General 3-10-2004

Fringe Jitters, part I: Tricks of the Trade

Jaime Kleiman is doing a short series of features on Fringe performances past and future. This is the first, on the extraordinary success of "Trick Boxing" and its round-the-world adventures.

Trick Boxing
The boxers

Brian Sostek can’t sleep.

It’s his second day back in Minneapolis after a four-month tour that danced its way across North America, with side trips to Seattle, Ottawa, London, and Edinburgh, to name a few. The show, of course, is “Trick Boxing,” the two-person, multi-character gangster/swing romp that has been a smash hit since its first incarnation at the Minnesota Fringe Festival in August 2002. His partner and wife of three years, Megan McClellan, is his co-star in the show. Tonight she is running late, arriving at the Southern in a flurry of excitement with her mother, father, brother, and multiple bags of food in tow. It’s a celebration for their 100th performance, and yet, after sold-out shows and headlining spots all over the world, Brian and Megan are still folding their own programs on the ironing board in the dressing room, carrying their own luggage, and occasionally buying their own plane tickets as more and more international theatres offer to produce their show.

Sostek and McClellan’s theatrical baby is the result of both luck and hard work. The way McClellan tells it, the idea for the show originated from their long-distance relationship. “We met because we were both performing with Joe Chvala’s Flying Foot Forum [in August 1996],” she says. “Yeah,” interjects Sostek. “She was the new member and kept doing everything better than everyone else.” Shortly after that Sostek moved to L.A. to pursue his acting career, resulting in “some of Hollywood’s most quickly cancelled sitcoms” and international jobs that encouraged the two to keep their relationship alive with unique handmade gifts.

“He made me these trick boxes,” recalls Megan. “Really intricate suitcases or cigarette cases with electrical wiring and mosaics and poems…anyway, the last one he made had a little guy trick boxing and mooning a comet.” Shortly after that, local choreographer Danny Buraczeski asked them to perform in his work “Second Sight” – he thought they had already created choreography, and Sostek and McClellan scrambled to make some in time for the show. “We pretty much stopped making stuff for each other once we lived in the same city,” Megan jokes. But their perseverance paid off.

The stress of “Second Sight,” combined with Brian’s impulsive Minnesota Fringe application submission and a Field/Play grant from 3-Legged Race, resulted in ten minutes of performance, five of which got cut and five of which became the first segment of “Trick Boxing,” which audience members may remember fondly as “Boxing 101,” in which the two ingeniously incorporate partner dance and boxing moves. Brian spent “a month of hell” writing the show. “I was outside the office going no, no, no,” remembers Megan, half-joking. The show was about 15 pages too long. Basically, this “tiny gem of a show” was written in a month, under a large amount of pressure and a looming deadline.

“Trick Boxing” was an immediate success at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. It was remounted at the Bryant Lake Bowl Theatre in October, and again in January 2003. In February, Intermedia Arts produced it as part of their Absolute Originals series, after which it toured to Northfield (Brian’s hometown) and Thunder Bay, Ontario.

The pair say that they “didn’t even know other Fringes existed,” but got on the Internet and researched the various festivals and devised a tour for their show. Luckily, an intellectual copyright lawyer-cum-theatre producer offered to manage them at Edinburgh, the granddaddy of Fringe Festivals. “He had produced shows in Edinburgh and lost money every time. For some reason he just really loves theatre and likes to do this,” says Brian, still incredulous at the idea. Their manager covered the cost of publicity, technicians, and venues, which played a large part in their success at Edinburgh, where the abundance of shows can make it almost impossible to get noticed. (Minnesota may boast the largest Fringe in the U.S., but last year Edinburgh played host to 668 companies, 1,541 shows in 207 venues for a 3-week-long festival during which the city tripled in size, selling 1,184,738 tickets. It is rare that a show makes it to Edinburgh, and even rarer to walk away with gushing reviews and producing contracts – Herculean feats which “Trick Boxing” has garnered in spades.)

After their homecoming at the Southern, the duo will travel to the Blue Elephant Theatre in London for a three-week run and to the Prague Fringe Festival, before beginning work on their next show, which Brian says will be “a little pirate adventure with high leather boots and corsets.” Ahoy, matey!

Part 2 of “Fringe Jitters” will look at a new musical, “London in the Springtime,” created by Minnesota State University, Mankato alums Yvonne AK Johnson and Donovan Stohlberg, which is previewing in the Midwest before opening at Edinburgh this summer. Their show will be eligible for a “Fringe First Award.”