Raw and more than a little vulnerable, Seattle Fringe Festival returns to Capitol Hill

By Tim Kukes for CHS

“I think the Seattle Fringe Festival is really taking on the role of mentoring and offering up opportunities for the artist to learn things,” Jeffrey Robert said.

Robert, who performs as The Gay Uncle, will be part of the 2017 version of the rebooted festival featuring “more than 30 producers of Theatre, Dance, Improv, Burlesque, Musical, Opera, Drag Performance, Solo Performance, Experimental, Clown, and Performance Art” at Capitol Hill’s Eclectic Theater and the Seattle Center Armory. Tickets run between $10 and $15 per show.

Robert is one of many local artists participating in the 2017 Seattle Fringe Festival but he may have gotten a later start than most. A standup comedian turned performance artist/storyteller, Robert didn’t dive into the artist life until his fifties.

“I always wanted to attempt it, but I was afraid to,” Robert said.  “I always wanted to do artwork and sort of toyed around with it.  I studied it in college, but I never ever made a career out of it.”

Jeffrey Robert (Image: CHS)

Jeffrey Robert (Image: CHS)

Challenges abound in the world of performance and theater art, especially for artists working to get established in the Seattle area.

“When you’re a self-supported artist and you are working the fringe, you have to think about marketing, space, rehearsals, and you have to think about the costs that it takes to cover all those basic needs to even consider a piece or show,” Sara Porkalob, 2016 SFF Audience Choice Winner, said.  “The Seattle Fringe Festival takes care of that baseline, it has a very low level of entry… so as a self-producing artist you can really focus on the artistic side of things.”

Robert after years of doing standup and performance art at venues such as the Skylark in West Seattle and the Rendezvous in Seattle just recently fell in love with fringe festivals after performing at this year’s Tucson Fringe Festival, where he won Best Comedy.

“I think Fringe is the perfect place for me,” Robert said.  “If it wasn’t there I would have to create it, so I have a place to show my art.  Everything about my art is not polished.  It’s not polished, and I don’t want it to be polished.”

To transition the stage to the ambience of a living room and the audience to family and friends is Robert’s goal as he chats with them in his role as “The Gay Uncle”.

“Everything that I use is clearly frayed around the edges,” Robert said.  “And the stuff I say is partially scripted and partially improvised, and hopefully you can’t tell what’s what.”

That very spirit of experimentation and exploration is what attracts Robert to the fringe festivals.  The Seattle Fringe Festival, with help from its fiscal sponsor, Theatre Puget Sound, also works to foster that spirit.

“It reduces risk around the production costs so that [artists] can be 100% driven by their passion and their curiosity to experiment and try things,” Zhenya Lavy, the interim executive director of TPS said.  “Sometimes your artistic experiment works and sometimes not so much.  This is an environment that can enable artists to be bold and vulnerable in their artistic endeavors without being at risk of losing everything.”

Vulnerability can be an engine for fringe art.

“I know that my show has the word ‘gay’ in it, and I’ve struggled to whether to ever have that be a part of the work I do,” Robert said. “I like it and it’s interesting.  But, I want people to know that my show is not just for gay people.  It’s not just a LGBTQ show at all.  I don’t want people to be turned off by that.”

Seattle Fringe provides a stage for that kind of sometimes raw performance to find an audience.

“The way I see it is that we are giving an immediate voice to the people who want to do live performance,” Seattle Fringe’s D’Arcy Harrison said. “I think it is special because creativity, the arts, and expression is being put in jeopardy.  I think we have to challenge that on a local level.”

The Seattle Fringe Festival runs March 23rd to April 1st with shows occurring at Eclectic Theater on Capitol Hill and the Seattle Center Armory. You can learn more at seattlefringefestival.org.

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