Eclectic and intriguing, annual KC Fringe Fest opens Thursday

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07/18/2013 9:55 AM

05/16/2014 3:39 PM

Before the KC Fringe Festival, this town didn’t really have a clearinghouse for all its wild and crazy artists. You could find clusters, perhaps, in art classes, small theater companies or basement music studios.

But artists tend to follow their own erratic trajectories. The connective tissue was absent.

That began to change in 2004, when plans were hatched for an annual festival of music, dance, theater, film, fashion and visual arts to bring them all together.

Not all artists are wild and crazy, of course. But many are, some calculatedly so. And while the festival does have a family-friendly youth component and opportunities for visual artists who aren’t driven to be particularly outrageous, many of the shows are uncensored and adult-oriented — rude and crude in some cases, dark and brooding in others.

It’s a chance for artists to get in touch with their dark sides or anarchic impulses.

David Berry, for example, will be among the filmmakers exhibiting their craft at this year’s festival. One of his short films is called “BTK Killer: The Musical.” It will be included in “Zirkus der Schmerzen,” or “Circus of Pain,” his 60-minute compilation of short films about serial killers — including comedies and musicals — made by friends and colleagues.

Berry, who is also a composer, last week said he was still editing “BTK,” which he expected to run 12 or 13 minutes. Jason Nivens of KQRC 98.9 the Rock plays Dennis Rader, the notorious Wichita serial killer.

“It’s not a comedy,” Berry said. “It’s hard to say what it is, really.”

Berry has made more than 150 short films under his Spanking Monkey Pictures banner and screened some of his work at last year’s Fringe.

“Last year I had the Smoking Monkey Pictures short film showcase, and we won the attendance award and were in the Fringe Hangover,” he said, referring to reprise performances by the best-attended shows on the final day of the festival.

“I think it’s really cool that the Fringe Festival overall gives the artists a much larger audience,” Berry said. “If you’re making films, you’re playing a lot in film festivals. But if you’re playing the Fringe, you’re pulling in music and theater people.”

The River Cow Orchestra, an improvisational jazz ensemble, has played the festival every year since its inception. The first couple of years the band performed in its previous incarnation, Brother Iota.

Percussionist Greg Field recalled that at the first festival the band performed on the stage behind Grinders on 18th Street and that he was recruited to run a spotlight during other performances, including the fashion shows.

“So that was interesting,” he said. “The Fringe Festival is supposed to be someplace where new work or edgy work or experimental work is supposed to be available. Since we’re totally improvisational, that’s where we fit in.”

The River Cow Orchestra will play solo performances and will also be part of the Experimental Music Showcase at Arts Asylum on July 26.

“We usually pick up a few fans here and there, people who will go in and take a look at the site or listen to some of the music,” Field said. “Not everybody is crazy about improvisational jazz. The thing about the Fringe is not so much picking up people who are wild and crazy about RCO, but we have picked up some very nice reviews.”

Most artists agree on this: The festival is a welcoming organization receptive to art and performance projects, whether they be experimental or closer to the mainstream. That’s pretty much how it has been from the beginning.

This year the festival hosts 134 artists and 363 performances at 23 venues, according to Cheryl Kimmi, the festival’s executive director. That’s a bit less than last year, but Kimmi said that was by design.

“We dialed it back a little bit,” she said. “We grew last year by 100 more shows than the year before and didn’t have the volunteer base to handle it. So we held back this year.”

Kimmi hopes to have about 200 volunteers to manage venues and ticket sales. Ticket receipts will still be counted manually each night, but she hopes to find funding for an electronic box-office system in the not-so-distant future.

While tickets and festival buttons can be purchased online at kcfringe.org, Kimmi said no show will be allowed to sell out through online sales. Twenty percent of the tickets will be reserved for walk-up sales.

The venues are mainly clustered in the downtown, Crossroads and midtown areas. The Arts Asylum, at East Ninth and Harrison streets, is the northernmost performance site. The Plaza branch of the Kansas City Library is at the southern limit of the venue map.

The festival officially opens tonight with a public party at the Spencer Theatre at the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center at UMKC, home to Kansas City Repertory Theatre. While there’s is no admission charge, visitors should buy a $5 festival button, which will be available at any participating venue as well as at the Fringe store on the first floor of Crown Center Shops.

The opening reception will be followed by teasers from some of this year’s performances. The KC Fringe Art Truck, a sort of traveling gallery exhibit, also will be on hand.

Something new — some would say it was inevitable — is a free app on the Fringe website. Versions are available for Android users as well as people using Apple devices. Users will have access to performance times, maps, a “stumble” feature suggesting shows and parking options for each venue.

The twofold goal: give exposure to artists from Kansas City and elsewhere, and allow patrons to pick and choose as they create their own festival experience.

Denise Whithorne, a veteran photographer who is exhibiting her work for the second consecutive year, appreciates the opportunity to expand her audience with relatively little red tape.

“I was looking for a place to show my work, so I went ahead and applied,” she said. “If you wanted to get into the Westport Art Fair or the Brookside Art Fair, you have to go through all sorts of rigamarole.”

Whithorne, at Vulcan’s Forge gallery in Westport, shoots high-dynamic-range digital photographs in which three images shot at different exposures are combined.

“It was excellent,” Whithorne said of her initial festival experience. “I sold a lot. People were enthusiastic about my work.”

Carrie Riehl describes herself as a “site specific reportage illustrator” whose artwork will be at the Farm to Market Bread Co. on East 20th Street. This will be her first year to exhibit at the Fringe, although she has helped curate the Art Truck in recent months. She has attended performances, mainly dance and theater, in previous editions of the festival, but not visual art shows.

“I grew up in Liberty, so the Fringe Festival is definitely something that brought us down into the town,” said Riehl, who studies illustration at the Kansas City Art Institute. “I know other cities do (fringe festivals), too, but I think it’s really unique because it’s an institution where anyone can apply to have their own show. The only other thing that accessible would be the First Friday events. So it’s getting a huge audience.”

Veteran clown and mime artist Beth Byrd said she likes the Fringe because performances don’t have to be polished or even finished. It’s a place to try out ideas. This year Byrd and her troupe, the Flock, will perform at Just Off Broadway.

“It’s just a straight-up clown show,” she said. “Like, we have a dream sequence about each clown getting to live his dream or his nightmare. It’s a work in progress, and no two shows will be the same because the audience will make a difference.”

Byrd said she is one of the few producers who has had a show in every edition of the festival.

“They don’t have to be 100 percent ready,” Byrd said. “This gives us a chance to put something in front of an audience and hone it. We’ve been rehearsing since winter, but with clowns it’s never finished until the audience is there.”

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