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Arts & Culture


Stage in a suitcase

Four Fringe favorites who got their start in Orlando describe life on the Fringe Festival circuit

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Photo: , License: N/A

TJ Dawe

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May 14-27 | orlandofringe.org

Today through Memorial Day, the 23rd annual Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival once again pitches its tent in Loch Haven Park, and after all these years there should no need for us explain why local arts lovers flock to Fringe like villagers of old to the county fair. (But just in case it’s totally new to you: Orlando’s Fringe Festival is the longest-running unjuried theater festival in the U.S., presenting more than 100 shows along with Kids Fringe and Visual Fringe; 100 percent of box office proceeds go to artists.)

And just like the carnival of yore, more than one aspiring performer has been inspired to run away and join the circus – or the Fringe Festival circuit, as the summer-long series of similar events around North America and abroad is known. But what is life on the road really like for the touring thespians who Fringe full-time for months at a time? Is being a latter-day theatrical troubadour, riding the rails across a continent in search of sympathetic audiences, actually as romantic as it sounds, or is it more like being one of Barnum’s performing pachyderms?

No one understands the stresses and satisfactions of living on the Fringe better than T.J. Dawe. The writer-performer of hit monologues like The Slipknot, Totem Figures, Lucky 9, Medicine and this year’s Marathon has performed in 95 Fringes since first touring in 1994, making him one of the most enduring veterans currently on the Festival circuit. In 2014, he marks his 11th Orlando Fringe since 2001, and he says he’s seen the touring scene transform during his career.

“There’s a growing culture of people creating original theater,” says Dawe. “Fringe festivals are a natural place to put up new work, especially if you’re not backed by major resources. It’s the most cost-efficient way to self-produce, and there’s an audience that’s actually eager for something new.”

In fact, you could almost consider Dawe to be a victim of the success Fringe veterans like him helped create: “As this culture of self-creation grows, so does the competition to get into individual festivals. I used to tour eight or nine festivals in a summer. This summer I’m doing three.”

The competition Dawe refers to arises from the growing cadre of journeymen joining the Fringe caravan, and Orlando is developing a reputation as a launchpad for festival careers. Three performers who have successfully used Orlando as a springboard to Fringe circuit success are Martin Dockery, Paul Strickland and Chase Padgett. Each experienced his first taste of Fringe triumph in Orlando, and each has gone on to conquer other festivals across America and beyond, while still making certain to return to Central Florida each May.

The 2009 Orlando festival was the first Fringe Dockery (Wanderlust, The Bike Trip, The Dark Fantastic) ever performed in. “I had no idea how fun and artistically rewarding it would be. And it was absolutely wonderful to have people come and appreciate the show I was doing on its own terms,” recalls Dockery, who is now performing The Surprise, an autobiographical monologue about his secret half-siblings. “Myron Blattner [the late Fringe superfan] came to my first show and became a sort of cheerleader for it. That was the first time someone outside my circle had done so.”

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