Well, they say you never forget your first. It can be uncomfortable and awkward while all of your senses are being tapped to exhaustion because you haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. However, for the sake of writing, I love first impressions. It’s when I am paying the most attention to details, where my mind is racing a hundred miles an hour, overloaded with stimuli, lest I become jaded later on down the road, and take it all for granted.
I have been working on my one woman show “Late Bloomer” for a couple of years now, only performing excerpts, here and there, testing material. It wasn’t until this past February that I finally ran the entire show in front of test audiences, story only, without technical cues, hoping it would all come together and make sense before I took it on the road to …
Fresno, California. Being from the San Francisco Bay Area, where entertainment is hustling every night of the week, I was a little surprised that the Central Valley agricultural town of Fresno, which I had only visited once in the early 90’s (it’s grown so much since then), had a Fringe Festival.
What is a Fringe Festival you ask? It’s an annual event (can be as long as two weeks) that showcases artists and live performers from all over the world. It can be a good place for new and seasoned performers to take their show on the road and try and gain a wider audience . I had heard some festivals were better than others-and that Fresno’s Rogue Festival was a good one. So I applied online in a “first come first serve” basis back in October 2016 and miracle of all miracles, my crappy spotty internet service (translation: hotspot on my phone) came though and I solidified a spot in the festival.
Kicking it into high gear, I hustled to get my show into shape by the March 2017 deadline. I met with acting coach and fringe goddess Jill Vice, bi weekly, then weekly as it got closer to showtime. I performed the entire show in front of friends, in their homes and in coffee shops. I got feedback. I made changes, I got more feedback, I made more changes- right up until the week of the festival. I made postcards. I wrote a blog. I advertised on social media even though I do not know a soul in Fresno. Then I prayed and packed my bags.
I headed East on highway 580 and cruised in familiar territory until I drove past the last town of Alameda County- Livermore. Then all my radio stations went out.
I made my first pit stop in the town of Tracy to use the bathroom in a Carl’s Jr. I also figured I could take this moment to learn how how to sync my iPod to my car stereo. I rarely take long drives and this is a new car for me and how hard could it possibly be?
Hard. I can hear my mother’s and grandmother’s voices in unison inside my head, “Did you read the manual?” You see, my 93 year old grandmother bought this car a couple of years ago-brand new- and then stopped driving altogether a year ago and I bought it from her. She and my mother kept insisting I read the car manual, but who does that?
After accepting defeat that I would not be syncing my iPod, I got back on the road and settled for the three C’s of valley music- Classic Rock, Christian Rock and Country Rock. I fiddled back and forth between radio stations playing the game, “guess what genre of music this is by the opening chord progression or first vocal.” Many times the Christian and Country songs sounded the same until I heard the lyric “boots” or “savior”, then I knew what I was listening to.
Not so with the classic rock, which I was the most familiar with and sped down highway 99 blasting Def Leppard, Boston or Pat Benatar.
Well, that nostaliga wore off quickly. And now I was stuck behind big rigs.
I drive a very small car (remember it was a little old lady’s car) – a 2015 Ford Fiesta. And I always hate driving alongside big trucks because it feels like I am stuck in their blind spot and at any time they will just make an unpredictable lane change and slam into me. So I had to constantly speed up and pass them- squealing in fear each time I did. I told you I don’t drive long journeys much. Thank God it wasn’t raining! Don’t get me started on driving in the rain…
Then my lower back apparently couldn’t take the strain of sitting still for so long as I had to pull over again in the town of Chowchilla just to stretch and pee. I posted on Facebook about my travels and a friend posts back: “When you get there- say hi to my friend Wendy, she owns Mia Cuppa”.
Mia Cuppa is a coffee shop that has a stage in the back and was one of the official performance venues of the festival. I made a mental note to go meet Wendy at some point.
Roughly three and a half hours later I arrived at my air bnb, a yellow house right in the heart of the Tower District where the festival was being held. I explicitly booked a place that was “in the middle of everything and walking distance from a Starbucks.” I’m a bit of a convenience rat but as I would find out later, this personality flaw comes with a price.
