Cincy Fringe Festival Transforms Over-the-Rhine Into a Magical Theatrical Playground

Wacky, weird, experimental, and off-kilter, Cincy Fringe expands the possibilities for performance art.
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Illustration by Alec Doherty

Some people run marathons. Erika MacDonald and Paul Strickland perform self-produced shows. Like athletes who journey city to city and state to state for long-distance races, the couple travels throughout North America—from Orlando to Winnipeg—to tell stories through comedy, music, acting, and even puppets. They do so at Fringe Festivals, experimental performance arts festivals you can think of as live theater’s edgy, punk rock, younger sibling. They’re informal, innovative, and admittedly a little weird (in a good way). In a single weekend gathering, you can witness a full spectrum of performance art—a complete novice premieres her one-woman show, a man reads tarot cards under a spotlight in his underwear, a puppet show is held in the pitch dark.

The experiential aspect of Fringe Fests, though, doesn’t equate to a lack of talent. Shadow puppetry, perhaps more commonly known for its prevalence amongst slumber-party goers, can actually require a high level of technical skill. MacDonald and Strickland? They’ve perfected the knack. They had plenty of practice, too, creating alluring shadow-based stories during one of their cross-continental trips, which included a performance of 13 Dead Dreams of “Eugene” that won Best Show at the 2018 Orlando Fringe.

“People come in with a lot more of an open mind about the possibility of what they’re going to see,” says Strickland of the Fringe format. “As a performer, your menu of what’s acceptable then increases.” Though they travel often, the couple’s homebase is Know Theatre of Cincinnati, where they debut new shows or hold late-night sing-a-long sessions in the facility’s underground bar. Know Theatre also produces the annual Cincy Fringe Festival, which runs May 31 through June 15. Last year, the festival celebrated its 15th anniversary with more than 250 performances across 12 venues in OTR, including the Art Academy, Mini Microcinema, and Know Theatre.

“Face value you might think that shows are one thing, and then you experience them and think, Oh my gosh, it’s a lot deeper than that.”

Chris Wesselman, lead Cincy Fringe producer, works on both Know Theatre and Fringe Festival programming. “There’s a vision shared between [Cincy Fringe and Know] as far as wanting to provide an avenue for underrepresented voices and for artists to express themselves in ways they normally can’t,” he says. Fringe, for Wesselman, is a way of life. As soon as one season ends, he’s already thinking ahead to the next. “For almost 20 years I’ve been living in this world of fringe theater,” he says, “and I love it.”

Applications open in August, and by January a jury of more than 50 local arts professionals, educators, and journalists select which shows will make the cut for the next Cincy Fringe. “It’s a truly no-holds-barred experience from a creative standpoint,” Wesselman says. “While we are a juried festival, we’re not trying to judge ideas as much as we’re trying to balance themes.”

Wesselman has worked at Cincy Fringe both behind the scenes and on stage as an actor. His first Fringe experience was more than 15 years ago, however, as an audience member. He doesn’t remember much about the actual show, just that there was a man with a unicorn horn—worn below the belt, we should add—and a deceased frog that was brought back to life. It wasn’t his favorite, “probably not even in my top 100,” he admits, but it stuck with him. “I remember having this experience of Oh, you’re allowed to just do whatever you want.”

Much like the eclectic mix of performances, no two Fringe Festivals are exactly the same. “You’re always in a new space,” says MacDonald. “You learn what’s essential, and then hopefully take advantage of whatever’s unique to the space for that one show.” It’s a constant learning experience for Fringe performers, and a show can change dramatically from the beginning of the season to the end.

For this year’s Cincy Fringe, Strickland is debuting a brand new solo show, 90 Lies an Hour, directed by MacDonald. “Everything we do is sort of weirdly collaborative,” he says. “We’ll talk about structure, and I’ll sometimes add jokes, or the other way around. Erika will help me with more theatrical elements like staging.” MacDonald will also direct two other solo shows performed and written by local actresses Kate Mock Elliott and Alexx Rouse.

Audience members, be warned: You truly never know what you’re going to get at a Fringe show, but that’s also the magic. “Face value you might think that shows are one thing, and then you experience them and think Oh my gosh, it’s a lot deeper than that,” says Wesselman. “Those are the kinds of shows that Fringe really thrives on—shows that buck expectations and trends.”

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