Cultural Consumer: Star Wars show offers example of fringe festival success

Charles Ross built career on one-man theatre production in circuit that supports new artists

I got my geek on Friday night.

Charles Ross brought his delightfully dorky One-Man Star Wars show to the Nanaimo Entertainment Centre last weekend to help support a new fringe festival in Nanaimo.

The festival is tentatively scheduled for the fall, featuring new theatre works by local and emerging artists.

Ross got his start on the fringe – literally. He produced the first incarnation of One-Man Star Wars at a fringe festival in Toronto about a decade ago and since then performed on four continents, including a stint on Broadway in New York. Later this month, he embarks on a tour of Australia which will see him on stage at the Sydney Opera House.

The success of One-Man Star Wars doesn’t end there, either. As he told the crowd Friday night, one of his collaborators on his show, T.J. Dawe, had another fringe creation picked up by Fox Searchlight movie company. Some people were lucky enough to see Dawe perform that piece on the North American fringe circuit. The rest of us will have to wait until the movie comes out.

Fringe theatre is celebrating its 25th anniversary in Victoria and I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few shows in the past two years. It’s experimental, with very few frills, but it’s the chance to see art for art’s sake, which is increasingly hard to come by in the lack of stable funding – government or corporate – and the push to produce shows that are commercially palpable to the public. Kind of like pop music versus protest songs. Lady Gaga versus Neil Young.

Fringe theatre festivals offer actors, directors and writers the opportunity to experiment with less chance of financial ruin. They can test new ideas, rework old ones and take chances to see what techniques resonate with audiences – and which ones don’t. Those ideas spawn new ones, even if the original ideas turn into total disasters.

Nanaimo, one of the leading arts communities, is finally getting its own fringe theatre festival. In late spring, theatre companies who entered the lottery will be chosen at random to produce a multi-night run of their show. Leading up to the festival will be a series of fundraising shows, performed by veterans of the fringe circuit, like Ross who performed this past weekend, and Dawe, who performs later this year.

Organizing Nanaimo’s fringe is Pacific Coast Stage Co., headed by Jeremy Banks, a former Vancouver Island University theatre student, who spent last summer travelling and working backstage on the fringe circuit from Montreal, to Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver before performing at the Victoria fringe festival a one-man show about coming of age, which received four-star reviews in the Victoria papers.

Nanaimo’s fringe festival will need to grow significantly over the years if it wants to be part of the larger North American circuit.

I hope it receives the support it needs, through volunteers, sponsors and supporters (audience attendance), to reach that goal.

One-Man Star Wars and its success owes a lot to the fringe festival circuit in North America. Ross says this during his show. He also tells the crowd that he grew up in Prince George and now lives in Victoria. Nanaimo gives its emerging artists in music, dance and visual art a starting point through music festivals like JazzFest and schools like Kirkwood Academy of Performing Arts which produce the likes of Diana Krall and Jillian Vanstone. These artists achieved worldwide success, beginning in their own backyards. A Nanaimo fringe festival gives that opportunity to even more.

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Nanaimo News Bulletin