Off-Off-Broadway Bound

An Austinite's account of taking the stage in NYC

Off-Off-Broadway Bound
Illustration By Robert Faires

Next month, when the New York International Fringe Festival, the largest theatrical fringe festival in North America, gets under way, the 200-plus show lineup will include three Austin theatre productions: HIT., from a chick & a dude productions; The Philomel Project: a barbarous pleasure, from Refraction Arts Project; and Wade, by Steve Barney. Lowell Bartholomee has been there, having taken blah, blah, blah, a collection of theatrical pieces he'd written, to the Big Apple for the 2004 edition of the fest. Between Friday the 13th and Saturday the 21st, Bartholomee and his mostly Austin cast performed the show five times at the Black Box at 440 Studios on Lafayette. The journal he kept of his experiences offers an insightful account of breaking into that largest of theatrical worlds, for good and ill. These excerpts pick up on the day after the show's first performance. – Robert Faires

8/14/04

So many limitations here. Conversation with Marc [Parees, New York-based artist who directed Refraction Arts' Orange] about being able to do a show in Austin with so many people and so many elements. You don't get to do that in New York. Limitations make you be more creative. But they are still limitations. Austin is a great incubator. New York is the proving ground.

FringeNYC is proving to be FronteraFest on steroids. In the same way that Frontera eliminated my fear of presenting my work in front of an audience, FringeNYC is eliminating my fear of doing the same thing in New York. One more psychological barrier has been erased. Because with a few fairly major differences, the challenges and work and joys of doing this are the same.

Ask all the right questions early. Then ask every other question you can think of. Prepare for everything to go wrong. Simple and elegant will always trump grand and difficult. Be compact. Travel light. Take up as little space as you can. Grandiosity is a luxury.

Did I know that there are deep, heartfelt moments in my comedies? "Your show is very funny, but ... hey, were you aware of its humanity?"

Austin is a great deal more sophisticated than we give ourselves credit for.

I am a giant here. My size fills eyes with fear, pity, and contempt. The cigarette just fills eyes with contempt. Unless they need a light.

I love this fucking city! Do the people who live here realize how amazing this place is? Should I tell them how great it is? How badly would they beat me up?

I hate this fucking city! Loud, cruel, wet, obnoxious, rude, and brimming with potential violence. It perfectly reflects your mood: When happy, it is vibrant and fascinating; when upset, it is a smelly, growling, ill-tempered animal.

New York minus responsibilities is a beautiful thing. Add the struggle to survive, and it loses its luster. That's how it gets you.

The city cringes and awaits the RNC like a sentence.

8/15/04

Campaign worker: We're enlisting tourists to go back to their home states and get out the vote. Where are you from?

Me: Texas.

Campaign worker: Oh, never mind then.

The Bicycle Men: Four actor-writers so funny that it makes you wonder what the hell you're even doing here. Normally, the words "in the tradition of the Marx Brothers" instills fear. This show earned the right. Lesson learned: Never stop pushing your creativity. You can never be too creative, and even with concentrated effort you'll never reach your limits. There's always another boundary to cross.

Ran into Will the Wonder Venue Director tonight. He was happy to see us, which made me feel good. He's spent over a week already dealing with frazzled and protective theatre types. He's been the bearer of show-changing news and had to be the line in the sand to a lot of strong-willed, short-tempered "artistes" (even besides me). He deserves all the good things he can get. We should get him drunk this week.

Tomorrow is another show. I don't know if anyone will come. I don't know if the people who do come will like it. I'm staying positive. I've seen some brilliant work here, met some wonderful people. I'd like my show to be seen, but it's far from the most deserving show here. We'll get what we get, and whatever that is will be wonderful.

8/16/04

Fourteen people – not bad for a Monday afternoon. Five full-price, one senior, one flex, two participants, one staff.

Quiet audience. Spooking the cast a bit. Harder to cope with a quiet audience when they're strangers. They liked "Standing Room Only." The show's a buffet. Sometimes they don't like the fruit plate. This one preferred the meat.

Young Zombies in Love. A good example of one of the FringeNYC trends. Quirky musical hoping to become the next Urinetown or Avenue Q. One big drawback: It blows goats. Completely professional. The dancers and singers are very well-trained. In fact, their technique is impressive. Unfortunately, that's all that's on display. Technique with no spark, no sloppy erupting of personality. The individuality has been trained right out. It's less a performance and more an audition. The less said about the writing the better, except that a 6-year-old has a better grasp of story construction and that the composer is an NYU student. How embarrassing. Sleep. Tomorrow is a day off. An open day of possibility.

8/17/04

Coney Island today. I used to live 10 blocks from there but never went because we were so poor. It was great to right that wrong finally. Walked down the long pier lined with fishermen and families with their crab cages baited with chicken legs dangling in the water. Took our pictures to replicate the Jared Leto shot from Requiem [for a Dream]. Thrilled to hear so many languages on one stretch of pier – Russian, Spanish, who knows what. You can easily spot the tourists – and whether we like it or not, we are tourists – and it's the locals who are so marvelous. Families, children, carnival barkers shouting ... "I ain't mad at ya, I'm mad wit' ya. Come on, pretty pretty, take a shot." The wondrous ocean breeze. Could I be happier than I am right now? I don't know.

