Today was the last day of the annual Rogue Performance Festival here in Fresno. For well over a dozen years, Marcel Nunis’ vision for a place to have new and unusual work find an audience in Fresno has come alive in the Tower District. But what attitudes about new and unusual work has Fresno brought to the Festival?
Judging by the crowds in the streets and the long lines outside several diverse shows this weekend, I’d say they’re pretty enthused by the whole thing. We have a hard-core theater audience usually willing to support any interesting endeavor. But for everyone one of them, there are handfuls of theater-goers in this town who are attached to “the right” way of doing theater, whose “standards” are entrenched in perfectionism, and whose snobbery is unleashed the moment their expectations and preconceived notions aren’t met.
And it all comes down to “Am I uncomfortable?” and “Do I understand it?”
The Rogue Festival is designed to upend audience expectations. It is often said that at any given Fringe-style festival you can see the most amazing work you’ve seen in a long time and, at the very next show, you can see the worst piece of dreck you’ve EVER seen. Until the show after that.
Another thing that often happens at the Rogue is that the show you didn’t give much thought to, but decided to catch on the fly is an amazing piece of work. And the show you’ve looked forward to, waited in line for tickets, carved out space in your already busy and exhausting schedule, turns out to be less than sublime.
Today, my chap and I caught Martin Dockery’s THE DARK FANTASTIC and then Kurt Bodden’s STEVE SEABROOK: BETTER THAN YOU.
Dockery’s piece had gotten some mixed word of mouth and one strongly worded pan by the The Fresno Bee’s Donald Munro. So going in, we had no real expectations. (Full disclosure: I have been both panned and praised by Munro lo, these seven years, so I tend to listen to his views if a trusted fellow-artist agrees with his assessment, but in this case, there was no consensus.)
Turns out, Dockery’s tale was probably one of the most challenging and satisfying experiences I’ve had at Rogue 2014. While I can’t say I completely understood every step of the way in the journey, I found the disembodied style of storytelling, the surreal combination of exacting imagery, music underscoring, and poetical delivery nudging me toward an emotional arc I wasn’t looking for. In the opening and closing acts, I found myself looking abstractly in the middle distance and letting his whole approach just wash over me. Then, during the middle acts, even while seated, his expressive face, limber hands and arms, and incredibly flexible voice drew me to a sharp pin-pointed focus at that center table. He went from the expansive to the specific and back again and as a result, I was transported. In so many ways, Dockery was nudging the boundaries of storytelling expectations right in front of us.
Julia Reimer at Fresno Pacific University described his piece as “a crazy Flannery O’Connor-Robertson Davies-Geek Love-esque, told-in-the-manner-of Spalding Gray or was-it- Sam-Shephard story” on Facebook. And she pretty much nailed it. THE DARK FANTASTIC is listed as “storytelling, theater” in the Rogue Program precisely because it cannot fit neatly into either genre, and in some ways goes beyond them.
But if someone went into that piece with fixed expectations about what it SHOULD BE rather than what it intended to be, about one’s personal idea of “right” versus “effective”, well then. . . yes, THE DARK FANTASTIC is going to throw.
At the opposite of the spectrum was STEVE SEABROOK: BETTER THAN YOU. I was looking forward to this piece all week long and finally caught it. It was standing room only in that final performance, and yes, I certainly believe it deserved it. STEVE SEABROOK is a nicely crafted, well-thought-out one-man show. The character is well-developed and Kurt Bodden is adept at portraying him. The audience sympathizes, responds, and chuckles knowingly at exactly the right times because Bodden knows just when to pull them in or turn them away. The staging and direction of the piece is nearly seamless.
I enjoyed the piece greatly. But, perhaps because of my own expectations for a sharp, scathing satire of the self-help industry, I walked away happy, but not blown away.
And frankly, that’s my own fault.
You see, the Rogue isn’t about audience expectations that have to be pleased. It isn’t about churning out a consistent product in 25 productions over 10 days. That’s why we have season-tickets to our local and regional theaters.
No, the Rogue is about inclusiveness. It is for the new play in development but that isn’t quite complete, for the new comedy material to be tested, for experimentation with new forms, and yes, for the polished, traditional, original piece to get up and on the road.
As audience members, the Rogue is here for us to work on a few skills of our own. It is here that we exercise our ability to shut off our expectations and remain open to unexpected experience. It is here to exercise our ability to take in and consider new ideas of an artform we love and enjoy. At the Rogue, we shed our ideas of perfection, of tradition, of correctness, of snobbery and we simply allow another person to attempt to communicate to us.
We need all of the ways of telling stories, all of the ways to express our experiences, nothing should be off limits at the Rogue Festival.
Except of course, our own preconceived notions.