Time to Go Rogue for 2022: A Preview Piece of the Upcoming Rogue Festival!
The Rogue Festival isn’t back, and that’s because it never left. The Rogue Festival board and staff worked hard to make the virtual accommodations needed for last year’s festival to continue. However, let’s give three cheers for Rogue being back in person and ready for your patronage! This festival, started in 2002 by Marcel Nunis, is a desired destination for local and global fringe festival artists. It is a true highlight for me to experience the good, the bad, and the ugly of what Rogue brings to its audiences. This is a non-juried, non-curated festival, based on a lottery system with no formal judges; the “judges” are you, the audience. Let me tell you, it’s such a relief to urge you to “get your butt in a seat!’ as opposed to “eyes on the screen” for this year’s festival.
I have the privilege of having three Rogue Festival credits to my name, having performed in Sould in the 2007 festival; my one-man show, Merely a Player, in the 2020 festival; and directing last year’s virtual production of 2B or Nah: Sexting Hamlet for UR Here Theater Company. The thrill of Rogue is easily felt from audience to performer, from techie to venue manager, from board member to volunteer; this festival is a unifying event for many Central Valley artists as we welcome our local talent and global artists to the Tower District.
Now, without diving too deep into how my reviewing sausage gets made, I go through three drafts (yes, three!) of scheduling before the Festival starts. At the time of publishing, I have sixteen shows, and one I'm participating in, on the schedule. I want to maximize the number of shows I see, with specific criteria going into my choices of which shows to see and when. Ideally, I want to see every show, and I believe one year I will be able to; such will not be the case this year but I’ll get as close as I can. Below are some featured productions that I am absolutely stoked to see:
Keith Alessi, writer and performer of Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me but Banjos Saved My Life, which plays at Dianna’s Studio of Dance, has this to say about his background before the piece was created: “Unlike many of the festival participants, I am not a trained performer. I'm an accountant by training! I spent a lifetime building a world class banjo collection but I couldn't play them. I was always going to get to them but life always got in the way. A few years back I finally decided to get to it only to receive a deadly cancer diagnosis. My show is my true story of how my pursuit of learning to play the banjo lead me to both physical and emotional healing.”
Keith Alessi says the following line in his Rogue Program blurb saying: “Playin’ banjos, tellin’ jokes, healin’ hearts.” So, naturally, I asked him what came first: the love for banjos, the passion for telling jokes, or the desire to heal hearts. He responded with, “My love of the banjo preceded everything. The healing of hearts came once the show hit the stage (it was supposed to be a one-and-done, but I've done it over 150 times all across the US, Canada and UK). The jokes just keep the mood light and who doesn't love a corny banjo joke?”
I concluded our exchange by asking him what he hoped audiences would take away from his show. Keith replied with, “I hope my audiences will be inspired to pursue their passions, regardless of their age. It's never too late. Passions can take you places you'd never expect.”
For more, Keith suggests, “you can find more information about the show's journey at keithalessi.com. We use the show as a fundraiser for theater and cancer charities. We've raised over $400,000 USD since 2018. We will be donating our gate in Fresno to the Rogue Festival.”
Next, I got to know Theresa Donahoe, who is bringing her one-woman show, Born Again in Berkeley, to the ViSTA Theater this year! Being a Bay Area-native myself, I asked Theresa to shed some light on how her experience has been in, the assumed, very accepting Berkeley. Theresa responded that her experience with Berkeley has been both accepting and not accepting, but she will go into that in her show.
When asked if her residence in Berkeley has helped shape the show specifically, she responded with, “When I moved from Contra Costa County to ‘the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel’ I experienced a ‘culture shock,’ if you will, that took some getting used to. I would say it was my relationships with people that helped shaped my show the most.”
When asked what Theresa would like audiences to take away from her show, she said, “I want us to see each other's humanity and self-worth, even with people we have little in common with.”
I had the pleasure of seeing Noam Osband’s show, Brother Love’s Good Time Gospel Hour, two Festivals ago. I found it to be wildly entertaining and perfectly suited for the Goldstein’s Mortuary and Delicatessen venue, which is the same venue he’ll be at this year. When I caught up with Noam to see if there’s anything new or that he’s excited about for this year’s run, he responded with, “This year, I'll have some actual people backing me up for some of the show. When I came to Rogue a few years ago, Brother Love was performing without the Gospelletes and this year most of the shows should have at least one other performer. I'm also going to be adding some looping to my show this year which is exciting.”
