Performing Arts

Fort Lauderdale gets South Florida’s first fringe fest

Casey Dressler will perform her solo show ‘The Wedding Warrior’ at the Fort Lauderdale Fringe Festival.
Casey Dressler will perform her solo show ‘The Wedding Warrior’ at the Fort Lauderdale Fringe Festival. Duv Wolff

First things first: If you decide you simply must see every show at the inaugural Fort Lauderdale Fringe Festival on Saturday, you’re dreaming of the impossible.

Twenty shows are scheduled between noon and 10 p.m., all but one with two performances each during the festival, so even though that translates to 39 performances spread out over 10 hours, you’d be hard-pressed to see everything. The math just doesn’t work.

Not that fringe fest fanatics wouldn’t try.

Fringe-savvy artists and audiences alike just love the fringe theater experience. The Orlando International Fringe Festival, at 24 the oldest such festival in the United States and the largest one in the Southeast, will present over 700 performances of 130 shows May 13-25 at venues that ring the city’s Loch Haven Park. But until Broward College decided to back a Fort Lauderdale festival this year, the concept hadn’t come to South Florida.

Thomas Meyer, dean of the college’s Downtown Center on Las Olas Boulevard where the festival will be held, credits Broward College President J. David Armstrong with providing the impetus for the festival.

“President Armstrong had the vision. He thought it would be great to do a fringe festival in Fort Lauderdale. Supporting the arts and the community fits with our mission,” Meyer says.

Meyer is serving as the festival’s managing producer, but the college reached into the theater community for an artistic director. Vanessa Elise, who graduated from Miami’s New World School of the Arts in 2013, got the gig and will also appear in Sonia Cordoves’ play Reality Sucks at the festival.

Elise, who acknowledges that she’ll be “going a little cray cray” as the festival ticks down to its start, just finished a run in New Theatre’s Women Playing Hamlet and last fall performed her one-person show Noise: An Interruption at the United Solo Festival in New York. Taking her show to Manhattan taught her a lot, as did going to New World, where “they prepare you for anything,” she says. Advice from the Orlando Fringe and its producer, Michael Marinaccio, has also been invaluable.

“Looking down the road, we want this to be something amazing for South Florida,” Elise says. “We’re learning and growing. We have different types of audiences and artists here … We have rich Hispanic, African-American and Haitian communities here.”

Part of what makes a fringe festival different is explained in the way the Fort Lauderdale describes its shows: uncensored, unjuried performance art. The content can be plays, musicals, scripted pieces, improvised shows — whatever the artist decides.

The artist pays a fee to perform, then gets all or a percentage of ticket sales, depending on the fee paid up front. More than 30 performers or groups applied to be part of the inaugural Fort Lauderdale festival, and 20 were accepted on a first-come, first-booked basis. Eleven of the shows will have an adult content advisory label on their tickets.

“As an institution of higher education, we embrace diversity and free speech,” Meyer says.

Casey Dressler, who took her solo show The Wedding Warrior to the biggest-in-the-world Edinburgh Festival Fringe last summer, is performing it again at the Fort Lauderdale Fringe and will take it to the United Solo Festival in the fall. Born of her experiences as a Key Largo wedding planner, the comedy is about the craziness of putting together someone else’s wedding while searching for love. Like Elise, Dressler is all about being a self-empowered artist.

“This is an opportunity for artists to have their voices heard,” says Dressler, who recently appeared in Alliance Theatre’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. “I don’t always get the part because I don’t always fit the costume. This lets me do whatever the hell I want. I wrote and produced it.”

Performing in a fringe fest can be a spur to creation, too. Miamian Francesca Toledo applied with just a title, Senseless, then collaborated with Michelle Antelo, Melissa Ann Hubicsak and Randy Garcia to devise an aimed-at-adults piece about love.

“We had to decide what it was that we wanted to tell — about how we fall in love, what love is, how it changes us, what we become when we accept love, how it shapes us,” Toledo says. “And that losing someone is like a little death, like a process of grief … Then we had to make it more simple, tell a story so that people could come on that journey with us.”