I unpacked and settled into my new home away from home. I walked to the corner food joint, “Irene’s” and put some postcards in there and ordered a hamburger. Then I walked around the main drag putting up postcards any place I could until the “teaser show” that night.
What’s a teaser show? It’s a preview night basically- the night before the festival actually begins. Where a good number of performers get on a stage inside a theater and give a two minute tease of their show. It’s a good way for potential audience members to decide if they want to come see your show in front of an audience who have already bought admission wristbands And I, like a beginner, did not sign up to be part of the teaser show in time. Cut me some slack, I was a fringe virgin!
So I settled for handing out postcards to audience members while they waited in line outside the theater before the show began. “How old were you when you got your wisdom teeth pulled? 18? Well, I was 35, let me tell you a story…”
After repeating my elevator pitch a thousand times I made it into the theater and sat in the back and watched an hour and a half of two minute teasers. Now, this theater was HUGE and I was in the back- and the performers had one little mic. They would have to find a way to fill up the room. A major challenge for any of the solo performers, but one person stood out to me.
A man who looked to be in his forties with dark blonde hair grabbed the mic and proceeded to tell a story about how he attended a fringe festival in Australia and because there were so many shows going on all at the same time, no one came to his. His show was outside, under a tent, and in the back, for whatever reason, he could hear a group of crickets. THE MAN LITERALLY PERFORMED HIS ENTIRE SHOW TO NO ONE BUT CRICKETS.
I fell out of my chair. Boys and Girls-if you can perform you entire full length one man show to a tent full of crickets- is there nothing you can’t do? This guy was my new hero.
After the show I met cricket man in the lobby and found out we would be performing at the same venue (fringe festivals have multiple venues where shows are spread out all day long). I had so much to learn from him.
It had a been a long day, the drive, the anxiety, the postcards, the people, so I crashed hard in my home away from home that night and as I begin to drift off into sleep…
“THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP!”
Did I mention there was a nightclub across the street from the Starbucks that pumps up the jams til 2am every night?
FAB Night Club. My new nemesis.
This club was cranking it out every night of the week, which I normally would be cool with (and to be honest, I got used to) but it was the spillover of drunk people that happened in the parking lot lonf after the club closed that woke me up. Long after I had trained my brain to fall asleep to the beat of the bass and taking an Advil PM on top of that. I felt like a cranky old lady “YOU KIDS BE QUIET” I wanted to yell, but this was Fresno and also I don’t like confrontation. So I called the police. Night night.
The next day I would continue flyering my show-putting up as many postcards as possible to the businesses on the strip before I tucked myself away into my bnb to get ready for my first performance on Friday night, March 3rd at …9:30pm. Um, what?
Way to put a positive spin on a late time slot
For a festival, this is a bit late in my opinion but also, it’s a bit late for me to keep my energy up for an hour after being awake all day, so I was a little nervous I would be too sleepy in my performance and that no one would show up to see it.
But fortunately for me, that was not the case. I think I had like 9 people show up to see a complete stranger perform a show and my energy was just fine. In fact, that night was the first night where I ran the entire thing with my lighting and sound cues- ever. And it didn’t totally suck. Such low expectations, I know, but shoot, I’ll take 9 people. They seemed receptive and I felt honored that they would come out.
Then there was the next night.
Feeling a bit better about my show, I felt confident that my second evening’s performance would draw more people as this time I had an 8pm time slot. But when I came out from behind the curtain to take my place on stage…
Thank you for coming.
Okay, I’m kidding.
There were actually two people.
Two people, who I knew, who came down from the Bay Area, bless their hearts, and if they hadn’t come down, I would have gotten my baptism by fire of performing for metaphorical crickets.
Fortunately for me, my friends laughed in all the right places and they had never seen the entire show with all its bells and whistles before, so it ended up being their own private showing. And I acknowledged that at the beginning of the show.
You know, it was too bad that there wasn’t more people that night because I think that was one of my best nights-performance wise. To quote Gwen Stefani of the band “No Doubt”, when they hadn’t hit it big yet, “We had alot of great shows when no one was there.”
*Sigh* Did I have to learn this lesson so early in my Fringe experience? Ouch.
