WE’VE all experienced small-scale failures. We’ve turned out to be the wrong choice for the job; the person we really liked really didn’t like us; we blew a robust A-flat at practice when a tender D-major was called for. Our jam didn’t gel.
These are small, accidental embarrassments, however. Few of us lay ourselves blithely, and apparently fearlessly, on the track in front of an oncoming train. I’m speaking, of course, of the crazy few in our society who decide to get up on stage in front of a live audience.
Of all our culture’s common fears and phobias – spiders, public speaking, being stuck in a sweltering elevator with Ann Coulter – staging a public performance that flops has to rank near the top.
It’s excruciating to imagine that even your most stellar efforts might not spark an iota of interest. It’s bad when almost no one shows up, worse still when the few who shelled out for tickets leave disappointed.
Which brings us to a small-town mini-Fringe festival I recently attended in Wasagaming, Manitoba. This charming community on the shores of Clear Lake, three hours’ drive northwest of Winnipeg, had decided to host its first modest theatre festival featuring a dozen acts left over from the Peg’s recent Fringe. Performances would take place in several small venues, including a local restaurant and lounge called the Wigwam, a kitschy log building known for its pancakes.
It was an excellent plan. It would give tourists something to do over several nights in this pleasant, quiet place, beyond barbecuing hot dogs and playing gin rummy. The trouble lay in the execution.
The first night, for example, the beer tent opened with no beer available. The other reason to sit in a beer tent – a lively ambience – was also missing, as there were no lights on any of the tables lined up in front of the Porta-Potties. If you and your party wished to enjoy not drinking beer in the beer tent, you would have had to pay two dollars apiece for the privilege of sitting by yourselves in the dark and the heat, wishing there was beer.
Meanwhile, the Winnipeg-based organizers had made certain to give out attractive festival posters and flyers to local businesses. Unfortunately, they listed the shows but did not say where or when they would each take place, or where tickets could be purchased. It eventually emerged that potential audience members were supposed to get these crucial details at a spot whose location only seemed to be available through word of mouth.
One of my companions was a veteran actor whose show was appearing at the festival, so he spent several unpaid hours putting up posters containing specific details for his group’s play. Performers, you see, don’t get paid to appear at Fringes or their offshoots. They just get the revenue from ticket sales, so poor turnout has a distinct effect.
Undaunted by the forbidding lack of momentum for the mini-fringe, we went to see a one-person show by an Englishwoman who had travelled all the way from her country to appear at Fringes across ours. No doubt she’ll be regaling the sophisticates back in Jolly Ol’ E. with the tale of how she performed in a log cabin in the colonies amid the clamour of kitchen staff stacking plates and gusts of karaoke from the adjacent lounge. So much for this actor’s attempt to re-enact the life of Diana Spencer as if she had married into a family of mobsters rather than royals. The other international performers from New York City and Australia doubtless also have embarrassing anecdotes about inept Canuckleheads to take home, if they can ever afford to return.
Before attending a later show at the Wigwam by another Englishman who had trekked over an ocean to tell his hour-long tale, we told festival volunteers that the behind-the-scenes commotion at the venue was disrespectful to the performers and disastrous for the audience. “Well, it is an operating restaurant,” one of them replied coldly.
Against the background noise of the Wigwam, my friend and I found it impossible to fully focus on the actor’s intriguing fact-based story about teaching slam poetry to inmates who had been incarcerated for murder and sex crimes. We could only hope that the cacophony audible every time the bar doors opened during his one-man show reminded the actor nostalgically of prison riots.
The three performances we saw garnered modest audiences of 10 to 20-odd. Somehow a handful of intrepid vacationers had managed to ferret out the information they needed, navigate unlit walkways to the darker venues, tolerate incompetent volunteers, overlook gauche venue staff, and get something out of this badly organized festival debut.
The event, however, reminded me once again that the most courageous people in the world are not extreme sports nuts or practitioners of Jackass-style stunts. They’re live performers, who constantly put their egos on the line, relying on support that can sometimes be as flimsy and unreliable as they got last weekend in Wasagaming. That takes true grit.