Beyond the Fringe: Liminal’s artistic director, Bryan Markovitz, returns to town from Seattle’s annual theatrical orgy.
Willamette Week, March 28, 2001
By Bryan Markovitz
I’ve just returned from a two-week engagement at the Seattle Fringe Theatre Festival where Liminal, my performance and media ensemble, premiered a new interactive media performance called Objects for the Emancipated Consumer. Despite the logistical fiasco of organizing a tour for 13 artists on a budget smaller than a day’s sweatshop wages, we decided that the experience of joining 450 nonstop performances in Seattle was well worth the effort.
Fringe festivals defy all rules of survival logic in the cultural milieu of American cities. They’re big, cumbersome, messy and dependent on large-scale audiences. In a time of homogenous artistry and declining audiences, fringe festivals still encourage the masses to accept imperfections and search for sparks of inspiration. Those who have experienced one of the festivals on the world’s circuit know that each piece is a crap shoot. One day you’ll feast on a performance that skillfully lodges itself in your cerebral cortex. The next day you’ll endure 90 minutes of schlock that forces you to contemplate your shoes’ color. The Seattle Fringe provided both extremes.
At the low end, my fellow Liminalites and I endured hours of clichéd relationships, limp sketch comedy and soap-box charades. Many of the Fringe’s shows were produced by Seattle performers and given titles like See Me Naked. We declined. At the high end, I found a few glittering moments of Butoh-inspired movement from Dappin Butoh’s The Bride’s Tales and Haruko Nishimura’s Nymph.
But the hands-down best production we saw was a little gem by the L.A. ensemble Burglars of Hamm titled Resa Fantastiskt Mystisk. Resa is what can happen when the megalomania of a director’s vision (nothing I’ve ever personally experienced) and the realities of theatrical life collide. The play is by the fictitiously “acclaimed” 19th-century Swedish playwright Lars Mattsun, and director Todd Merrill’s interpretation is no less than brilliant. Audiences wear radio-transmitted headphones to hear Merrill’s running commentary of the play as it happens. “We just want to make sure you get it,” he passively announces as the actors glare with silent contempt.
The Fringe was a great way to indulge our passions for theatrical chaos. My only complaint is that most of the Seattle-based participants didn’t really meet the “fringe” aspect of the festival. I wanted to see more blurring of artistic boundaries. I’d hoped to find artists raising questions about what theatre could be rather than what it is. Seattle may have volume and scale on its side, but what I’ve seen in Portland indicates that our small city may have a proportionally higher number of focused artists who are pursuing new directions in art and performance.