Gordon Siegel stands at the entrances of the various theater spaces of the Great Salt Lake Fringe, checking people in at the door and dispensing advice: “Just come and see it all. You get to see a lot of good plays and some bad ones, too.”
Siegel came to Utah for the snow, but when he attended his first Fringe play, when the festival was based at Westminster College, he was hooked.
“I came for the vibe of it,” said Siegel, who has been a volunteer for the festival since the beginning. Last year, he saw 25 of the 30-plus shows performed. He plans to do the same this year.
The Great Salt Lake Fringe’s second weekend of experimental theater productions runs through Sunday, in makeshift black-box performance spaces in The Gateway shopping center, between 50 North and 200 South on Rio Grande Street (450 West). Several shows sold out the first weekend, and organizers hope for larger crowds this weekend.
The works cover a range of genres — including music, dance, spoken word, performative art, audience participation, puppetry and cabaret — and are produced at low cost, sometimes with the bare minimum of staging or props.
“Fringe festivals tend to fill a need in their community that is not being met by the arts community at large,” said Shianne Gray, the festival’s co-director. “To us, this means that Utah has a huge community of artists with original work who are looking for an affordable way to share it with the public.”
From the more than 30 productions in this year’s festival, here are highlights from three notable works:
Women in wartime
Exposing a little-known chapter of World War II history, the premiere of “The Night Witches” enchanted the audiences at its sold-out early performances. The production by Park City’s Egyptian YouTheater is spellbinding and haunting, pushing the boundaries of what a youth theater production can achieve. The nine young actresses captured the hearts of theatergoers.
The play tells of a band of young female pilots and navigators in the Soviet Union during World War II, who bombed unsuspecting Germans to distract them and disrupt their sleep. The Germans gave them the name “The Night Witches,” because of the swooshing sound — like a broomstick — they made when they cut their engines for their bombing runs.
The young performers, who are close in age to the warriors they portray, mimic their planes’ flights by sitting on benches, holding up canvas sheets made to resemble wings, and spinning a cane like a propeller. The play is structured to call upon the audience’s suspension of disbelief, relying on the actresses’ powerful performance to evoke the feeling of flying in the pilots’ flimsy crop dusters.
YouTheater producer Jamie Wilcox commissioned Rachel Bublitz to write the play. Bublitz subscribes to the ideas of “less is more theater” and “movement theater.” She has written a story that captures the passion, courage and vulnerability of these women, without realistic props and spectacular sets.
Great Salt Lake Fringe
The second and final weekend of theatrical shows and performances of Fringe festival will be held at The Gateway.
Where • The Gateway, 400 W. 100 South, Salt Lake City
When • Friday through Sunday, Aug. 9-11
Tickets • Available through greatsaltlakefringe.org/tickets and at the box office at 95 S. Rio Grande St.
Program • Online at greatsaltlakefringe.org/schedule
“It feels really suited to Fringe as a piece, because there is something so urgent and raw about what Rachel has written,” said Alexandra Harbold, who directed the play. “Using the resources you have to create something is what they did on a nightly basis, and so Fringe feels appropriately rough and tumble, and ‘are we going to make it through the night?’”
Harbold added: “You’re always taught that there’s a protagonist and antagonist, and I think that life is so much more complicated than that. I think good plays tend to recognize that every character is a protagonist at a moment and it’s more kaleidoscopic.”
“The Night Witches” • 133 S. Rio Grande; Friday, Aug.9 , 6:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 10, 9 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 11, 4:30 p.m.
Neverland’s dark side
Laura Elise Chapman and Kaitlin Lemon created and perform “Thimble,” a 30-minute movement-based piece based on J.M. Barrie’s classic “Peter Pan” — which is a far darker tale than viewers may expect after years of familiarity and retellings.
Chapman and Lemon said they wanted to tell a darker side of the story of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up.” But in researching Barrie’s original writings and his history, they realized the story already had a sinister twist.
Taking a cue from the #MeToo movement, “Thimble” looks at Peter Pan through the eyes of Wendy Darling, a survivor of abuse.
Lemon, a spirited and strong actress, plays Peter, who likes to play games with Wendy (played by Chapman). When first meeting Peter, Wendy is animated by childlike wonder. But as Peter returns again and again, seemingly to torment Wendy, that innocent wonder is replaced by fear and anguish.
