General 4-9-2004

Fringe Jitters, Part 2: Springtime in Edinburgh

Jaime Kleiman's run-up to the Fringe continues with the story of a local production that's traveling to Edinburgh for the oldest and biggest Fringe of them all.

London in the Springtime

As Fringe Festivals all around the globe draw nearer and nearer to opening this summer, harried producers, directors, actors, writers, designers, and all those in between are scrambling to get funding, finish their scripts, cast actors who will work for pizza, and produce professional-looking publicity press kits with little more than $20 and a digital camera. Did I mention that this mélange usually consists of only one or two people, many of whom have never before produced a show? Where else can you see much theatre in such a short amount of time? (We’ll discuss the quality over quantity issue another time.)

Ah, the beauty of Fringe Festivals!

As noted in my previous article, the Edinburgh Fringe is the Nigella Lawson of Fests, sweet and sexy and impetuous, the theatrical shot heard round the world, the best of all the fêtes with the most prestige and the most panache. This means 1) there’s a LOT of shows, and 2) everyone wants a piece. It’s also the most expensive to get into and get to. For an American Fringe show, going to Edinburgh requires tenacity, wealthy acquaintances, and drive. However, if the show is well received, it often means sold-out houses, recoupment of investment, and extended runs in cities throughout the world – good work if you can get it.

This summer, two University of Minnesota-Mankato alums will test their spirits, pocketbooks, and egos when they bring their original musical to Edinburgh. As a new show, they will be among the hundreds (possibly thousands) of productions vying for top honors. They will bring with them a cast born and bred in the Midwest, as well as their version of the American theatre producer’s dream: to win the “Fringe First Award,” a best-in-fest honor bestowed upon outstanding original productions.

Together, these two entrepreneurs form JTR Productions; separately, co-producers Yvonne A.K. Johnson and Donovan Stohlberg are Twin Cities-based directors and writers. The team is hoping their new musical, London in the Springtime (renamed Life 101: Spring in London for Edinburgh) will deliver the goods. Not surprisingly, the pair first envisioned the show while studying in London for their Master’s degrees in theatre. Having had the epiphanic realization that “Life [was] not as simple as it seems and the journey is far more about the experience than hard-core studies,” says Johnson, the duo decided to write a musical about it. And writing a musical – even if it’s not the next Cabaret or Fiddler on the Roof – is in and of itself far more rewarding than having an existential crisis in the middle of a pub during a football match. From crisis comes art – and this, my friends, is why Fringe Festivals are so great.

Anyone who’s been to a Minnesota Fringe show knows that nothing can predict whether or not you’ll be wasting 60 minutes of your life at a well-intentioned but horribly conceived piece of junk. A writer/actor that you love might perform a one-person show that makes you long for a lobotomy; the year before that same performer might have brought the house to tears and a standing ovation every night. Fringe festivals are a crapshoot, and no amount of money, professionalism, publicity, or talent can predict what makes a hit a hit.

In the case of the London in the Springtime, it’s been about six years in the making, with all the multiple revisions and resulting trauma that accompany such undertakings. Stohlberg, juggling both producing and composer/book duties, needed a partner. In the fall of 2003, JTR Productions brought the nomadic playwright-director L. B. Hamilton on as their lyricist and co-author. Johnson knew Hamilton from their days working for CLIMB Theatre, an educational touring children’s theatre company based in Inver Grove Heights. Explains Hamilton: “Yvonne had wanted to work with me for some time and launched a charming campaign to get me on board. I had to say yes because I’d made myself a promise to accept the next invitation to write lyrics for a musical. I’d written lyrics before, but…I needed to stretch my lyric writing muscles…I’m used to being a loner and/or running the show; I took the whole thing as an opportunity to grow and experiment and practice humility.”

Hamilton is unique in that she is based in not one city but three – Seattle, Minneapolis, and DC. She did all her editing for the show from 2,000 miles away. In an email that she wrote to me she states, “The whole project was put together via long phone calls, e-mails, and faxes. It was an interesting challenge to me…I had to work on rewrites in absentia based on feedback and not first-hand experience period…in fact, I have not seen the show to date…never want to do that again!” Unbelievably, she has yet to see a show she has written or directed since the summer of 2002. “Ironically,” she wrote, “I won’t see the Edinburgh production because I’ll be in Minnesota working on [Julie Jensen’s] Lost Vegas Series for the [2004] Minnesota Fringe Fest. I’m very curious and excited to see how [London] will go over in Scotland.”

London debuted at St. Paul’s Mounds Theatre last month. In the industry, these performances are called “previews” – the show keeps getting tweaked based on audience feedback until the real opening night, when the critics are invited and audiences pay full price. “We chose to debut the show in St. Paul versus Chicago or New York because the core of our production team is in the Twin Cities area,” Johnson wrote to me in an email. “Again, we have a team mentality. It’s very difficult to put on a show (particularly a musical) on your own and we needed to have people around us that we trust and know will do the job. Our design team and lead actors are all based in Minneapolis. (Nancy Katzer, set design; Esther Iverson, costume design; Allen Weeks, production stage manager and lighting design; actress, Jen Burleigh-Bentz).”

Johnson, like many theatre artists, may have felt that the Cities are a safe and nurturing place for new work. In the case of London, the work is very, very new, and since Edinburgh only comes once a year, the stakes are higher than your average theatrical run. It ain’t easy to get there, and the cost of flying your cast and crew to Scotland is singularly more expensive than a life insurance policy. But the rewards – and the chance to participate in the most venerated of Fringes – somehow make the risks worth it. Here’s hoping that Life 101: Spring in London is well received among the thousands of avid Fringers this summer. The heat is definitely on.

The third part of this series will focus on the 2004 Minnesota Fringe Festival.