Theater on the menu for Fringe Festival

by Amy Kingsley

Todd Fisher has a larger metaphorical hat collection than a fictional master of disguise. A week before the launch of the fourth annual Greensboro Fringe Festival, he meets me at Revival Grill, a sleekly comfortable restaurant where he tends bar, waits tables and manages. Under the soft light emitted by modern fixtures, he offers food and wine recommendations with the practiced air of one who survives on diner satisfaction.

But for this meal his livelihood is not at stake and it is his passion, theater in the form of the Greensboro Fringe Festival, he offers as the main course. His involvement with that festival is even more eclectic than his eatery resume, he is producing, acting and writing in this year’s installment. In addition, he is one of the founding members of the Fringe Festival, having conceived it originally as a clever marketing ploy to coordinate a slate of original theater produced in January 2003.

‘“It’s got to be new and it’s got to be live,’” Fisher said about the pieces featured in Fringe Fest. Performances span two and a half weeks and several media, including music, theater and dance. During that time, downtown Greensboro will play host to about 16 different performances.

One of those will be Fisher’s own script, ‘“Kuon Kukki: The Legend of Hamachi & Unagi.’” It is a tale loosely modeled after the Japanese kabuki theater tradition. In it, the main characters, samurais Hamachi and Unagi are duped by the head of one powerful clan to search for something that never existed, something supposedly hidden in another clan’s territory.

The clan leader, named Yabo (check that one in your English-Japanese dictionary) intends for the buffoonish mercenaries to fail, which will incite a war that will potentially yield great profit for the aggressor. If it sounds a bit familiar, well, that’s because it’s supposed to.

Japanese citizens in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries got their news from such dramatized accounts of the daily scandals. A keen eye might contend that contemporary newscasts haven’t strayed too far from this model. Is there a comedic actor working today who can go toe-to-toe with the dramatic excesses of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews?

Between nibbles of pumpkin ravioli, Fisher explained his introduction to Japanese theater. It stems from a class he took in the subject in UNCG’s theater department while an undergraduate. That class led in turn to a training program at Anne Bogart’s famed SITI Company.

‘“It was kind of a life changing experience for me,’” Fisher says.

There he trained in an acting method pioneered by SITI Company founder Tadashi Suzuki that emphasizes rigorous physical training that allows the actor to control the body’s relation to the theater. Of course, there are plenty of other aspects of live theater of which Fisher has less control. Take, for instance, the script for ‘“Kuon Kukki,’” which he finished roughly 24 hours before this interview.

‘“The actors and the director just said the last page doesn’t work,’” Fisher says. ‘“So I asked them what questions they had left unanswered. They know that I like to leave a lot of questions at the conclusion of a play.’”

The restaurant is emptying out as Fisher and I continue to talk. He is wearing a pale blue button down shirt, a black polar fleece vest and wire rim glasses.

Turns out the roots of the Greensboro Fringe Fest don’t differ terribly from the beginning of Fisher’s own theater career around the beginning of high school in Florida. It is a variation on the story of one scruffy skate rat who moved from Tampa to Winston-Salem in the middle of freshman year seeking a similar band of outsiders. He found it in the theater department.

‘“The teacher was great,’” he says. ‘“She not only taught me how to act, but also about the inner workings of theater. We got to direct our own stuff and it was instant community. At 15 years old, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.’”

That same community exists in Greensboro, nurtured in the various college theater programs then loosed upon the city in small, original companies.

‘“Around December of 2002 the Greensboro Playwright’s Forum, Informall Theater Company, John Gamble Dance Company and American Distractions all had shows going up at the same time,’” Fisher says. ‘“Then we got together and said, look, is there a way we can work together so we won’t be competing with each other for an audience? The we came up with the Fringe Festival as a marketing strategy.’”

Of course, as the years have gone by, the festival has grown, adding venues, performers and audiences. This year marks the first time the Scene at South Elm will host an event, Gospel Singing Drag Queens. Other venues include the Broach, Solaris, the Green Bean and Tate Street Coffee. The kinds of audiences they get tend to be as varied and nontraditional as the venues.

‘“We get the twentysomethings and the college kids because the people acting, directing, dancing and writing are that age,’” he says. ‘“Anyway, he says, everybody loves a festival.’”

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