Alexandra Barbier has been dancing her whole life — and she’s also watched dance as a passive audience member her whole life.
“I got to a point that watching dance just wasn’t enough,” Barbier said. “I wanted to experience something different as an audience member. And so I thought, how do I create that for someone who might also be feeling that way?”
Barbier’s dance piece, “Be My Guest,” will be one of several interactive audience shows at the 2019 Great Salt Lake Fringe festival, which begins this week. In creating it, she wanted to shift attention away from herself and let the audience help guide her performance.
Audience members can expect opportunities to get up and dance on stage, shoot a marshmallow gun, dress in drag or literally stand on a box with the word “soap” written on it at performances during the multi-day theatrical festival in downtown Salt Lake City.
Beginning Aug. 1 and running through Aug. 11, shows at the festival will include music, dance, art, poetry, the spoken word, performance art, audience interaction, puppetry, cabaret and magic — and some work that falls outside those terms. Subject matter ranges from the mild to the bizarre.
“A big question for me always with theater is what separates theater from film? Or what can theater do that film can’t? So I think being participatory is one of those,” said Mark Macey, producer and founder of Suckerpunch, a production group.
Suckerpunch will perform a one-person show titled “Ri/ft,” which involves active audience participation. “What it gives to the show is a sense of intimacy between the single actor and the audience,” Macey said.
This is the second year that the Fringe festival is being held at The Gateway, where empty storefronts have been repurposed and built into miniature theaters. The smaller venues provide a more intimate setting.
“The reason [audience participation] works so well at the Fringe in particular is because we’re not constrained by typical theater arrangements,” said Shianne Gray, co-director of the festival. “It provides more of a sense of intimacy that you typically won’t get in bigger theaters and bigger venues.”
The roots of fringe festivals stretch back to Edinburgh in 1947, when a group of smaller theater companies performed outside a well-established festival. Fringe festivals today offer artists a chance to experiment and play with form and subject matter.
Here are several shows that will invite the audience to join in:
“Be My Guest” • Barbier will offer the audience suggestions and prompts inviting them to participate. Although professional dancers have specific vocabulary and training, everyone can be a performer, she believes.
“What I’m trying to help people understand is that they don’t have to get on the stage and do a plié or a tendu pas de bourrée,” Barbier explained, extending her arm elegantly. “They can simply reach an arm out and it can be just as beautiful as any pirouette or giant leap that a dancer can do.”
“If the audience doesn’t respond or if no one in the audience is interested in participating, that’s OK, that’s part of the research, that’s part of the performance,” she said.
“Ri/ft” • Attendees of Macey’s show can expect to become actors in it, handling objects such as a flashlight and marshmallow gun. They can make choices that affect the way the action takes place and how the story proceeds.
“I found that people felt freer to chat with each other and with me and almost ask questions,” Macey said, “and I thought that was really great, and definitely hit on that intimacy that we’re going for with the show.”
“Genit-HELL YEAH!” • Mazadon Can-Can’s performance also is part of her work toward a master’s degree in education. She taught art in elementary schools but didn’t like teaching kids to put art in molds, boxes or give it specific labels.
“Fringe people exist to be rule breakers. A lot of us know exactly how and why we’re breaking the rules, which is why it’s so powerful,” Can-Can said. “I honestly believe that we come to it with a desire to break down the paradigm of what performance can be seen as.”
Her show deals with gender, sexuality and identity, using the art forms of puppetry, burlesque and drag. For her, active audience participation creates a sense of community and responsibility to the experience of storytelling.
“So you’re not being told the story, you’re becoming a participant in the story,” Can-Can said.
“Indigo League: Monologues from Pokemon Trainers” • For his one-man show, professional spoken word artist RJ Walker wrote poems that deal with topics such as mental illness and loss, and created characters inspired by the original Pokemon games from the 1990s.
In the Pokemon video games, making eye contact with any Pokemon trainer requires you to do battle with them. In this performance, whoever makes eye contact with Walker will select from a list of poems.
He did a similar performance last year at Salt Lake Community College as part of “To Be Frank,” which consisted of short, poignant vignettes that audience members selected at random.
“Rather than random and eclectic, I want to take that format and give it more of a journey,” Walker said. The collection of poems are about a coming-of-age story, he said, and “making your own journey when the path set out for you gets pulled out from under your feet.”
“Quango Follies” • Noah Kershisnik also wanted to include the audience in “Quango Follies” by the Little Man Theater Company. The play is based on Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Tramp,” about a wandering homeless man.
It will be much like Chaplin’s silent films, since Kershisnik will use gestures, not words, to convey his requests for the audience’s help.
“We want to really make the audience understand and feel that in this art form of live performance, they are a part of every show,” Kershisnik said. “As much as the props, as much as the actors, as much as the story and the music, the audience plays arguably the most important part.”
Originally he created this performance with children in mind, but he found that adults can enjoy and be immersed in this kind of play just as easily.
“One of the most magical things of a live experience like this is helping an adult break down those walls that we build as we get older and feel that magic of being a child again,” he said, “and being absorbed and lost in an experience.”
FIVE YEARS OF FRINGE
The fifth annual Fringe Festival brings unconventional storytelling through music, dance, spoken word and performance art to the stage.
Where • The Gateway, 400 W. 100 South, Salt Lake City
When • Aug. 1–11
Tickets • Available through greatsaltlakefringe.org/tickets and at the box office at 95 S. Rio Grande St.
Schedule • Online at greatsaltlakefringe.org/schedule
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.