hedda's costs.
The Hidden Room also has a co-producer in Edinburgh, but that's not exactly where the company is saving most of its money in its Fringe venture. No, that would come from not actually going to Scotland. See, Hidden Room is reviving its award-winning intercontinental Skype theatre piece You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas/You Wouldn't Know Her, She Lives in London, reworked for the Fringe. (Now she lives in Edinburgh.) The company's London partners, Look Left Look Right, will relocate to Edinburgh and draw on Fringe audiences to act as the friends and family of Elizabeth, a Brit carrying on a largely electronic long-distance romance with an Austinite named Ryan. Of course, that means that Ryan and the Hidden Room team need to be here for the real-time trans-Atlantic interaction to occur, so they'll miss out on the "theatre extravaganza" and "nonstop party" that PGraph and Palindrome will experience first-hand in Edinburgh. But they will still be a part of the Fringe, and since audiences of the Austin performances will play Ryan's kith and kin, anyone who comes will be part of the Fringe, too. Come on along. Wouldn't you like to be part of the largest arts festival on the planet?
Hedda Gabler runs Thursday-Saturday, July 28-30, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, visit www.palindrometheatre.com.
You Wouldn't Know Her, She Lives in Edinburgh runs Aug. 6-28, Saturday-Sunday, noon & 2pm, at the East Village, 1200 E. 11th. For more information, visit www.youwouldntknow.com.