By Tonya Jone Miller | September 27, 2012
Ok this time I mean it. I’m back. Really.
It took a couple weeks for me to “come down” off of the Threads tour. Part of it is after two weeks in a new city, two weeks in a new city, two weeks in a new city, I had to be home for more than two weeks before my brain realized I wasn’t just doing another fringe and wouldn’t be moving on in 14 days. And then to try and process the whole experience, it’s…indescribable.
But because I’m me, I’m going to try to describe it. Lol!
A fringe festival is a unique beast. Each one has its own distinct personality, quirks, benefits, and drawbacks. Each city poses different challenges, which require resourcefulness and resiliency to overcome. Each festival is a potential goldmine of audience members and five-star reviews with accolades galore. Or a heart-wrenching, soul-sucking, 24/7, bang-your-head-against-a-wall of jaded apathy, play-to-7-people-a-night test of your artistic intention. Because if you’re doing it for the money, for the fame, for standing ovations and sell-out crowds, the fringe festival circuit will destroy you.
Don’t get me wrong. Fringe theatre festivals are one of the few venues where an independent performer can earn a (usually meager) living directly from their art. If you are lucky enough to have a good show that gets good reviews/word-of-mouth and catches on, you can definitely expect sell-outs and standing ovations. There is also notoriety and a certain kind of “celebrity” on the international fringe circuit. But let me put it into perspective…
TJ Dawe. Martin Dockery. Jem Rolls. Chris Craddock. Do any of those names ring a bell? Probably not. They’re very well-known fringe artists on the circuit, but if you’re not a “fringer” (either audience or performer), you’ve likely never heard of them. Basically, the biggest fish in the fringe pond are still just tiny sardines in the world ocean. Yet they are some of the most amazing artists you’ve never seen. When I think of the incredibly diverse shows I saw over the course of this summer, I am truly blown away. They continually change my concepts of what “performance” and “art” and “theatre” are.
So there I was…Winnipeg. First show in a couple months, first time on this tour so far that I was in a city I had done in 2009. Lots of familiar faces, including most of the performers I mentioned above. Would people remember me? Was my program blurb interesting enough? Would anyone come see the show? Did my posters stand out compared to the hundreds of others? My first show in Winnipeg was prime time on a Friday night, but still I was pretty shocked to have an over 3/4 full house, around 80 audience members in my 100-capacity venue. It had to bode well, right? Then the reviews came out.
Remember what I was saying earlier about how each festival has its own personality? Here’s the thing about Winnipeg: reviews REALLY matter there. The two major press outlets for coverage are the CBC and the Winnipeg Free Press, and both of them use a star rating system, with 0 as the worst and 5 as the best. Get zero- and one-star reviews, and you can kill yourself flyering all day long, won’t matter. You’ll be lucky to have 10 people in your audience per show. On the other hand, a five-star review can make you. Get a five-star review in Winnipeg, and suddenly when you start to flyer a line-up, people know about your show already. Believe me, it’s difficult to stand out in a field of nearly 200.
But it’s a total crap shoot. There are so many shows that the press employ non-theatre-critic reviewers just to get every show covered. If the CBC sent five of their reviewers to one show, they’d probably come back with five different star ratings. It’s completely a matter of random chance whether the critic who is assigned to your performance will “get” it 100%. So I was pretty floored when the first review came out…
I was in shock. And I definitely felt…weird about it. Did I deserve 5 stars? I love this story, and I believe in my show, yet all it has ever gotten is fantastic audience response but bad-to-ok reviews. I guess I was expecting more of the same, even though I had high hopes going into Winnipeg because it was my favorite city on the 2009 tour. My next show sold out. The first time ever I have completely sold out a show, by myself, not in my hometown, without a bunch of friends and family to paper the house. And then the second review came out…
* * * * *
“Miller is a revelation. She couldn’t possibly make up a better story and brings it to life with such heart-wrenching care and breathtaking yet understated style. The audience is transfixed…Rarely does a bare stage transform so elegantly into its tale’s setting, bringing us hand-in-hand with Miller’s mother, experiencing her heartache and jubilation. Miller has created a true object of beauty — don’t miss the chance to witness it.”
~ Winnipeg Free Press
Suddenly, everybody was talking about Threads. I sold out five more of my remaining six shows and was informed that Threads had been picked as “Best of Fest” and would be given an extra performance. UMFM named it one of their Top 10 shows of the 2012 festival, and the CBC review crew named me as Outstanding Female Performance, a tie with the lovely and talented Yana Kesala of Seattle.
