The festival that coins itself as ‘a forge for independent theater’ is back

With topics ranging from #MeToo to mental health, the theater event will fill four venues in The Gateway.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Director Cami Rozanas, center, guides performers through a musical number in preparation for the 2022 Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, at The Box at the Gateway on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. The production of "Monologues from a Movement" is featured around true women’s #MeToo stories. The festival runs July 28 to August 7, in four venues at The Gateway.

When the directors of the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival have to define what the event is, they often talk about what it isn’t.

The festival, running July 28 to August 7 in venues in The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City, is designed to “give an opportunity for unique work that’s not in the mainstream,” said co-director Shianne Gray.

Her directing partner, Jay Perry, called it a venue where “artists get to try things out, see what works and can push the boundaries a little bit. [They] see how audiences respond and how their fellow artists are responding.”

The Salt Lake City event — which bills itself as “a forge for independent theater” — was launched at Westminster College in 2015, emulating an idea that started in 1947 in Edinburgh, Scotland, with eight theater companies showing up.

Dozens of cities around the world have followed Edinburgh’s lead — and, according to Gray, what makes each fringe fest unique is the reflection of the host city’s artists and culture.

In Utah, that factor is a mix of local theater companies making their own original works, brand new people, and the hyperlocal original works submitted. Pedigree doesn’t count for much with the Salt Lake festival, which has always gone by the rule of first come, first served — “unadjudicated and unrestricted,” Perry said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Preparing for the 2022 Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, Mandi Titcomb, left, and Lisa Nicole Thurman rehearse a dance number during the production of "Monologues from a Movement," which highlights women’s true #MeToo stories, at The Box at the Gateway on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

Exploring #MeToo in Utah

Playwright Amanda Caraway said she aimed to push boundaries as she entered the festival as a writer for the first time — with her work “Monologues from a Movement,” which will have its world premiere at the festival.

Caraway started developing her play in 2019, she said, “shortly after Donald Trump was elected and the #MeToo movement started.” She said she used Eve Ensler’s landmark 1996 play “The Vagina Monologues” — a series of episodes about sexual experiences and other topics — as a “roadmap.”

Caraway’s play also builds on a 2018 play, “What We’re Up Against,” that she worked on at Wasatch Theatre Company with Haley Jenkins (who’s no longer involved in Caraway’s work). That play, Caraway said, was “basically about how women are still fighting against the glass ceiling in the corporate world.”

In the 2018 play, women leaders in Utah’s theater community — including Cynthia Fleming, artistic director of Salt Lake Acting Company; Fran Pruyn, artistic director of Pygmalion Productions, and Megan Guiterrez, founder of Utah Theatre Lovers — all took to the stage to read #MeToo stories from anonymous women.

Caraway collected facts from those stories and others she heard, and wrote them in a monologue format — with the goal of releasing a new production in 2020, as a “protest against Trump [possibly] being re-elected.”

Most of the women who submitted stories wanted to be anonymous, Caraway said — adding that she and her collaborators decided to ask prominent Utah women to read the stories, rather than actors.

“Actors would perform the piece whereas average women will simply read the stories,” Caraway said, “so the voice of the women would ring through.”

She said the idea of women sharing their stories is “part of the recovery and healing process” — and is needed now more than ever.

“There’s actually a monologue in the piece where a woman, when she was a sophomore in college, was raped and was afraid she was pregnant,” Caraway said. “This is someone who is very conservative, very religious. Never would have considered getting an abortion.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Preparing for the 2022 Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, Carly Welch, Jenn Niedfeldt, Mandi Titcomb and Lisa Nicole Thurman, from left, rehearse a musical number during the production of "Monologues from a Movement," featured around women’s true #MeToo stories, at The Box at the Gateway on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

Another story in the play, “The Missionary,” is, as Caraway described it, a “powerful piece about something that happened to a girl in high school.” Yet another, “The Bishop,” is one of several stories that comments on men abusing their power.

Survivors of sexual violence and harassment have seen the production, and “it’s amazing to sit in the audience and hear them react to your story,” Caraway said. “[The rest of the audience doesn’t] know who you are, that you’re sitting there, but you hear them react to something that was done, and it validates you. You think, ‘Oh, it really was that bad, I’m not exaggerating.’”

The fringe festival will showcase a shortened 55-minute version of the play; the full-length version is set to be produced at Wasatch Theater Company in 2023.

Caraway said she hopes her production gives viewers “a great understanding of where women still are today, and how important it is for us to continue fighting.” This is a show for everyone, she added, including “men who are willing to listen and be allies, [because] we need them to join the fight with us.”

Providing a ‘safe place’

A fringe festival veteran, An Other Theater Company made for its 2022 submission a one-man play, “Somethin’ to Cry About,” about Black men and mental health — seen through the experiences of Donald, who sees a white therapist.

Dorsey Williams, a writer and actor who plays Donald, created a vlog during the pandemic about how he felt running in neighborhoods as a Black man, chronicling his fear and anxiety. When he and Shelby Gist, the other writer of the work, talked about writing a piece, she mentioned she had seen his vlog.

“Those traumatic experiences that [Donald] is going through are traumatic experiences that Black people go through, also minorities, and bits and pieces that everyone can relate to,” Williams said.

Gist said she is most excited for people to see a “new, original Black piece written by Utah Black theater artists.”

“That does not happen often,” she said. “You can probably count the times on one hand for the last five years. That’s pretty monumental.”

A story like this, billed as an “exploration of Black joy and trauma” can only be found in a safe place, Gist said. The fringe festival is not only that, “but a place where you can feel appreciated.”

The Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival runs July 28 through August 7, at four venues in The Gateway, 400 West between 50 North and 200 South, Salt Lake City. For details about individual productions and ticket availability, go to greatsaltlakefringe.org.

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