I spent three years in college as a theater arts major and never stepped on stage. My performance experience post-high school drama club involves four original shows co-written and produced from 2011-13. They were strictly “do-it-yourself” for the annual Rogue Festival.
The Fresno fringe festival, which kicks off its 15th year this weekend, is built on self-inclusion and the DIY ethos. All one needs to take part is an idea and the application fee. It’s very punk rock in that way.
The Rogue is presented in fringe-festival format and includes theater and dance, spoken-word, music, performance art and puppetry.
In the early punk scenes, kids started bands because they needed the outlet. It didn’t matter that they’d never played an instrument. There was no minimum requirement for talent. When Minuteman bassist Mike Watt started his band, he didn’t know the instrument he was playing wasn’t a guitar, or that its strings needed to be tuned differently, or that tuning was even a thing. He just knew he wanted to play.
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Rather than wait for the OK from the establishment, these bands created their own infrastructure and opportunities. If they couldn’t get booked at local clubs, they opened their own venues. They hosted their own shows. They created their own scene.
In the same way, Rogue has created its own community of off-the-wall artists. Performance slots are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, with no organizational constraints on form or function. There is no governing board reading through submissions, no one making judgment on whether a piece of art is good enough or viable enough to be included. By design, the performances at the festival tend to be the kind that would be hard to book in more traditional theater spaces (a guy rapping “The Canterbury Tales,” or, in my case, an original musical played entirely in my boxer shorts).
The productions exist as the artists want them. They succeed or fail on merit. Because tickets sales go directly to the artists – and the performance slots aren’t cheap: Fees for a one-hour main stage show run $520 – artists have incentive to put on entertaining shows, whatever that might mean.
Good shows get talked up. Bad shows get weeded out.
Not everything works.
Sometimes an artist is not as funny or talented or well-rehearsed as he or she thinks. That is how performers get better. The first time I ever bombed a performance, it was doing promotion for a Rogue show. The three-minute bit was a rambling mess and we were heckled off stage. It was a horrifying and humbling (and ultimately gratifying) experience that I have not forgotten.
Of the actual shows we did, at least one had a sellout crowd. People stood in the back of the room. For one, there were more of us on stage (four) than in the audience.
But the success of those shows was not in the ticket tally or (mostly positive) reviews. The success was being able to take an idea and, from it, produce a tangible, finished product; in having a space to put it before an audience. For my partner, it was catalyst to pursue an actual career in theater arts, rather than just dabble like me. He now works as a drama instructor in Florida and has produced several original plays with his students, including a re-staging or our debut, “Shakespeare Is an Idiot.”
Many of the Rogue artists come in as professional (or semi-pro) actors, playwrights and performers. Several (Gemma Wilcox this year) have won awards for their work. Even for them, Rogue is bit of a hustle. They still do their own PR and marketing. They are still performing in dance studios, nightclubs and 50-seat theaters, with volunteer stage hands.
It is all DIY.
But Fresno is a DIY town. It’s best artistic endeavors (ArtHop, Swede Fest, Catacomb Party, to name three) prove that art can and should be open to everyone – that the line between artist and the audience is thin and easily traversed given the right opportunity.
The Rogue has both and celebrates that fact.