When asked what he wants audiences to take away from his show, whether you’ve seen it before or not, Noam said, “I just want them to experience joyful lunacy. I don't think this show has a real message. It's definitely not anti-religion or anti-Christianity, although it mocks people who use religion to profit off others. But I think it's wonderful escapist absurdity. It's a chance to leave the crazy world we live in and live in a wonderful, bizzaro alternative where Brother Love can heal you of all your problems. And if nothing else, make you laugh, sing, and lift your hand in communal song.”
I have seen Tim Mooney many-a-time at the Rogue Festival, the first of which was his solo show, Breakneck Hamlet. Tim has a gift for solo show performance and character portrayal. This year, he is bringing a new solo Shakespeare show to the ViSTA Theater, Breakneck Comedy of Errors. After letting Tim know he’s a Rogue Festival staple for me, I asked what keeps him coming back to Rogue. He delighted me with his response: “You flatter me. Every once in a while I get to perform in a town (or at a school) that really ‘gets me.’ That’s a pure joy to me. Of course, it’s especially great to read enthusiastic press and audience reviews. At my first appearance at the Rogue, I performed my random Shakespeare show, Lot o’ Shakespeare, and with a bar at the back of the theatre, audience members spontaneously started buying me beers as “bribes” for performances of this-or-that monologue. The reception that I get, both for my shows and personally, including hangouts, parties, and meet-ups with folks from the touring circuit who I mostly only see in the summer, feels a lot like ‘love,’ and as a one-man show, touring the country alone, love is a treasure.”
When asked what he wants audiences to experience and take away from his show, he said, “I’m not entirely sure that I know. I mean, I KNOW that I would like them to laugh their butts off, but I’ve only done this show on-line. It’s gotten GREAT response on-line, but I still haven’t ‘heard’ the show through the ears of an audience, following along, laughing back at me and to then respond to those laughs with renewed energy. There are jokes buried inside the lines with puns and wordplay, and sexy innuendo, and I’m really dying to know that people are ‘getting me.’ And I guess that’s the real joy of doing theatre… that moment when you feel ‘gotten.’ It feels validating and makes me feel like my life is making a difference. But, the other BIG thing: my shows are all aimed at making that little ‘bell’ go off in the moment where people realize: THAT’S why Shakespeare’s such a big deal! I realize that a good 50% or so of the folks who encounter Shakespeare can’t quite penetrate it: either they’re reading it and it appears to them like dead words on a page, or they’re watching a production where the inspiration of the original script didn’t quite ‘carry over’ from the 16th century to the 21st. Even I was never a big fan of Comedy of Errors… at least not until I disassembled it, memorized it, put it all back together, and discovered just what a smooth machine of hilarious mistaken-identity hilarity it was…”
Tim concluded our exchange with the following: “I’ve decided, if I can do that with Comedy of Errors, that NOTHING is impossible, and have turned my attention to the rest of the Shakespeare catalogue. “Breakneck Romeo & Juliet” is about 98% memorized as I write this. (My “Juliet” days may be winding down, so I’ve decided that’s next.)”
Les Kurkendaal-Barrett, another Rogue Festival frequent flyer, is bringing his new solo show, The Real Black Swann: Confessions of America’s First Black Drag Queen to the Festival this year. When asked how long he’s been wanting to deliver the story of William Dorsey Swann’s story, Les said, “I actually wrote the show last year and I was supposed to tour, but because of Covid there were no in person festivals last year. I was very disappointed because I was really champing at the bit to tell this story.”
I then inquired as to what compelled Les to tell this story of Dorsey’s “journey from slave to The Queen of Drag.” Les replied, “What I found compelling was the fact that Swann was a man who was ahead of his time. He was doing this in the late 1800’s, when both being gay and dressing in Drag were criminal offenses. He also used his Drag to become an entrepreneur and turned his Drag into a business. He literally had employees. Also, he was the first gay activist. He was jailed for doing drag and wrote a letter of protest to President Grover Cleveland. He fought for gay rights at a time when that just wasn’t done.”
In conclusion, when asked what he would like audiences to take away from his show, Les said, “I want my audiences to see exactly why both racism and homophobia are stupid. Also, I feel that the world needs to know about William Dorsey Swann and there isn’t a lot of info about him out there. I want my audiences to spread the word.”
What could be better than a glass of wine, a cozy table, outside, listening to some talented women sing in perfect harmony? Blood Harmony, a constant Rogue Festival billing, returns to Veni Vidi Vici for another years of tunes. I had the chance to connect with Leigh Ratliff, matriarch of The Murray Girls, who perform Blood Harmony, and she had this to say about the group’s origin: “16 years ago, when I forced my 9-year-old twins and 11-year-old daughter to perform in the Rogue, It was both easier and harder. Easier, because they didn't have a choice, and harder because I had to really work to get them to learn songs and how to hold their own part while I sang harmony. My ex also said things like, ‘they hate doing this.’ As in so many things, he was wrong about this too. They weren't crazy about rehearsing, but they loved performing. Now the twins are 25, and my oldest is 27. We just finished recording a double album -- all the songs we've ever performed at the Rogue, and then some. Most of the songs we do are very old, about as old as America. If these songs are not sung and shared and heard, they will die. They are too beautiful to disappear. Also, when a person songs a folk song - a song who's author we don't know - the singer becomes the author. The song then becomes your song, because you are now the author.
