Sunday, May 9, 2004

Fringe benefits for Cincinnati

One man's passion launches a 'wonderful, awful, strange, obnoxious, electrifying, provocative' arts festival

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Julie Roessler brings her performance art to the gallery at 36 W. Court St. throughout the festival.
(Nicole Soluski photo)

Tara Michelle Guilfoil (center) brings her dance act "Time Outside My Body" three times during the festival to the Contemporary Arts Center. (Photo provided)
You need more than a $10 ticket for the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. You need running shoes - and a sense of adventure.

For 12 days beginning Wednesday, you can check out theater, music, art installations, dance, marionettes, Dada - all outside the mainstream, and all downtown.

Fringe, which is about arts on the outside making themselves seen and heard in an urban festival setting, has been building across North America for more than a generation.

It's finally reached Cincinnati, and it's about time, thinks Jason Bruffy, 26, producing director of Cincinnati's first Fringe Festival. It is, he's convinced "exactly what Cincinnati needs right now." Which is why he devoted more than a year to bringing it off.

The Fringe will hopefully be wonderful, awful, strange, obnoxious, electrifying, provocative - all of the above.

At the very least, Bruffy wants everybody talking. "A thriving community is one that discusses" art and everything else, he says.

To start the conversation, Visual Fringe, a party at five downtown exhibit spaces starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Then it's 80 performances of 26 acts on three stages over two weeks (May 12-23.)

While a lot of the work is local, a smattering of artists and plays are coming in from New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. There's also a good representation from Columbus, and they're all drawn by the word "Fringe."

In a metro region that's earned too many headlines for the steady drain of its young professional class, Bruffy believes the Fringe is a factor that works to reverse the trend and attract such people.

Sean Christopher Lewis is in from New York with a work about a racist white kid with big attitude adopting hip-hop culture. He's here because he thinks the messages of I Will Make You Orphans "ties in with the race issues in Cincinnati."

Tickets: Single tickets to all performances $10, now available at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival box office (719 Race St.) or via Enjoy the Arts' Regional Arts Portal,
Single tickets will be available at venues beginning an hour before performances.
Six-show pass, $50; 10-show pass, $75; all acess pass, $150. There is a processing fee for all passes.
All ticketing information is available at the CSF box office, 381-2273.
Volunteering: $10 just too much? Volunteering can solve that problem. Get in free, go to parties, wear a cool T-shirt. Call Fringe producing director Jason Bruffy at 319-9385.
Party with the artists: Likeliest places to find after-show parties are Arnold's Bar & Grill, Hamburger Mary's, O'Malley's and Milton's. Check for updated party plans.
Minnesota Fringe Festival veteran Dave Mondy is driving cross-country in his '95 Grand Marquis because the Fringe Festival piqued his interest - as did the cicada invasion. So when he's not performing in his one-man show about the journeys of a young Christian man (complete with a detour to a New Orleans cathouse), This Love Train Is Unstoppable and I Am the Conductor, he'll be checking out the town.

Three alternative theater companies are coming in from Columbus, drawn by the excitement of being part of the inaugural year, says Mike Holmes of Hand-Dog Theatre - and maybe of building a regional audience base, adds Matt Slaybaugh of BlueForms.

Fringe in his blood

The Fringe has kept Bruffy here. Originally from New Jersey, he expected to be in Cincinnati for nine months as a member of Cincinnati Shakespeare's Young Company three years ago. He's still here because he believes effecting change is more satisfying than "moving to Chicago or D.C., where wide boundaries are already established."

Bruffy expects a full spectrum on the quality-meter, which is part of the fun. Who wouldn't want to discover "young, big-hearted artists filled with spit and vinegar... for the price of a movie?"

He wants people coming downtown to experience what it's all about. "Passion," he says. "The passion between an actor, an audience and a piece of work."

Bruffy's passion, a year of his life and $20,000 of seed money ($15,000 from Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival's Studio project funded by Cinergy Foundation and $5,000 from local arts patron Robert Therauf) will be sparking downtown north of Fountain Square.