The only props are a thimble, a chiffon sheet and rolling office chairs. Lemon and Chapman use movement, pantomime and facial expression to tell their story.
“I think theater is one of the most effective ways in which we can have these experiences and conversations about these things,” said Chapman, referring to conversations surrounding abuse and sexual assault.
Theater, Lemon said, is a way to put “a mirror in front of you and in front of society to make you think you can see yourself in those stories. In that way, art can make those difficult topics not necessarily more palatable, but more understandable. You can empathize more because you can see them as actual people.”
“Thimble” is presented by An Other Theater Company, based in Utah County. As part of their process of selecting stories and plays, they seek to amplify marginalized voices and highlight works done by women and the LGBTQ community, something they say is often excluded in Utah County.
“We’re not making theater just for women and just for the LGBTQ community, because really we are one big community,” Lemon said. “Seeing a story that you may not necessarily have that exact experience [but] you can still see yourself in ... I think it’s a great way to bring all of us together and to have a greater understanding of each other.”
“Thimble” • 10 N. Rio Grande; Saturday, Aug. 10, 4:30 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 11, 7:30 p.m.
A case of life and death
The audience enters the theater for “Amber: Alert” with the play already in progress. Amber, played by Brooklyn Bagley, is slumped in a chair, barely acknowledging that people are walking in. Two other people sit in chairs with their backs to the audience, and to Amber. Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays in the background.
Amber then jolts upright, and starts talking directly to the audience, breaking through the fourth wall. As she talks, the realization grows that Amber has died by suicide, and she’s talking to the audience as if it’s a jury — taking viewers through her short life and what led to that final decision.
The play, produced by Scaffold Theatre, focuses on Amber’s struggles with school pressure, depression, and a family that doesn’t communicate about her sister, Kate, who went missing years earlier. (The title is a play on the Amber Alert emergency alert system for missing and kidnapped children.)
Writer-director Julie-Anne Liechty said the title came to her mind first when she created the play. “I feel like suicide, for teens especially, is a lot like an Amber Alert, that they’re just taken from us by a predator. … We are being robbed of our children by this beast, by this monster.”
That feeling of suicide as a predator is at the core of “Amber: Alert,” Liechty said. In one scene, the Huntsman from “Snow White” (played by Teren Turner) pursues Amber — a representation of her thoughts of suicide hunting her down, until she can’t escape them.
The audience, on the sidelines, can’t help but wish the family could communicate better. Dad, also played by Turner, tries to help Amber — but he’s also a workaholic, and facing his own problems with his wife, Amber’s mother, who takes pills to numb the pain of losing Kate. The audience hears Amber’s thoughts, and wishes others could as well, to prevent what is about to happen.
One of Liechty’s goals is to start a dialogue about suicidal and depressive feelings, and remove the shame associated with them. Liechty, who has suffered from anxiety and depression, said she hopes people will leave her play with a desire to communicate better with one another.
“We need to look at our society and learn the value of connection,” Liechty said.
Suicide is not a new topic at the Great Salt Lake Fringe festival. Last year, stand-up comedian and motivational speaker Collin Williams performed “My Suicide Note,” in which he used humor to relate the story of his own suicide attempt. In a TEDx talk in Salt Lake City last September, Williams asked, “Who gets to talk about these difficult topics if not art?”
Liechty acknowledges that “Amber: Alert” may be too much for some theatergoers. “As a playwright, I can take responsibility and say, ‘Hey, let’s get dialogue out there and let’s talk about it, because I do believe that suicide is preventable,’” she said.
For Utahns between 10 and 17 years old, suicide was the leading cause of death in 2018, according to state health officials. It’s an epidemic that Liechty said she believes can be treated with awareness and education. She would like to perform “Amber: Alert” at high school assemblies, to help find a solution.
“I think art, especially plays and film, are some of the best mediums to bring up this subject,” Liechty said. “I really think that anything that opens the lid and starts talking about something can only be helpful. Dialogue is what it’s about.”
“Amber: Alert” • Wasatch Theatre Company, 124 S. 40 West; Friday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, 6 p.m. and Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.