When asked about what she wants audiences to experience during the show, Leigh said, “I want our audience to hear 250-year-old songs, and see the spark of feminism that stood through such patriarchy of old, and relish the heartbreaking beautiful melodies about what was done and is done to women. And feel joy when females triumph.”
Next to highlight is the Aleno Dance Project, who are bringing their dance show, The Space Between, to Dianna’s Studio of Dance. When asked about the origin of their dance piece, Alexandra Tiscareno had this to say: “When thinking about the show and the influences that are behind the creation of it, I find that, though, bits and pieces of my dance training from Fresno City College and Mills College come into play, most of my explorations are through my own personal research. There are a few influences such as Merce Cunningham, Remy Charlip, and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker who I've been studying throughout my time in the Bay Area that have really stuck with me. When creating this show, I really leaned into these studies and explored how they looked in my movement vocabulary. It has been truly interesting to see this show develop in the ways that it did with these influences in mind.”
When I inquired about what they wanted audiences to take away from their show, Alexandra said, “I and the guest choreographer really wanted to find ways that we could not only push the dancers but also challenge the audience when viewing it. This show deals a lot with chance dance and abstraction which can be deeply challenging at some points as an audience member, especially if someone isn't used to these elements. The best advice I have is to come with an open mind, ready to watch 1 hour of pure movement. Feel free to ask questions, not only to yourself but to the choreographers as well.”
Last highlight goes to comedian-magician Chase Martin, who brings The Funny Magic Show to audiences at Veni Vidi Vici! When I asked what came first: the comedy of the magic, Chase replied with, “Magic definitely came first. When I first started street performing I wanted to be Mr. Serious Magic Dude. Like David Copperfield without the budget. Then I started doing little jokes around the tricks and the act got bigger, the show got more fun, and I became obsessed.
Chase’s wish for the audience is: “I hope people have a good time and find one or two stupid jokes they steal and make their own. I’ve seen so many little kids light up when I make a pun and I can tell they’re thinking ‘I’m gonna try that.’ That’s my favorite part because that’s definitely how I started.”
I will conclude this piece with a shameless plug for the show I will be participating in: Fringe Factor: Season Something or Other. Grant Knutson brings the beloved, wild game show back to Rogue this year, housed at Hart’s Haven Used Bookstore. I am proud to say I have either seen and/or have been a contestant every year Fringe Factor has swung through Fresno, and I look forward to continuing the tradition this year. I had the opportunity to connect with Grant Knutson and he had this to say about why he keeps on coming back to Rogue year after year, "Fringe festivals are a welcoming environment for our live game show because they allow (and even celebrate) shows with a non-typical format.
The game show is essentially a comedy show mixed with a variety show, and your average mainstream theater audience might not know what to do with it. But fringe fest crowds like to push the envelope and see a huge variety of styles.
More specifically, Rogue Festival is a very welcoming environment, because the Rogue crowds are so warm and receptive to new artists and ideas. It has a reputation among touring artists for being welcoming to all. The audience here wants to meet the artists behind the show, and our game show gives them another chance to do so."
When asking what Grant wants audiences to gain from seeing the game show, he said, "Above all, we just want everyone at the show to have fun together; the audience, the contestants, and the cast. We want the show to be so big, fast and fun that you forgot about whatever was stressing you out for a minute. But beyond that, we want to show off the artists behind the various Rogue Festival shows. By the time the show is over, we hope that the audience feels like they got to know the performers a little better, out of character and with their defenses down. We want to be a great party where you made new friends."
On a personal note, I’ll be competing this Friday at the 7:30pm showing, so come through and see all the fun!
The Rogue Festival is a source of artistic joy for me, whether on stage or in the audience, and I think I've made that perfectly clear by now. I look very forward to seeing what the festival artists have in store for us this season. I hope to see YOU in the audience as well. If you care to follow my reviews, then go ahead and bookmark my website, www.theatreteachertalk.com and follow "The Road to 1,000" tab, and/or follow me on Twitter at @marcgtheater. If YOU see a show you’d like to review, then head to http://www.fresnoroguefestival.com/ to post your thoughts. For all other info, updates, and Festival protocols, follow the Rogue socials, grab a program and let’s go Rogue!