Literature 8-9-2012

FRINGE SHORTS: “The Urban Hermit” by Rachel Nelson

phillip andrew bennett low muses on storytelling devices, busking, and the powers of empathy in this review of Rachel Nelson's "The Urban Hermit".


I’VE SEEN RACHEL NELSON’S WORK before, so I know her to be both an excellent teller, and one with some excellent stories to tell. My experience watching her in The Urban Hermit was entirely consistent with that expectation – the show’s good, and you should definitely see it. But, to dig a little deeper: The show is broken down into two distinct parts, and I found myself reflecting on two entirely different lines of thought.

As for the first half: Nelson has an inclination toward re-enacting key moments, reliving them physically and emotionally as she narrates. It’s a common storytelling technique, and I suspect that the reasoning behind its use is that theatrical repetition generates more excitement for an audience. However, I tend to find the device distancing, particularly when used in autobiographical work; it’s one layer of artifice too many for my taste.

From there, I find myself tangenting into a series of related thoughts — specifically, that this preference for transparency is one of the key reasons I defend the use of notes by storytellers who choose to use them. It’s an immediately clear and effective way of drawing a line between the person speaking the words and the person the words are describing. I suspect that some audiences dislike the use of notes because it reads as a lack of spontaneity – and that’s exactly what I find appealing about it. I like having some distance between the teller and the events told, whereas Nelson’s work in The Urban Hermit is designed to combine the two. It’s a given that her work here is excellent, but the story appears to be at the service of technique. And that I chafe at.

I will say that she seems to visibly relax into all of her music sequences, particularly once a fiddle appears in her hands: There’s a warmth and playfulness with which she engages the audience, one that spreads to her face and voice and body, that makes her absolutely arresting to watch.

But that’s the first half. Pretty much, all of my concerns vanished for the second half of the show, once her story arrives at the point of her career as a street busker. And those first-half-of-the-show concerns vanished in a way that’s almost useless as fodder for a theater critic. See, I was a street mime for many years, and the listening to her stories about street performance felt like being hit by wave after wave of memory and recognition. I, too, remember working to interface with kids (and, like Nelson, I also had a handful of standby techniques I’d use to draw them in); I, too, remember the active need to pursue the suits who seemed so actively disinterested.

I really have no idea what this whole section of the show would look like to someone without that shared background, because I was caught up in the idiosyncratic experience of both warm nostalgia for those days and an intense gratitude that these are no longer problems I have to deal with in my career.

Regardless, Rachel Nelson really is a fine storyteller, and if you’ve got any interest in either of her primary subjects here – busking or addiction – consider The Urban Hermit a must-see.


Related links and performance details:

The Urban Hermit by Rachel Nelson has just one performance left, at Theater in the Round Players in Minneapolis on Saturday, 8/11 at 8:30 pm. Find more information on the show’s Fringe web page:

Find reviews, ticket info and more on the Fringe Festival website:

Check back on the homepage regularly throughout the Fringe Festival, August 2 – 12, for more short reviews on, sent in from our intrepid performance critics on the scene.


About the author: phillip andrew bennett low is a Chinese-American playwright and poet, storyteller and mime, theatre critic, and libertarian activist. His performances have won acclaim at such varied venues as the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, Spirit in the House, FoolFest, and the Chicago, DC, Indianapolis, Iowa, and Kansas City Fringe Festivals — even as far as Melbourne, Australia. At the 2007 Minnesota Fringe, his hit one-man show Descendant of Dragons was the bestselling show in its venue and awarded a coveted Fringe Encore slot, while his storytelling performances have been nominated for awards by local website FringeFamous for three years running. He is the co-founder of the Rockstar Storytellers (for which he served as Chair for the two years that position existed) and was founder and producer of the touring theatre troupe Maximum Verbosity.

He can be seen at this year’s Minnesota Fringe Festival in his own solo show Fear and Trembling.