Let’s talk about the beard.
Big, blond and bushy, it is a defining feature of Strangely. Woe be it for this self-described “shouty stompy accordion guy” if he committed some performing-arts crime and was put in a lineup of Rogue Festival performers, because he’d be easier to pick out than a Big Mac at Veni Vidi Vici. It isn’t so much the length of Strangely’s beard that impresses; we aren’t talking ZZ Top territory. But its sheer volume – the luxuriant fluffiness of the beast, the way it happily smothers his lower face – is an attention-grabber.
Strangely read a study somewhere that a fringe festival audience member has to see a performer’s image, whether in a person or through advertising, eight times before it really makes an impression. The beard helps.
“It’s definitely a part of my brand, to the point of me questioning what I would be like without it,” says the 29-year-old performer, whose base is his hometown of Bellingham, Wash.
When you’re a performer on the fringe-festival circuit, you think about things like this.
It’s a life that sounds at once carefree and grueling: traveling from city to city, sleeping on friends’ couches or in short-term flats, living out of a suitcase, hanging out with fellow performers and fringe groupies in half the bars across the land. He once lost his glasses in Iceland after a night of drinking. He has a large steamer trunk back home in Washington. Most of his books are spread out among friends.
“My upright bass lives at my parents’ house because they actually pay their heating bill, and the temperature is pretty steady there,” he says.
His second Rogue
Yes, Strangely is his first name. He changed it at 21 and uses it standalone as a performer, but he still has a last name: Doesburg. He books his own gigs. Some of them are standalone performances at bars and clubs. Others are at festivals, including such world-class events as the Edinburgh and Adelaide fringe festivals. About a third of the time, if he doesn’t have something planned, he’ll simply go out and perform on the street somewhere.
In the past few months, Strangely has been up and down the West Coast, performing in Seattle, Olympia, Portland, Eugene, Grants Pass, Ashland, Crescent City, Santa Rosa, San Francisco and Oakland.
And returning to Fresno for a second time at the Rogue, which continues through Saturday.
“It was probably the best two weeks of last year for me in terms of audiences and CD sales,” he says. “It’s a good town.”
He’s already built up a following.
After a cup of coffee Sunday afternoon at Mia Cuppa Caffé, he starts ambling up the street wearing his dapper hat, big thick glasses, vest and plaid sports coat. Rogue volunteer Nicki Tempesta, working at the merchandise booth, chases him along.
“You have a show in, like, half an hour,” she says, glancing at her watch. “I’m going!”
He sets off briskly down Olive Avenue. His public awaits.
On the circuit
Hundreds of years ago, someone like Strangely might have been a traveling troubadour in Italy, roaming the countryside and peddling his act to small villages. He’s a decent juggler, does magic tricks, can perform on the trapeze and does partner acrobatics. Perhaps payment would have been a gold coin and place to stay for the night. (The Rogue, by the way, is one of the few fringe festivals in which volunteers open their homes to performers.)
In the early 20th century, it’s easy to think of him carving out a career on the vaudeville circuit.
He prides himself on his versatility, of not being pigeonholed as a “juggler,” say, or even an “accordionist.”
“I feel that if I’d been in the olden days of vaudeville I would have had to find one thing and stick with it,” he says. I’m very much careful not to be defined by any particular bit of performance. The brand I seek to build, to use a very crass marketing term, is just me.”
Today, in a high-tech world in which an abundance of digital entertainment is always available, he still relies on an approach that goes back to the dawn of humankind: a personal connection with the audience.
At the Rogue, Strangely offers a main “branded” show, a new performance he titles “Joy Compactor” ( It’s an accordion-dominated show that includes songs, jokes and dancing.) But like many performers, he pops in and out of other shows as well, including a “Fringe Factor” game show and a series titled “The Blender” that at 9:45 p.m. Friday at Spectrum Art Gallery will feature the “Strangely and Shay ShpectaculaR Ship Show” with friend and folk singer Aaron J. Shay.
For the Sunday afternoon performance of “Joy Compactor,” a crowd of about 40 people have filed into the Fulton Street Art venue. The place is almost full 10 minutes before the show begins, which is rare for the Rogue.
“Thank you for coming early,” he says.
“Thank you for letting us come in out of the cold,” a woman in the audience calls out.
“I wanted to get you on my side,” he says with a smile.
Part of Strangely’s appeal is his lack of polish. He sometimes pauses awkwardly in the middle of a monologue, making you wonder if he’s lost his train of thought. He can laugh a little too hard at his own jokes. His singing voice – while it can be extravagantly loud (and in conjunction with his accordion at full volume might actually break some indoor decibel limits) – isn’t going to win any opera auditions.
But there’s a genuineness to his stage presence, a folksy and authentic demeanor, that can make you feel as if you’ve just seen a finely honed performance.
“I was really moved by this show,” another audience member says afterward.
In “Joy Compactor,” a somber personal story intrudes into the fun and frolic. Strangely launches into a song and a recollection of his own teenage angst, which included an attempt at suicide.
The vignette is heartfelt. If Strangely hadn’t won the audience over already, his diversion into the achingly personal seals the deal.
After the suicide attempt, high school got better. Strangely found a place in theater and music. But it wasn’t until he’d dropped out of film school that he figured what he really wanted to do was perform. He changed his name and quit his day job. He bought a used accordion and taught himself to play. He started performing in his hometown, and an early experience in which he did a comic striptease exhilarated him. He wound up joining a circus on tour.
And yet, for all his eagerness to be in front of an audience, it’s more complicated than that.
“I would consider myself a shy person,” he says, walking back down Olive Avenue on his way to his next show. “I’m not the kind to just go up and talk to people and talk to them for no reason. But performing gives me a structure that lets me connect with people. It’s about me reaching out and offering a little bit of myself and helping someone else connects with it.”
On the road
Strangely is on the road for about nine months of the year. There are drawbacks, of course.
Having a love life is tough. He got engaged in Australia. It didn’t work out. (“I’m single again, Rogue!” he proclaims in his show.) “Relationships are really difficult wherever you are,” he says. “I’m still processing that and sorting it out.”
Does he make a living as a performer?
His parents, for one, like parents for time immemorial, are worried about his financial stability.
“It depends on by what you mean by a living,” he says. “I don’t own a house. But at the same time, I don’t have any debt.”
Some fringe festivals are expensive to attend, such as Edinburgh. No free housing is provided. Last year Strangely shared a flat with three other performers and each paid $2,000 for the month.
He’s been to to Edinburgh three times but has only lost money once.
Riches aren’t likely around the corner, then. Some people do the fringe circuit in hopes of getting “discovered.”
Not Strangely. No pining for a TV show for him. A small, rapt crowd on Fulton Street is a cause for celebration and wonder.
“I don’t really have an intention of breaking through to something bigger,” he says. “I just want to get to the place that when I throw a show, people come.”
- Nearly 50 performers featured through Saturday at eight Tower District venues. Tickets are $5-$12 plus one-time $3 Rogue wristband. www.roguefestival.com.
- For reviews of shows by Jaguar Bennett, Tony Imperatrice, L. Nicole Cabe, Martin Dockery, Blake and Chelsea Jones, Peter Aguero, Ryan Adam Wells and Strangely, go to www.fresnobeehive.com.