I blame myself, really. I hadn’t done a press release to the local papers because this was a brand new show, still a work in progress, and I was just in too fragile of a place to have some critic from the Fresno Bee rip me a new one. Like they did- to a couple of other shows -one show in particular.
Peter Aguero, a story teller from New York and regular host of The Moth performed his show, “Daddy Issues” during the festival and he was an audience favorite, with full houses every night. But the Fresno Bee dismissed him as the headline read: “There are Big Issues with Daddy Issues” and proceeded to tear him apart saying that he “has found a way to go through a therapy session and have others pay him for it.”
Well, people were pissed.
At first, it was just grumbling among festival performers saying that the critics “just didn’t get it” and had no idea what it takes to put on a solo show. And then some of the festival’s producers encouraged audience members to refute the review. And then the producers themselves got involved and wrote passionately charged responses to the Fresno Bee newspaper. But that wasn’t enough.
Outside the Vista Theater, while Aguero was performing one night, out in the street, people started kicking down garbage cans and lighting them on fire and honking their horns. Then others begin to march yelling “Justice for Daddy Issues! Justice for Daddy Issues!”
It became chaos and Peter had to halt his show and then the cops came and then fights broke out, an ambulance showed up and then…
Okay, that didn’t happen.
But, people were pissed.
The next morning, on Sunday, I woke up feeling discouraged by my extremely low audience turnout and googled “Fresno, Church”. I needed to be lifted up, so I got up and went to church! Hallelujah!
I didn’t know a soul at this church but the music was great and the sermon was good and I even struck up a conversation with a nice woman and told her about the festival and she told me I should talked to this one woman “Wendy”, who owns this coffee shop “Mia Cuppa”. Okay, she was the second person to tell me this, so I take it as a sign from God to meet her before I head back to the Bay Area after the festival’s first weekend is over.
I perform my show the third time on a Sunday night at 8pm and thank God there were more than two people. I think there was 9 people again. I was thrilled, but exhausted, and felt myself going through the motions of my show. By far my worst performance. But people were kind. And I felt challenged. How does one keep their endurance up?
Being the end of the first weekend of the festival, the next morning I packed up and checked out of my bnb to head back to Oakland for a few days. I can only take so many days off of work. On my way out I stopped by Mia Cuppa and asked to see the owner. Wendy was sitting at a table by herself, probably working on something when I interrupted her. We must have chatted for an hour as we talked about common interests and she shared her vision for the coffee shop. Feeling renewed and hopeful, I hit the road back to the Bay Area then hit a slight speed bump along the way.
Well, I don’t know what I was thinking- I mean, why didn’t I just listen to Google Maps on the way back? Because I was curious when I saw a sign that said “San Francisco” pointing in another direction than the one from Google Maps. So I took it. I mean why not?
Well Google Maps kept trying to reroute me, warn me. Kept trying to get me to take back roads and get back to the highway we had come from but I was determined to try this alternate route. I mean the sign said San Francisco! Mistake. Let’s just say highway 152 is the loneliest road that you’ll ever meet and comes to a complete stop in the city of Los Banos making the drive extra laborious. And when I finally hit highway 5, which I thought I was familiar with, it was the scariest 30 miles of my life- because there must have been 5 times the amount of big rigs than there were on highway 99. Thank God it wasn’t raining!
Then it started to sprinkle. Noooooo!!
My lower back started hurting but I was in the middle of nowhere and what was I thinking. No towns on my right or left side. Just green hills. Pretty. Pretty boring. And I still couldn’t get my iPod to sync to my car stereo.
Three hours later I was home in my apartment, safe and sound. I went back to work for two days. Then I turned around and drove back to Fresno. This time I took the recommended way and FINALLY figured out how to sync my ipod. Exhale. This time I would do it right. Cue the John Mayer music…
I checked back into my same bnb and that night streamed the latest episode of Scandal on my computer since the place didn’t have a television. I had two more shows left of this festival and was determined to just chill and reserve my energy. I was ecstatic that my new time slot would be 6:30pm. This was the first time, when leaving to head to the venue to perform my show, that it was light outside.
Friday night’s show felt good. And I think there were 10 people, but who’s counting?