Expect the unexpected

What you will see: Naked people (three, in Time Outside My Body and Shopping and...), as well as risk and experimentation.

What you won't see: Crashing chandeliers and descending helicopters. Phantom and Miss Saigon this isn't - Fringe is by nature bare bones, seat-of-the-pants entertainment.

In a town built on corporate research and development bent on finding the perfectly angled saddle shape for a Pringle, Bruffy wonders what could be more intriguing than witnessing the artistic process?

So, other things you will see include: Dozens of performing artists making their downtown Cincinnati debut. That includes Over-the-Rhine and Brighton artists who are taking their act across Central Parkway for the first time.

A lot of what's local has been seen in some stage of development over the last couple of years.

But, what you won't see (much) of is: African-Americans, Latinos or many other minorities and political points of view.

As Fringes go, this one is pretty mild-mannered, despite a certain show with a three-word title that starts with "Shopping," and can't be elaborated upon here, and which will likely sell out FAST. (A modern relationship drama, the eyebrow-raising title attracts the curious.)

"It was the nature of the proposals," says Bruffy, who personally likes political, in-your-face theater, theater of the absurd and anything and everything "mind-blowing. I was wide open for everything," he says, but he's not surprised that the conservative nature of the city is reflected in what's on this first Fringe's schedule.

Rather than "out there," a lot of the work is better described as "beyond the mainstream."

If this Fringe has a missing element, it's urban and multicultural.

"In October and November I was out soliciting artists almost every night. I asked 100 people 'apply, please,' I got maybe three back," Bruffy says. He hopes reluctant artists will experience this year's festival and sign up next year.

So much ado, nothing for time

A week ago, Bruffy was mainlining coffee and checking his to-do list deep in the bowels of Cincinnati Shakespeare, which is officially birthing this baby. (Bruffy has to shuffle through the costume shop to get to his desk).

He juggled little problems, like being advised by the city that African-American Heritage Day would bounce the Fringe from Fountain Square on Saturday, which sent Bruffy looking for a place to relocate afternoon and late night events. (They're ending up at Cincinnati Shakespeare.) And bigger problems, like a late schedule scratch of the much-anticipated staged reading of Eating Raoul: The Musical.

He and his volunteer crew spent last week setting up the spaces: Cincinnati Shakespeare was ready to go and the black box at the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art was a piece of cake, with only the setting up of chairs and the stage and the focusing of lights left to do. As befits a bootstraps operation, Xavier University's theater department is loaning the chairs and New Edgecliff Theatre is lending a lighting system.

The newly rehabbed Sycamore Place at St. Xavier Park across from St. Xavier Church, downtown, was more of a challenge. Bruffy loves that it's true Fringe material, "a big, vacant commercial space," but making it performance-ready started last February, when he went over to the closed The Artery in Newport armed with a flashlight and drill and, with no heat, no lights and no friends to help, disassembled platforms and hauled them back to Brighton, where they've been stored in his basement ever since.

Five exhibit spaces were prepared for almost 50 visual artists, led by Visual Fringe curator Laura Hollis, who knows most of the city's young artists thanks to years of teaching on area campuses and as director of The Artery gallery space in Newport until it closed last year.

This weekend, while Hollis puts the finishing touches on the visual art, it's all technical rehearsal all the time for the performing companies, with four hours allotted per show.

Bruffy offers a self-aware laugh between gulps of coffee as he swears he can multi-task and get the job done. One of the hardest lessons he's learned these last months is to delegate.

He'll be easy to spot this week. He'll be the guy with the two-way radio and cell phone, chatting up patrons and making curtain speeches.

And counting.

The Fringe needs to sell 2,000 tickets (total capacity is about 12,000) to keep Bruffy "from going to sleep crying."

He'll be moving out of his Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival base at the end of the month, but there will be a Fringe in 2005, he promises.

There's already some seed money in place and Bruffy is a man with a mission.

"I feel an obligation to the artists and to the city," Bruffy says with fire in his eyes and his belly. "I believe in them."


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