Alone in the Lab
FronteraFest gives solo performers plenty of room to experiment
The first time she performed a solo show in FronteraFest's Long Fringe, Annie La Ganga wasn't really going solo. "I had two different people help me. They were my directors, kind of," she says, "and I was thinking about how I was going to make people interested, so I made a rehearsal schedule over a few weeks. And then I invited people whom I didn't know very well, whom I thought were really smart, and I asked them if they would come see my rehearsal and give me notes."
The result, for La Ganga, was a slew of critical feedback on the material she was developing for her improvised, one-woman show Let's Make Love Tonight! and a whole group of people who now considered themselves stakeholders in her show's success. "That was smart, right?" she laughs.
It's a clever approach to one of the biggest challenges that a solo performer faces when trying to fill a room for the Long Fringe at FronteraFest. While so many of the annual performance festival's signature pieces have been one-person shows, the fact is that a piece with an ensemble onstage and a crew tends to have a built-in audience; a dozen people involved in the show means a dozen people's friends, families, and fans are likely to show up. But for the performances that involve a single person onstage, the pressure is on to get people to turn out.
This is a curious position to be in. Solo work is a major part of the history of FronteraFest, and the solo performance – whether scripted or improvised, personal or in-character – is uniquely suited to the fringe festival environment, which places limits on both the length of the performance and the stage, lighting, and sound design available. It's attracted talent like Steven Tomlinson, the TEDxAustin speaker and recipient of the American Theater Critics Association's Osborn Award for best new play, who did some of his early monologues at the festival; well-regarded playwrights like Lowell Bartholomee and Dan Dietz have solo pieces in this year's Long Fringe. (Those two team under the title Don't Go in the House, which features Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires performing Dietz's "Lobster Boy.") Some of the most exciting work done at FronteraFest each year is of the solo variety. (See "Singled Out.") So what's a lone performer to do?
For Ben Prager – whose 2009 Long Fringe show Things in Life saw the writer/actor perform in-character monologues as a teenager, a middle-aged white Southern woman, and an elderly African-American man, among others – the answer is "switch to Short Fringe." You can say a lot in the 25 minutes every performer is allowed, and the format is ideal for an artist like Prager, who uses it to work out new material.
"With the Short Fringe, you have a built-in audience. There are five acts [each night], and [the performers] all bring their own people – plus it's a smaller room," Prager says. "I much prefer that to trying to be the marketer and to drum up an audience. I'm much more of a 'show up, oh, look, there are people there!' sort of person. It's not in my nature to market – I want to focus on doing the performance and not put on the other hat."
Prager has a lot of company in the Short Fringe this year. Of the 80 acts booked for the festival, nearly a quarter of them – at least – will feature a single performer onstage. Audiences looking for a common thread among them aren't necessarily going to find one, which speaks to the vitality of solo performance: It's incredibly versatile. An artist like Prager can perform scripted, in-character monologues; someone like La Ganga can improvise first-person stories. In the Short Fringe this year, a quick glance at the list of solo performers finds spoken-word poetry, movement- and dance-based pieces, and something called "Lovely Lincoln Lumps: The Story of Slutty Abraham Lincoln." In short, while all of these performances feature a single person taking the stage and doing something, the potential of what that thing will be is open-ended.
That potential is a big part of what makes solo work appealing to a performer like Prager. "I just like the idea that you have this limited set and limited costumes," he says. "It's just me and a chair, maybe a few prop pieces, and bam, you're on."
The variety inherent to solo performance also makes it a natural fit for Short Fringe audiences. With the Long Fringe, part of the reason it's risky to attend as an audience member who isn't familiar with the performer is that there's only one person up there – if you don't know what the performer is going to do or if you aren't a fan of the performer's brand of monologue/comedy/dance, then it's going to be a long night. It's easier to sign on for 25 minutes or less of what may be extreme weirdness, especially when it's going to be balanced by four other acts, than to commit to an hour or more to one relatively unknown artist.
With the Short Fringe offering a natural home to solo performers and the Long Fringe presenting challenges when it comes to filling a house, it's fair to ask: What's the appeal of putting yourself out there in the Long Fringe?
According to La Ganga, the answer is fairly simple. If the Short Fringe is about testing out what you can accomplish when it's just you on a stage, then the Long Fringe is the full demonstration. "Initially, I was trying to see if I could actually do it at all – improvised storytelling," she says. "When I was able to do it and enjoy it at Short Fringe, it was really thrilling – it made me want to try a full-length show, to enlarge the experiment." The experiment, this time around, involves La Ganga sketching portraits of audience members as she tells her stories about her experiences with all forms of performance and visual art.
It's this sort of opportunity, La Ganga says, that makes FronteraFest a unique festival. "For me, FronteraFest is this wonderful expanding laboratory. This year's show is a different kind of experiment. I think it might be neat, but you never know – it's an experiment."
This year, for La Ganga, it's also an experiment that she's undertaking as a truly solo performance. Unlike Prager, whose wife, Wynne West, serves as a de facto director/dramaturge or many of the other solo acts in the Short Fringe, La Ganga's Drawing a Paycheck doesn't have a director or anyone else's name on the project. And for her, that gets to the essence of solo work and why it appeals to her.
"I tell myself before all of them that I'm really allowed to totally suck," she says with a smile. "If everybody hates me, it's okay – I'm on my side, and it's my experiment. And that's what makes me feel really good about this – that's the piece of doing it alone that I really want. This is my experiment. It's my ride; this is my life. I get to do experiments."