I kid you not, it was like being a rock star. Everybody knew who I was, all the other performers wanted me to come see their shows, strangers insisted on buying me drinks, and in one case, dinner. It was the experience of a lifetime. It was like winning the lottery. I got to be a princess. As an artist, you hope and pray for your work to be received like Threads was in Winnipeg. Through it all, you try to take it with gratitude, humility, and grace. Because you know that two weeks later, you’ll be in a brand new city, at a completely different festival, and nobody will give a damn what they thought about you and your show in Winnipeg.
Minnesota? Eh, it happened. It was no Winnipeg, but then I knew my chances of winning the lottery twice were pretty slim. The show averaged 4.5 stars and glowing reviews from audience members on the fringe website, which is the single most important buzz-builder at that festival. But I didn’t get any mainstream press, and by the time I’d built some momentum from positive word-of-mouth, the festival was almost over. It doesn’t help that you only get 5 performances in Minnesota, unlike other festivals where you get 6-8.
I also lost my Minneapolis billet (volunteer host) because she objected to my line of work. Her prerogative if she doesn’t want a dirty dirty phone sex whore staying with her, but I can’t help wondering if she really thought she’d be hosting a virginal, tee-totaling, prayer-meeting-holding fringe artist. Not a ton of those, in my experience, but whatever. Better to know before I got there and was uncomfortable or kicked out. I considered canceling, but friends and fellow artists found me various places to stay. Still, it sucked having to move every two or three days. I never felt settled, and as soon as I got my bearings in the city, I had to change to a new place. I also ate like crap, since it was such a hassle to keep carting groceries from crashpad to crashpad, and it was of course more expensive to eat out almost every meal.
Minneapolis seems like such a hip, artsy city on the surface, but after two weeks there, I found it to be a conservative, repressed, religious hotbed of passive-aggressiveness. Trying to flyer the line-ups, which is every touring artist I know’s mainstay promotional tool, was damn near impossible. Few people would even take the flyers, and nobody would engage enough to give me an opening to pitch them. It was exhausting, and after a few days of banging my head against the wall and realizing none of the locals did it, I pretty much gave up. You don’t go into a festival thinking you’re going to make a ton of money, but you at least hope/expect to make back your production fee and cover the cost of your food while you’re there. Minnesota cost me a pretty penny. I met some cool folks, but I wouldn’t go back to that festival, and I’m not particularly fond of the city itself, either. Thankfully, the downside of knowing while it was going on that Winnipeg would only last two weeks has an upside: knowing the slog of Minnesota would only last two weeks too.
And then Edmonton. Oh, Edmonton. Edmonton is the biggest festival in North America, which isn’t necessarily always a good thing. It’s even harder to stand out there. But unlike Winnipeg, the reviews are not the end-all, be-all in Edmonton. I remember getting the worst reviews of the Inviting Desire tour in Edmonton but still selling out a bunch of shows. And it happened to me again, worst review of the tour (2.5 stars). Also a great four-star review, but boy do you remember the bad ones easiest. So I flyered my ass off and earned every audience member, and had some of the best audience responses and feedback of the whole tour. It wasn’t anywhere near as satisfying as Winnipeg, but I made a comparative amount of money, given that I did two fewer shows in Edmonton.
A lot of the touring artists end their season in Edmonton, so there’s always a rash of indulgence and crazy parties. Plus, I had the 4F’s with me- Alexa Fitzpatrick, Christel Bartelse, and my hometown pal (and person responsible for introducing me to the fringe circuit) Eleanor O’Brien. The four of us met up at the Orlando festival and decided to pool our resources to cross-promote and help market each other in Edmonton. We called ourselves the Four Fabulous Fringe Females, or 4F’s. It was nice to have a support network- touring as a solo artist is completely different that touring as part of an ensemble like I did in 2009. By the time I hit Edmonton this year, I needed some girl time! And I could definitely feel the nostalgia starting to creep in the last week there, but when it was finally over, I was ready to be home. Two months is a long time to live out of a suitcase.
All in all, a remarkable summer. My “new” beetle held up great over the 5K (!) miles I put on her, and my cats didn’t ignore me for too long before relenting and allowing me to worship them with tuna fish and tummy rubs. I’m still processing the whole tour, and it’s already time to start thinking about festival applications for next year. Yes, there’s going to be a next year. And a year after that, and a year after that. In fact, I can’t really imagine NOT doing at least one or two festivals a year for the foreseeable future. Once a person finds the fringe festival circuit, it changes their life. It’s like coming home.
Coming home from coming home. Now there’s a conundrum.