Cheryl Kimmi often finds herself having to explain what “fringe” means.
The executive director of the KC Fringe Festival, which gets underway tonight at Crown Center, often encounters skeptics who think that fringe shows are somehow a version of community theater, or that burlesque is the main offering at the annual arts festival.
So she usually rattles off a series of award-winning, money-making Broadway or off-Broadway shows — “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Urinetown: The Musical,” “Stomp” — and for good measure throws in an Oscar-winning movie, “The King’s Speech.”
What do they all have in common? They originated at fringe festivals in the United States or Britain.
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And burlesque? Kimmi said it represents less than 1 percent of the performances at the annual festival — although it’s a fact that shows involving sexuality or nudity are almost always among the best-attended each year.
But since it was founded in 2004, KC’s festival has never censored the playwrights and performers.
And, Kimmi points out, it also offers performances for families and teens. In all, she said, the festival will present 480 performances in 21 venues over 11 days.
The wide variety of theater, music, dance and visual arts has found an audience. Kimmi said attendance at the annual event has increased an average of 18 percent each year since the beginning.
“We’re very proud of that,” Kimmi said. “It shows that Kansas City really is an arts community and this is really a great time to be an artist.”
Kimmi might have said it’s a great time to be an obscure artist.
Example: If you attend shows regularly at any of the city’s established theater companies, you might not have heard of a playwright/director named Jesse Ray Metcalf.
But last year Metcalf seemingly emerged from nowhere to produce a wild satire called “Virgin,” in which a talented young cast helped Metcalf’s acerbic comedy become one of the best attended productions at Fringe.
Then Metcalf, who pays his rent by managing a salon on the Country Club Plaza, resumed a life of artistic obscurity — until now.
Metcalf has returned with a new original play for Fringe. This one is called “Lovesick,” described in the show’s synopsis as a “classic story of girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets bad. Boys beware!”
“I hate using the word ‘campy,’ because a lot of people when they hear campy think it doesn’t have any meaning to it,” Metcalf said. “So I told the cast ‘campy with thought.’ It’s like heightened reality. We just want to take it to the next level.”
Metcalf said he spent the time since last year’s festival writing and trying to “learn the ropes and learn how the (theater) world works.”
It could be that Metcalf will follow a path blazed by other playwrights who launched careers at the festival. Vicki Vodrey, for example, will this summer have a play produced at the New York International Fringe Festival that was first staged at KC Fringe a year ago. “Hard Day’s Night” will be the third Vodrey play that began at KC Fringe and went on to be staged in New York.
And she’s not alone.
“I don’t see why someone who wants to take playwriting seriously wouldn’t grab some cash and enter something in Fringe Festival,” said Michelle T. Johnson, who since first having a short play produced at the KC festival four years ago has had readings and productions of her work in Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere. “The whole process of doing it makes you take yourself seriously, if nothing else. This is my fourth Fringe Festival … and there’s something very hands-on and personal and fun and scary about putting your play on in your hometown. I don’t see it ever getting old.”
This year Johnson has a new play, “Best Light,” at the festival. She described it a four-character play about a bipolar painter.
“Fringe is the great equalizer,” Johnson said. “Everybody in theater is on the same playing field. Traditional, paid theaters shut down because we take over the damn city. … I am in my own way as important as anyone else doing a production in theater, and I’m as unimportant as anyone else doing a production.”
Kevin King, a playwright/director, said it never occurred to him that he might be able to stage a show at the Fringe until he attended some Fringe performances in 2010 with his friend, director Steven Eubank. King supports himself as an IT consultant. He has a degree in creative writing.
“I said, ‘You know, I think I can do one of these,’” he said. “Because I realized that a lot of people doing (shows) were independent people who wrote or just decided to put something on stage. I saw some great shows, and I saw some that were rougher, but both of those inspired me.”
So King submitted an idea for a play that became “Film Classics Presents: Heaven So Far,” a parody of Douglas Sirk-style Hollywood melodramas from the 1950s.
“I had a concept, and I thought, ‘I’ll figure how to do this as I go along,’” he said. “A lot of that was stupidity or arrogance or just extreme naivete.”
“Heaven So Far” turned out to be one of the best-attended shows of the year. Since then, King has written and produced two other Fringe shows: “Film Classics Presents: Suspicion” and “Bad Auditions.” He also produced an independent production directed by Eubank called “Flowers in the Wardrobe,” a satirical mash-up of “Flowers in the Attic” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
This year, King returns with “Badder Auditions,” a sequel to last year’s semi-improvised show about actors recounting terrible experiences trying out for plays, and “Alphabet Soup: Stories From Queer Voices,” a collection of short plays by King, Cynthia Hardeman, Nick Sawin and Raphael Isabella Tate.
