Finding my #fringefemme colleagues
Last night in Edmonton, my Fringe friend was admiring the constellation of buttons that spreads like a neon-colored Milky Way across the ceiling of the Deerinator. She was able to identify a few of them, and I pointed out others that were more obscure. I don’t often spend time enjoying the collection—it’s there with me whenever I drive—which I guess is why I remembered the back corners. “Back there I put… shrines, I guess you’d call them?”
She craned her head back to look while I described Heather, the woman who had first given me space to perform (and whose boots I inherited and have been wearing pretty much non-stop since 2009). And in the other corner, I said, was the shrine to Vee Anne, my Fringe friend and regular New Orleans billet who passed away in 2014.
These were the two women I knew as my peers, I said. Women of a certain age who were pushing ahead and directing their own shit. When they passed away, it just felt lonelier out here. These were my colleagues, I said, and I miss them.
As I told my fringe friend during the drive last night, these women remain the two performing women that I’ve spent the most time with, and we spent a lot of time talking about making our own way as non-traditional female artists (women of a certain age, doing performance work of a definitely if not explicitly feminist kind). I had talked with Heather about budget planning long before I went to school about it. I talked with Vee Anne about intellectual property and gratuitous shock value in theatre. It was something, to be able to have those conversations.
Naturally my fringe friend and I began sharing our own experiences out on the Fringe as women, especially as women of a certain age (in Fringe theatre, as in film and other performance spheres, women reach that "certain age" far earlier than men do, whatever the actual number of years). And I felt a visceral sense of relief to be talking about it again, as if my rib cage could loosen a little. I could be open about this.
Because, see, none of this gets discussed very much out in public. No one wants to be the one bringing sour grapes to the Fringe banquet. But naturally I have opinions about sexism on the Fringe; I am developing other opinions about ageism on the Fringe, and where those two intersect. The precarity of Fringe performing, combined with the fact that women tend to be pigeonholed and overlooked out in the rough-and-tumble marketplace of the fringe, makes this an important subject of discussion for any two or more female performers to have. Such conversations will not happen by themselves.
Frankly, any conversations about how we survive, how we struggle, are never going to be carried by the Fringe platform. The festivals do not have anything to gain by disseminating information about how inherently challenging, not to say problematic, they themselves are. They don’t benefit by talking too overtly about structural inequities both inside the system and outside as well. They need us artists to keep thinking that we have a chance, the same chance as anyone. I’m not saying that the fringe festivals are actively holding us down or oppressing us; I’m just saying the system thrives on the myth of the noble bootstrapping artist, and talking about individual experiences as manifestations of systemic inequities would detract from the mythos.
I still don’t know how that’s going to change, but these are the things that Heather and Vee Anne and I talked about with each other. The first step toward solving the problem is the same as it always has been: admitting that there is one. Then you find other people who are seeing the same thing, or at least are willing to believe that what you’re seeing and saying is true. I need this shared experience, now more than ever, and I’m so grateful when I find it. Rare though it is, it’s such a simple thing:
No, you’re not making this up. Yes, this is harder than it should be. No, it’s not fair. Yes, tell me.
NOTE: the #fringefemme hash-tag was created in 2009, I believe at the Edmonton Fringe, to lift up solo female playwright/performers. Time to revive that shit.
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