Jerry Seeger brings deep experience as both an actor and a teacher to his fringe fest piece Demerits, Detentions and Dismissals. The director of drama at Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Seeger has put together a piece built around the poems of New York slam poet (and former teacher) Taylor Mali. Seeger’s wife and partner in Underdog Productions, Carbonell Award winner Elena Maria Garcia, is directing the show.

“I performed at the ninth Orlando Fringe Festival, and it was one of the best experiences of my life,” says Seeger, who did the Eric Bogosian solo show Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll there in 2000. “What we produce [as Underdog] is on the edge. Now you have a theater festival that offers so much stuff that’s just out there. Theater isn’t just helicopters taking off and falling chandeliers. As good as theaters like GableStage are, theater isn’t just one size fits all. Now we can all rally around this festival.”

Though the first Fort Lauderdale festival has yet to happen, organizers are already looking ahead to the next one, hoping to add more stages to showcase more artists. Orlando’s Marinaccio, who started as a performer in 1997 and took over as producer several years ago, has tips on what’s important in making a fringe festival successful.

“You need to make it a great experience for the audience and the artists. You want to build a core of artists and give them a supportive platform so you can get them back. Really, the audience curates the festival,” says Marinaccio, alluding to the importance of ticket sales as a draw to artists.

“For the audience, you need to keep ticket prices low (tickets in Fort Lauderdale are $5 or $10 per show). If you see five shows at $10 apiece, you can have an entire Saturday full of theater. For artists, you don’t control any of the creative content. There’s no filter. And that can really be magical for both the artists and the audience.”

If you go

What: Fort Lauderdale Fringe Festival.

Where: Broward College’s Downtown Center, 111 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, May 2.

Beige Room: ‘The Wedding Warrior’ by Casey Dressler, 1:45 and 7:20 p.m.; ‘Open Hearts’ by Miram Kulick, 2:40 p.m.; ‘Poor, Poor Eleanor’ by Armando Santana, 3:50 and 8:25 p.m.; ‘Confessions of a Theme Park Worker’ (adult) by Terri Giannoutsos, 4:25 and 9 p.m.; ‘Triumvirate: A Canadian Mafia Horror Story’ (adult) by James Carrey, 12:35 and 6:20 p.m.; ‘Reality Check’ by Marcela Paguaga, noon and 5:35 p.m.

White Box: ‘Demons Just Wanna Have Fun’ (adult) by Freddy Valle, noon and 5:30 p.m.; ‘Pas de Deux’ (adult), 12:30 and 6 p.m.; “Demerits, Detentions and Dismissals’ by Taylor Mali, 1:20 and 6:50 p.m.; ‘The Dinner Date’ (adult) by Frank Quintana, 2:55 and 8:25 p.m.; ‘Soap’ (adult) by Rafael Martinez, 3:25 and 7:05 p.m.; ‘Reality Sucks’ (adult) by Sonia Cordoves, 4:10 and 8:55 p.m.; ‘Senseless’ (adult) by Francesca Toledo, Michelle Antelo, Melissa Ann Hubicsak and Randy Garcia, 4:40 and 9:25 p.m.

Blue Room: ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ by Brian Cohen, noon and 3:30 p.m.; ‘Music of Broken Water’ by Cynthia Joyce Clay, 12:30 and 4 p.m.; ‘110’ (adult) by Amanda Ortega, 1:05 and 4:35 p.m.; ‘Onward Upward’ by Freddy Valle, 3 and 6:30 p.m.; ‘Cody’ (adult) by Denise Zubizarreta, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; ‘Comedy School Drop Outs Broadcast Radio’ by Jonathan Cabrera, Michael Schiavinato, Maria Tomaino, Carlos Rivera, Alex Suarez-Mondshein, Joey Nay and Nathalie Galde, 1:45 and 5:15 p.m.; ‘The Sleeper Never Rests’ by David Victor, 2:25 and 5:55 p.m.

Cost: $5 or $10 per show.

Information: 954-201-6884 or www.fortlauderdalefringe.com.

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