King would like to produce his work for a larger audience. At some point he wants to stage a full production of “Heaven So Far,” and he’d like to either bring back “Alphabet Soup” to the Fringe as an annual event with a new set of writers each year, or as the foundation of an annual LGBTQ theater festival.
“There are so many stories that can be told,” he said.
The Fringe gets underway tonight with the free opening-night party at the Heartland Forum — formerly the American Heartland Theatre at Crown Center — hosted by comedian Lucky DeLuxe and featuring snippets of many of this year’s shows.
Among the promising entries this year:
▪ “The Penis Monologues,” conceived and curated by Heidi Van and Peregrine Honig. Van is directing the piece, which features an all-female cast, including Vanessa Severo and Dianne Yvette. It was conceived, sort of, as a response to Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” — but not precisely. Van and Honig solicited monologues from men and at least one transsexual.
“They are super diverse,” Honig said. “It’s interesting to ask men about their sexual and social identity. And some of the things we’re getting into are really tender and spiritual and sweet … and that has nothing to do with a penis. It has to do with how someone understands themselves and relates to someone else.”
“The Penis Monologues” opens at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St.
▪ “The Hairy Ape” by Eugene O’Neill, adapted and directed by Trevor Belt, and featuring Scott Cox. O’Neill’s 1922 expressionistic drama about the growing awareness of a laborer in a world controlled by the wealthy has been streamlined and re-imagined by Belt.
“The message is still relevant about the money gap and the wealth inequality in this country,” Belt said. “It won’t feel like you’re watching a classic play. We’ve made it new again. People will feel like they’re watching an original piece.”
“The Hairy Ape” opens at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central in Penn Valley Park
▪ “Sue Aside” by Vicki Vodrey, featuring Scott Cox and Laura Jacobs, and directed by Warren Deckert. Vodrey describes her play as a drama about a counselor whose ex-boyfriend makes an appointment to see her under an assumed name in a desperate effort to rekindle the relationship.
“Sue Aside” opens at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Just Off Broadway Theatre.
▪ “Best Light” by Michelle T. Johnson, featuring Davis DeRock, Meredith Wolfe, Ted Collins and Sherri Roulette-Mosley, and directed by Teresa Leggard.
“It’s about a bipolar painter who goes on and off his meds, and it plays havoc with his personal life and his artistic life,” Johnson said. “It’s a drama that has a little bit of comedy in it, but it’s mostly drama. This is a love story and a mental illness story.”
“Best Light” opens at 11 p.m. Friday at Just Off Broadway Theatre.
▪ “The Grave” by Forrest Attaway, starring Peggy Friesen with Amy Attaway and Seth Macchi. Attaway has written some memorable material for previous editions of the Fringe. This one is billed as a comedy/drama about the meeting between a woman at the funeral of her ex-husband and the ex-husband’s girlfriend.
“The Grave” opens at 9 p.m. Saturday at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St.
▪ “Presidential Briefs” written and performed by Ry Kincaid. The show is 50 minutes of 44 original songs, each one offering a little history lesson about each U.S. president.
The show opens at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Buffalo Room, 817 Westport Road.
▪ “The Secret Book of Jesus,” written and performed by Phillip Andrew Bennett Low of Maximum Verbosity.
Low, a Minneapolis theater artist, is a regular visitor to KC Fringe. The official synopsis: “Hidden in Egyptian tombs. Buried in earthenware jars. Traded in dark antiquities markets. For the first time in history, the Gospels suppressed or ignored by the early church have been combined to give a complete portrait of the life of Jesus: his parents’ miraculous marriage; his bizarre killing sprees as an infant; his journey down into Hell; his apostles’ interrogation of Satan.”
“The Secret Book of Jesus” opens at 9 p.m. Saturday at the Westport Coffee House, 4010 Pennsylvania.
▪ “Words + Music,” a collaboration between the Lyric Opera, the Coterie theater’s Young Playwrights Roundtable and the UMKC Conservatory’s “composers in the schools” program. Linda Ade Brand directs 10 new arias or scenes, including dramatic and comedic approaches.
“Words + Music” opens at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Heartland Forum (formerly the American Heartland Theatre) at Crown Center.
The Kansas City Fringe Festival runs through July 26 at venues from downtown to midtown. Attendance at Fringe events requires the purchase of a $5 festival button, available at any participating venue, which allows the bearer to buy tickets to individual shows. For a complete schedule and more ticket information. go to www.kcfringe.org or call 816-359-9195.