One of the first things that actor Misa Tupou did when he moved to Honolulu from his native New Zealand a few years ago was check out the local arts scene. He was impressed with the talent he saw here — he remembers seeing shows at Kumu Kahua Theatre and attending burlesque, improv and traditional storytelling performances — but also noticed that many of the artists he respected were not very well known at the time.
“I saw a need,” recalls Tupou. “Knowing that the arts community here is so vibrant, I was looking to create something where these acts could perform … It just seemed ripe to seize the opportunity to create an event where they can all contribute.
“I believe what these acts have to offer is worthwhile, and I think creating an artistic platform for them to showcase their work is something worthwhile to share with people,” he adds.
So Tupou launched a local version of the Fringe Festival — which focuses on performing arts and generally has open participation — to Oahu.
Now in its fifth year, the Oahu Fringe Festival runs Jan. 12-15 at various venues in Chinatown, featuring a range of performances across disciplines.
Here are a few things to know about the festival.
It’s part of a larger community.
Right now, Emily Padden is gearing up to volunteer at Oahu Fringe — all the way from Washington, D.C.
Padden, who has worked in theater management and prop sales, is, as she phrases it, a “traveling Fringer.” She first volunteered to fly out from the East Coast for Oahu Fringe in 2015, and after having a positive experience there — “It was really, really awesome,” she says — decided to join others. She since has volunteered at Fringe Festivals in cities that include New York, Boulder, Baltimore, D.C. and Orlando, as well as in Australia.
It all originated in 1947 in Scotland, when a cadre of various theater groups performed at venues nearby to the Edinburgh International Festival. Uninvited to that event, the artists decided they would try to take advantage of the crowds by putting on their own smaller, independent performances. Over the years, the resulting Edinburgh Festival Fringe has grown into a huge event of its own — last year, it hosted thousands of shows across nearly 300 venues — and spawned similarly formatted fests throughout the world, including dozens in the United States.
It has been, in part, that larger community that also has allowed Tupou to grow Oahu’s version — attracting volunteers like Padden, as well as a range of talent both locally and from afar.
“I think that is one of the biggest things about being involved in the Fringe Festival community — people are out there, and they are willing to help,” Tupou says.
It’s an open-access model.
In its earliest iteration in 1947, the festival was designed to be open to anybody, unlike the main festival that had a limited list of performers.
While larger Fringe fests throughout the world now sometimes have to be selective with their content due to size, many stick to that open-access model. Locally, the Oahu one is still fairly small, so it’s allowed Tupou to really run with the laissez-faire approach. In fact, when describing his curating process, Tupou simply says this: “If you would like to do a show, just shoot me an email … and you’re in!
“Whatever you want to do, you go ahead and do it,” he adds. “At the end of the day, it all comes back to sharing with your community — and that is why I am attracted to the Fringe model.”
The lineup is varied.
This year’s lineup features about a dozen participating artists and groups, with performances ranging from dance to puppetry, burlesque to folk music.
Shows include Tiny Seismic, a collaboration of various dance troupes that features sound and movement improvisation, still photography from the early 1900s, and livestream performances — all exploring the relationship between live and digital performances, and reflecting on women’s rights.
Storyteller Jeff Gere, the former drama specialist for Honolulu’s Department of Parks & Recreation, presents Haunted Hawaii — tales based on personal accounts of spooky happenings that people have told him over the years. He also brings his Shadow Puppets, which illustrates folktales via wall projections.
The newly formed Mama Ensemble features a collaboration of dancers to address the inherent trials and tribulations of motherhood. body portal theatre presents thin skin & the topography of time, a dance performance/installation that explores themes of, as choreographer SheenRu Yong explains, “vulnerability, who we really are and what we allow to be seen.”
Other performances include singer-songwriter Stef Mariani, improv by Think Fast Improv, additional dance and movement performances, and more.
It allows you to see things that you normally wouldn’t.
The lineup also includes a number of shows with descriptions that are a little more, well, unusual.
There is one group, for instance, that will present a live recording of their podcast that is dedicated to watching television show Lost backwards.
And the Minnesota-based Really Spicy Opera is bringing its Game of Thrones: The Musical, which founder Basil Considine describes as “a pro-feminist parody of the hit HBO TV series and the source novels, delivered in the format of Sesame Street as a children’s show for adults.”
It’s the open-access model of Fringe that allows for things like these, things that, as Padden phrases it, “you wouldn’t normally be able to see.”
“Theater has a reputation of being very stuffy and having a set audience … but Fringe is for everybody,” she adds.
The reality is that the arts are a business, too — and have all of the business considerations that any other company might. Maybe a production can’t get funding, or a play doesn’t quite gel with the tone of a mainstream theater.
Those things don’t matter at Fringe. With few constraints, a limited run time and a low barrier to entry, artists can be more flexible with their productions.
“Shows that wouldn’t normally fit into a theater season because of the length or because of their subject matter, or because it is a little outside of what subscriber bases usually see, or it is a little bit more outside of the box — those can all fit into Fringe,” Padden explains.
“People’s creativity is a wonderful thing, and it is so hard in this world of megastars and big budgets to get a little guy to do a show and have an audience come,” storyteller Jeff Gere says. “Fringe Festivals, by definition, perform things that are rather on the edge, unusual — and it becomes where artists can kind of do their thing.”
Kara Miller, one of the producers of Tiny Seismic, for instance, says that Fringe has allowed her and her group of dancers to experiment and “come together to explore new ideas.”
“The Fringe Festival puts together so many fresh ideas and innovative works that it is a place to see and envision new possibilities,” Miller says.
SheenRu Yong of body portal theatre is using the opportunity to address a new concept in thin skin: herself. “It’s a really personal piece — I’ve never made a piece about myself and performed it as me,” she says. “thin skin is a sharing of a personal narrative and setting up unknowns within the performance itself so that I have to be raw in the moment.”
That is largely why Tupou wanted to launch a Fringe Festival here to begin with — he loves the art that the Fringe model yields.
“It gives people the freedom to express, and to do their work in an environment that is welcoming,” Tupou says. “And the exposure — we have some wonderful artists here, but there are some you probably haven’t heard of.”
“There is a little more danger, I think, in Fringe shows,” Padden adds. “Sometimes you don’t know exactly what you are going to get … It is an amalgam of all these different elements and you are just going to be like, all right, I am in for the ride.”
The Oahu Fringe Festival runs Jan. 12-15 at The ARTS at Marks Garage, NextDoor, Studio 114 and Ong King Arts Center. For tickets and more information, visit oahufringe.com.