We see an otter at the aquarium. He floats on his back and methodically rubs his face with his tiny paws. I think he's got me beat in the happiness arena.

A show tomorrow. 8:15. Good slot. What will our audience be? Some MFAers from UT, for sure. But who else? Up till we got here it felt like the festival was all about us. Yes, that's narcissistic, but inevitable. Now, we so clearly see that we are just this small show in a large festival that is in itself a small part of this incredible raging, rock-&-roll-all-night cultural life. Egos have been hip-checked. Individual place in the world has been clearly outlined. But I can't escape the feeling that I have a show running in New York – my show! I have actual ticket stubs from my show. For this brief span of time, I am doing exactly what I love in the first city I loved. We could draw an audience of crabby bastards who involuntarily wretch at Casablanca references, and I'd still be happy. The way I feel tonight is terrifying. Because it demands to be prolonged. It requires that steps be taken to give it continued life. It scares me.

8/18/04

Showgirls performed by sock puppets. Silly, juvenile, crude, and utterly perfect in its own way. On the same stage where Sinise and Malkovich performed True West and Edna St. Vincent Millay held poetry readings and political action meetings, to boot.

SOLD OUT!

Laughter pouring down the hall while we figure out the box office. "Is that my audience?"

Amazing show! Amazing! Huge reactions. The best performances of some of the pieces ever. Just wonderful great responses after the show. Made me feel like a real writer even.

8/19/04

Woke up late. Out until five this morning. At a corner bar in the Village with Jud [Jones, a blah, blah, blah cast member] downing shots and beers and planning our assault on the world. Both of us charged up with hopes and energy from the performance and the audience's reaction. We map out our plans in enough detail to survive the hangover. We pause only to sing "Bennie and the Jets" with a homeless guy. The future feels wide open and with unlimited potential, just waiting for us to use it properly.

The review is posted. A good review. I take the main shot – the piece I do is given the high hat. It's cool. That piece suffered from having a poor director and an unfocused actor. The cast is treated very well. It makes me very happy. We take some lumps for underusing the female actors. The criticism stings because it is true, though I disagree with his assessment of "Beans." But I am relieved. My first New York review, and it's a really good one. I look forward to the remaining shows with great anticipation.

5pm show: 17 people. Not bad as long as they're in the mood to laugh.

Most awesome! A producer from Cartoon Network comes up after the show and introduces himself. He wants to see more material. Is this someone else's life I'm in all of a sudden?

8/20/04

Sent a follow-up e-mail to the producer. Sent thank-you notes and business cards to the agents who came on Friday. Doing such mature, career-enhancing things that I scare myself. Far from expert, but far from the bumbling nonentity I was long ago.

Last show tomorrow at noon. I can hardly believe we're here already. Part of me doesn't want it to end, part of me wants it behind me so I can get on with other projects. I just hope it is a good house, a strong performance, and a perfect ending to this dream of a week. Is that asking too much? We'll see. Because I have the feeling that this experience will change things for me.

8/21/04

Saturday, noon: Almost full. So I'm almost happy.

It turns out to be an awesome show! Good-sized and so incredibly enthusiastic. Some of the best responses we've gotten. And most of the cast feels that it's their best show. A nice amount of friends in the audience: some Austinites, some New York friends, and even an old high school friend from Baltimore. And a lot of strangers. And they all really love the show. And we got it on tape.

A guy from Second City stops me to praise the show. Says his students could learn a lot from it. We trade cards and promise to stay in touch.

A guy from a playwright's organization all but demands that I move to New York. He tells me that he doesn't say that to everyone because "New York can really suck for some people." Tells me I'd definitely carve out a place for myself and the work here. We trade cards. All I can think about is Austin and creating and writing again.

The afternoon is spent with friends. Catching up with each other, getting updates about the ones that aren't there, getting cornered by a new friend who wants to know what the secret of writing is ("Stumble around blindly and work out your personal shit on paper" doesn't seem like good creative advice.), and cowering under scaffolding as the sky opens up and the street becomes a river. We kiss and hug goodbye on the soaked street as the freshly cooled breeze blows in from the east. We walk to the corner and split up. I will see some of the cast before we head back. Others disappear into the drizzly traffic. We'll see each other soon enough. On one level, nothing unusual has happened. We've done a show together. It's over. We head off into our own lives until the currents bring us back together again. You can change the scenery, but the story remains the same.

9/08/04

HBO calls.

It's just an audition.

They want to see my work. They want my opinions.

It's just an audition.

I'm light-headed. end story

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READ MORE
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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

New York International Fringe Festival, HIT., a chick & a dude productions, The Philomel Project:a barbarous pleasure, Refraction Arts Project, Wade, Steve Barney, Lowell Bartholomee, blah, blah, blah, The Black Box at 440 Studios, Marc Parees, Orange, FringeNYC, FronteraFest, The Bicycle Men, Young Zombies in Love, Urinetown, Avenue Q

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