EDITOR’S NOTE: The Utah Review will present reviews of nine Great Salt Lake Fringe shows in a two-part series on Aug. 2-3.
In a recent Facebook post, Utah playwright Morag Shepherd, who has participated several times in the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, wrote, “For those who do not have the luxury or privilege to make a living wage doing the thing they love, Fringe is this beautiful space where artists, young and old, can try out some shit and see what sticks. It’s mostly affordable. And to the kids out of college who are dipping in their pockets and losing a lot to make this work — I see you.”
Shepherd adds that she intended not to be involved with Fringe this year because of illness and other life events in the past year but when Ariana Farber sent a new play titled Role Play, an Immigrant’s Daughter Theatre production, Shepherd agreed to direct the production. “She’s never written a play before, and I believe in my guts that people should get an opportunity,” she adds.
Role Play is among 52 shows, including those created in Utah as well as elsewhere, being presented at the 7th Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival (GSLF), which will be held at The Gateway on two consecutive weekends spanning July 29 to Aug. 8. With the largest slate in its short history, GSLF is offering in-person and online shows. The festival also drew the largest number of submissions it has received to date, according to co-directors Jay Perry and Shianne Gray.
The global concept brand of Fringe is now nearly 75 years old, having originated in Edinburgh. Last year, as the pandemic precluded any live performances, many Fringes around the world went virtual, including GSLF. In SLC, the results were heartening: the schedule of 38 shows was viewed more than 5,000 times from 48 states and 25 countries. Many individual performers raised tips and donations and GSLF organizers noted the amounts per show were comparable to an average payout for a live Fringe performance.
The lessons from last year’s virtual festival have enhanced the logistics of handling this year’s record number of shows, Perry adds. Going with a hybrid format appears to be the ideally prudent decision, as live performances have returned steadily across the nation. GSLF organizers have asked that all audiences are masked during indoor Fringe shows. Unvaccinated individuals are required to wear masks, which will be available at each venue and at the box office. They add that they hope Fringe patrons will abide by the honor system protocol established for the festival.
Not including last year’s virtual edition, GSLF’s home for the third year of live performances will be at The Gateway. The ticket sales potential for the 2021 edition of the festival is momentous. In 2019, with numerous sold-out performances in its five venues at The Gateway, GSLF saw ticket sales were up more than 34 percent from 2018, topping the 3,200 mark for the first time in the event’s history. Payout to the performers totaled approximately $22,000, up nearly 46 percent in the same period. GSLF has grown rapidly in its short history, since it was founded in 2015 by Michael and Nina Vought, faculty members at Westminster College. The first event was four days and it was doubled in length for the following year and continues to be offered on two consecutive weekends.
“The Gateway has developed over the last few years as an entertainment, arts and cultural events center as part of its revitalization,” says Jacklyn Briggs, Vestar regional marketing director for The Gateway. “Fringe has become a fun, quirky add-on as a great fit.” Among the regular arts and culture highlights at the downtown SLC complex are Clark Planetarium, Utah Arts Alliance’s Urban Arts Gallery, Dreamscapes, Wasatch Theatre Company and the Mystery Escape Room.
This year’s festival will open with a party Thursday evening, beginning at 6, at Hall Pass at the south end of The Gateway.
She adds that, within a very short time, Fringe already has become a widely anticipated annual signature event for The Gateway, much like the popular Festa Italiana SLC, which returns after a pandemic-related hiatus to the complex Sept. 18-19. “We look forward every August to hosting Fringe, and interested audience members can count on putting it in their calendars every year,” Briggs adds. Fringe attendees should also look for discounts and special offers at The Gateway that will be presented in conjunction with the festival.
For more than a few Utah artists, Fringe has been an effective platform for cultivating visibility in supporting creative productions that originate in the local community. Shepherd’s play Do You Want to See Me Naked?, a solo work that featured actor Elizabeth Golden, was performed in 2018 at the United Solo Festival, the world’s largest gathering of solo theatrical works, held annually in New York City. The comedy show, with elements of Mormonism in its themes, drives messages challenging not just modesty but also how religious and social conventions mercilessly leave many individuals so ambivalent, or even ashamed, and thoroughly disconnected from their bodies. The play premiered at the GSLF in 2017.
Madazon Can-Can, an ingeniously multifaceted burlesque artist who has provided a couple of GSLF’s most memorable award-winning shows in recent years, is working as a full-time artist with one of the most active schedules that would be the envy of any independent creative producer. Madazon, who has a master’s degree from Weber State University with an emphasis in curriculum design and instruction in performance art for social change, has performed in Idaho, Colorado, New Orleans, Texas, California, Missouri, Wisconsin and Tokyo. They perform in numerous venues across the Salt Lake metropolitan area including The Metro, Prohibition, the Arts Hub, The Beehive, the Impact Hub and the Art Factory.
Others who have leveraged effectively their Fringe experiences into larger works, presented in formal settings and with additional funding include choreographers and dance artists such as Dan Higgins (currently the longest tenured dance artist at Repertory Dance Theatre), Dat Nguyen, who now lives and performs in Vietnam, and Cat + Fishes Dances. Utah’s Sackerson theatrical company was established by way of its Fringe appearances. In 2018, Prufrock Productions produced the regional premiere of Marty Has Cancer, a play by Austin Archer, a work that premiered earlier that summer at the Hollywood Fringe.
Fringe is a model of artistic equity in terms of treatment and access, amplifying the point Shepherd made in social media. All of the ticket sales revenue is paid out to each performer or group, based on their cumulative audience numbers. Because the Fringe model puts every performer on as equal a playing level as possible, it is up to the individual show creators and performers to promote and advertise their work. Many of this year’s performers already have spent several weeks on social media promoting their work, many of which will be seen for the first time by an audience.
Likewise, because Fringe originated through the efforts of Westminster College faculty, staff and students, volunteers are essential. They have included those with technical staging experience, along with students from the private liberal arts college who have gained valuable hands-on experience with event planning and arts management. For example, Melissa Salguero, as box office manager, implemented an easy-to-use digital ticketing system. For this year’s Fringe, Salguero and Aidan Powell Croft, another Fringe alum and past performer, have written The Well Spoken, a new comedy piece, for a Bonneville Theatre Company production. And, Gray, of Stone Fruit Theatre, is directing a new theatrical comedy piece: Wild Swimming.
This year’s slate reflects an exemplary representation of the creative community as evidence of earnest inclusion and diversity, Theatrical pieces cover various genres, including comedy, satire, drama, one-person formats, audience interaction, music and others. There are many artists representing marginalized gender identities as well as LGBTQ, and BIPOC communities. There are avant-garde dance pieces, puppet shows and the premiere of Circus Steria’s Grief Circus, of which Madazon Can-Can has helped create.
Tickets are available for purchase for individual shows as well as in packages of three and ten, respectively. Ticket packages can be purchased so that patrons can decide later what shows to attend. Advance tickets for in-person shows will sell quickly, Gray says, adding that the schedule always has simultaneous performances occurring so patrons can choose to buy tickets spontaneously at the box office, even five minutes ahead of the starting show time. For tickets, see the GSLF website.