published Friday, June 6, 2014
DALLAS - Recently, under the banner of my small theatre company, Audacity Theatre Lab, I produced the first ever Dallas Solo Fest, a fringe-like celebration of one-person theatrical performance. The goal was to introduce Dallas audiences to a wide range of solo performances styles as well as raise awareness of the format in the north Texas area. To that end, I brought together a curated collection of solo performers from around the country along with several local favorites.
I have been producing for years and though the festival was small by arts festival standards (with only eight productions), this was the largest event of this kind I’ve ever attempted. I am a hands-on producer and by virtue of the way Audacity Theatre Lab is set up, I was the sole staff member until right before the festival began. The project presented several challenges, but ultimately it went over pretty well.
Here’s what I learned…
Get a Grant
When I began planning the Dallas Solo Fest back in the summer of last year, one of the people I reached out to was Grant Knutson. Through his group Minion Productions, he serves as a sort of consultant/coordinator/coach for fringe performers aiming to tackle the many “fringe” theatre festivals around North America.
Fringes are generally distinguished by short, unconventional performances and low-cost tickets with a large share of ticket sales returned to artists. Many open their stages to amateurs as well as seasoned acts.
Upon its launch in 1947, the Edinburgh International Festival of performing arts was eclipsed by a more grassroots event. In makeshift performance spaces around the city—"round the fringe" of the official performing arts festival, as one journalist put it—artists began mounting small-scale, independent performances. There in Edinburgh, Scotland, the "fringe festival" concept began. It has since spread all over the world.
Grant was curious about how I was putting together a national festival from the ground up and I was curious to pick his brain. He currently sits on the board of the Fresno Fringe and has assisted administratively behind the scenes of several other festivals. So, he, like me, had worked on both sides of the curtain: the artist’s side and the administration side. He also knew several of the artists in the Dallas Solo Fest personally from his own travels. He offered to come down during the fest and help and I took him up on it.
I am so glad I did. Besides supplying lots of good ideas, observations and being a great sounding board, it was good to have another set of hands. Besides the board operator Shea Smith, the staff during the festival itself consisted of me, my wife Ruth Engel and some on-again-off-again support from fellow Audacity artist Jeff Hernandez. Grant did everything from updating social media to taking out trash. And he did it all with a positive attitude.
To have one more informed and good-natured staff member made the whole event much more manageable. My recommendation to anyone doing a festival like this in the future… you should also get yourself a Grant.
Plan for the Unexpected
On the first Saturday of the Dallas Solo Fest, around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I learned there was going to be a thousand people right next door to the Margo Jones Theatre in a matter of hours. They would be celebrating something called Bayou Bash. Needless to say, this took me by surprise. The Bayou Bash is a huge picnic-style fundraiser for Alumni Association of Southern University, complete with outdoor DJ and authentic Louisiana cuisine. They had rented the African American Museum next door to the theatre and had spread onto the balcony of the theatre itself.
They did not know we were going to be at the Margo Jones and I didn’t know they were going to be throwing a loud party next door at the Museum until right before our respective events.
For the most basic of productions, the unexpected will happen. For a festival with so many moving parts I learned this phenomenon increases a hundred fold. Actors had flights cancelled, keys to billets didn’t work, last minute props had to be located, audiences went to the other Margo Jones Theatre (the one at SMU), typos were found on flyers after bunches were printed and so much more.
The whole two weeks was an extended exercise in constant problem-solving. On top of this, if things went smoothly, no one was the wiser. If problems occurred, everyone knew. Though it was certainly stressful, it was also a wonderful challenge…and even kind of fun.
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