Reimagining Fringe

A reconstructed space invites the community to embrace the unknown with the annual opera & theatre festival.

Spark Volume 3, Issue 1 | by Emily White

In a year of growth and evolution at the College of Fine Arts, the artistic directors of the annual Fringe Festival are seizing the opportunity to explore the edges of this experimental and collaborative program. With the renovation of the former TheatreLab@855, renamed Studio ONE, Jim Petosa, William Lumpkin, and Oshin Gregorian are using the space’s reimagining to the festival’s advantage, re-conceptualizing the program in its twenty-first year.

Studio ONE

The new Studio ONE space at 855 Commonwealth Ave.

All performances are to be held in an intentionally fluctuating space, as the seating and stage space in the reconstructed Studio ONE will be reconfigured as imagined by each show’s creative minds. Redesigned in summer 2017, Studio ONE will be arranged for two operas and two plays during the festival’s October weekends.

Studio ONE is centralized on the BU Campus, a change from the Fringe’s previous venues, and as Artistic Director of Opera Institute and Opera Programs William Lumpkin reflects, it’s “an exciting time to claim a new space and claim a home in the context of this new theatre” across the street, while still maintaining the connection to the city with other productions throughout the year.

According to Lumpkin, the gutted form of the Studio ONE space presents an exciting opportunity with its unique nooks and crannies, which is in many ways structurally different than past iterations of Fringe. “What could be perceived as challenges with the space we see as interesting architectural elements that help tell the story and define the space for the performers and audience.”

The challenge that the directors embrace is maintaining successful and affecting sensibilities of the festival in a completely new context, taking advantage of unknown elements, and presenting a new layer of the festival.

Fringe began two decades ago in CFA classrooms at 855 Commonwealth, and has come full circle in this year of evolution. As a program, Fringe has been progressive in its themes and approach, and aims to highlight a repertoire that is contemporary, cutting edge, and relevant. In that sense, performing in a nontraditional space is seamless with Fringe Festival’s identity, melding the current and the classic in a fresh way for audience and artist alike to learn something new in dialogue.

Jim Petosa, Director of the School of Theatre, is ready to reach for the unknown. “We’re figuring out things in a new way. There’s a tendency to rely on how we used to do it, to mold our present into the past. We’re not doing that. Instead we’re saying, ‘Let’s start over. Let’s embrace this.’ And what we find is the unknown is so exciting. We’re enjoying this moment; we don’t exactly know how we’ll get there from here, but we welcome the journey, and that’s invigorating.”

This Fall in Fringe

Performed over the course of four weekends, the two plays and two operas chosen for the 2017 Fringe Festival reveal thematic connections that are both significant and timely. Much like the way the directors, actors, and musicians are engaged with the new performance space, this year’s repertoire selections are in dialogue with each other. Ultimately, that is a core mission of Fringe—to unite performers and audiences in unique theatrical settings and to begin conversations. When it comes to determining the repertoire, Managing Director of Opera Institute and Opera Programs Oshin Gregorian explains that the process is organic. “Every year we ask ‘who do we have?’ and ‘how can we best serve our population and community?’” This year in particular, the performance selections speak to themes that are undeniably linked and relevant to the wider cultural context. “In the Opera program at BU, we’re open to all types of stories. So many people think opera is relegated to old stories, but we pride ourselves on going for the full range of experience with the pieces we pick. We’ve tended to gravitate towards the more edgy and progressive material.”

Sweets by Kate, a dark comedic opera in two acts composed by Griffin Candey on a libretto and original story by Thom K. Miller, brings together themes of family, history, and acceptance when Elizabeth returns with her partner Kate to the small town that shunned her. Echoing themes of memory and identity, the next performance and first play of Fringe, Downtown tells a story exploring the intersections of race, nationality, and queerness. In it, Al’s debut novel about his unrequited affections for a man named Ben forces both to examine what brought them together and the circumstances that pulled them apart. Downtown is a BU New Play Initiative production conceived by current student Kyle Chua (CFA’19).

In the second half of Fringe Festival 2017, coming to Studio ONE is The War Reporter by Jonathan Berger on a libretto by Dan O’Brien, the true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning combat journalist Paul Watson as he seeks to stifle the haunting voice of an American soldier whose corpse he photographed in the streets of Mogadishu. In a parallel commentary on the damaging effects of war, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, the final selection of Fringe as translated by David Hare, is widely regarded as one of history’s most powerful anti-war plays.

In addition to the accessibility of Studio ONE’s location, Fringe’s artistic directors hope the content of the plays and operas, as well as the artists behind them, can be equally accessible to students. Operas Sweets by Kate and The War Reporter are the works of contemporary literary composers and librettists telling stories that are directly relevant to today’s conversations. “I believe young people care about these stories,” remarks Lumpkin. “It’s important to see these stories told in a formal setting, in opera, and in a language the audience understands.”

Watching an opera, according to Gregorian, is much more than simply absorbing entertainment. “Seeing the humanity right in front of you is so different than being inundated by news or absently scrolling through social media. It opens up engagement in an entirely new approach. And then it raises the stakes to participate in a new way.”

The space in which Fringe Festival is arranged and the experimental experiences it provides instills in students a sense of freedom and confidence. Fringe is built on a level of intimacy which opens the door for that freedom of exploration that translates to the larger stage experience. Bill Lumpkin is hopeful that the new space will carry on that intimacy. Through Fringe, he says, “we are uniting these areas of study in the direction of one common goal.”

Fringe Festival performances will be held at Studio ONE at the College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. See the calendar for more performance and ticketing information.

Fringe Festival performances will be held at Studio ONE at the College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston.

Sweets by Kate • October 6–8

Friday, Oct 6, 7:30pm (BU Visitor’s Day)
Saturday, Oct 7, 2pm and 7:30pm
Sunday, Oct 8, 2pm

BU New Play Initiative: Downtown

October 13-15 (Family & Friends Weekend)
Friday, Oct 13, 7:30pm (Talk-Back)
Saturday, Oct 14, 2pm and 7:30pm
Sunday, Oct 15, 2pm

The War Reporter • October 20–22

Friday, Oct 20, 7:30pm
Saturday, Oct 21, 2pm and 7:30pm
Sunday, Oct 22, 2pm

Mother Courage and her Children • October 27–29

Friday, Oct 27, 7:30pm (CFA Visitor Day and Talk-Back)
Saturday, Oct 28, 2pm and 7:30pm
Sunday, Oct 29, 2pm

Tickets are $7 General Admission and free with BU ID, at the door, day of performance, subject to availability. Ticketing Code: Fringe

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