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By LINDA BUCHWALD
Solo shows are an excellent fit for the New York International Fringe Festival. They can be cheap and easy to produce---there's only one cast member, after all---and they can give a unique voice the opportunity to be heard. If artists have quirky stories to tell, then FringeNYC will often give them a place to tell it.
This year is no exception. Of the 187 shows in FringeNYC, which runs through August 26, 41 are solo pieces. But once a solo show is in the Fringe, where does it go from there? How do artists measure success at the festival, and how do they try to achieve it? For many performers, success simply means getting seen.
"Unless I become more famous, nobody else is going to do [my plays], and it's on me to give them some sort of a life," says Matt Smith, making his Fringe debut this year with the fictional one-man show All My Children, about a man who tracks down the children of his ex-girlfriends and tells them he's their father, knowing that he isn't.
Smith is an auctioneer based in Seattle. Because he frequently works weekends and his busy season is the spring and fall, the timing of Fringe works well with his schedule. For Matthew Trumbull (pictured above), who wrote and stars in The Zebra Shirt of Lonely Children, about the death of his father, part of the appeal is the pared down form of festival shows. "There's not a lot of budget or time or space for big sets or special effects," he says. "It's a great way for a show that relies on audience connection through the words and emotion, and I think that is the primary element of a one-man show."
Trumbull used to review Fringe shows for NYtheatre.com, and he would request solo pieces to learn about what worked and what didn't. "The ones that I like best are where the narrator gets out of the way of the story and allows the perspective of other people involved in the story to come through," he says.
Of course, regardless of quality, a major challenge at the Fringe is standing out amidst hundreds of other productions. But thanks to the Fringe's built-in audience of risk-takers, almost every performance at the festival will have at least someone in the crowd.
The last time Smith, the auctioneer, performed a show in New York, he wasn't in the Fringe, and even though he had a great publicist and positive reviews, he had trouble filling houses. "I thought, 'I'm not going to do that again,'" he recalls. "I'm going to do something that has its own momentum, its own impetus, and that's what I'm hoping the Fringe will have."
Certain Fringe titles have already broken through: For instance, Tail! Spin!, a reenactment of the Larry Craig scandal starring The Daily Show's Mo Rocca and Saturday Night Live's Rachel Dratch, sold out its run several weeks before it began performances. Other shows with sold-out performances include Naked & Crazy, a "double-bill solo show" about two women trying to survive in L.A., and Independents, about Revolutionary War reenactors.
The buzz of selling out counts even more than good reviews, Trumbull says, because by the time reviews arrive, the run may be almost over. That's why Smith and Trumbull are both focused on selling out their first few performances. (All My Children opens tomorrow, and Zebra Shirt continues this Friday.) Trumbull is reaching out to everyone he can---both in person and via Facebook invites---and Smith says it helps to have a publicist and to get as many listings as possible.
But that's not to discount the importance of reviews---a favorable writeup can help market the show in the future. Last summer, Smith performed All My Children at the Fringe in Ottawa, and he hopes to keep performing it somewhere new every summer to keep it alive. Trumbull also hopes Zebra Shirt, which is in its first full production this summer, will have a life beyond the Fringe. He'll continue to tweak it based on what he learns here.
That's another important opportunity the Fringe offers: The chance not just to stage a show, but to stage it in a supportive environment and learn where it might go next. As Trumbull says, "The Fringe is a great laboratory."
NOTE: TDF members can purchase discounted tickets to every Fringe production through our OffOff@$9 program.
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science.
Photo of Matthew Trumbull by Kyle Ancowitz