Staging Their Shows on the Fly

A gay, surrealist playwright based in Los Angeles named John Sinner dreams of bringing his kabuki-meets-vaudeville inspired plays to the big-time.



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A gay, surrealist playwright based in Los Angeles named John Sinner dreams of bringing his kabuki-meets-vaudeville inspired plays to the big-time. But he's got multiple sclerosis, so what would be a challenge for any struggling theatrical artist can be doubly daunting. His partner of 16 years, James, resisting any urge to bolt, has been supportive so far. But when Sinner's work is accepted at a prestigious theater festival in New York City, can they pull it off?

If you think this is the plot summary of one of the 202 plays on offer from the 12th Annual New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC), you'd be mistaken. It's actually just one of the dramas behind the dramas that make this quirky festival so irresistible.

Surprising, boundary-busting entertainment? Absolutely, that's what we love about the Fringe. But the 17-day event, produced by The Present Company and billed as the largest performance fest in North America, is also about hungry artists, against punishing odds, creating magic from mayhem, sharing pieces of their souls. And that passion comes through on stage.

“These participants continue to amaze me, even after 12 years,” enthused Elena K. Holy, co-founder and producing artistic director of Fringe NYC. “This year, we are seeing very thoughtful, funny explorations on a deeper personal level than ever before.”

Holy holds nothing but admiration for John Sinner, who is staging a diptych of edgy performance pieces titled “2 by Sinner” (Aug. 8 at 5 p.m.; Aug. 12 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 10 p.m.; Aug. 19 at 3 p.m.; Aug. 23 at 5 p.m. at The Connelly Theatre, 220 E. Fourth St., btwn. Aves. A and B).

“He happens to be an extraordinarily inventive performance artist stuck in Los Angeles,” joked Holy. “I don't mean to bash LA, but he has no real community out there. I was so thrilled to get his application and invite him to New York. [He creates] such stunning images onstage.”

For his part, Sinner is more ecstatic than nervous about his New York debut. As it turns out, his medical condition is the least of his worries.

“I've been doing quite well with MS,” he explained. “I sometimes feel fatigued, and I am heat-sensitive, so New York in August is not ideal. But I've chosen to take care of myself and embrace life. It's just another little monkey wrench.”

Sinner is more concerned with the prickly logistics of bringing his show cross-country, like booking flights and shipping props and costumes and finding a cheap place to stay (in a stroke of luck, he scored a sublet one block from the theater in the East Village). When one of his actors bowed out due to a schedule conflict, Sinner decided to tackle the role himself, on top of his directing duties. And, of course, he had to hire a New York based publicist, who insisted he create a MySpace page.

“Normally, I'm the Cecil B. De Mille of avant-garde theater, with elaborate multimedia sets and a cast of thousands,” deadpanned Sinner. “But at the Fringe, the work is stripped to the bare essentials. It's been a challenge for me as an artist to work within such limitations.”

While impressed with the high degree of organization at FringeNYC, he is overwhelmed by the rules – like having only 15 minutes for loading before and after each performance. And that all set pieces – including wigs – must be fireproof.

“We don't even have a flame as part of the show,” he said. “I guess they're worried a bulb might explode.”

Holy admits that Fringe artists face incredible demands, compared to commercial theater.

“We're lucky to use the Off Broadway spaces, but participants still have to rent all the lighting and sound equipment and load it in and out. It's physical work. We have people who are working for tips at bars and restaurants who must pay out of their own pockets. I tell them, now's the time to call in every favor possible. It bonds us as a community, because what we do is hard.”

As Holy sees it, perhaps no one embraces the concept of “putting yourself out there” more fully than transgendered butch Kestryl Cael Lowrey, whose show, titled “XY(T),” explores gender, self, and sanity (Aug. 9 at 5:30 p.m.; Aug. 10 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 13 at 5:15 p.m.; Aug. 15 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 2:15 p.m.; Aug. 18 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 22 at 3:30 p.m. at the Player's Loft, 115 MacDougal St. btwn. West Third St. and Minetta Ln.).

“Kestryl is an extraordinarily brave, sweet-natured human being,” she said. “His show is his transition, deciding he was male. It's so raw and personal and beautiful from an artistic standpoint.”

Another compelling behind-the-scenes story is that of Leah Ryan, who wrote the semi-autobiographical comedy “Raised by Lesbians.” Sadly, the 44-year old playwright succumbed to leukemia in June, and, understandably, the production could have been canceled. But her troupe decided to go on with the show, fueled by her memory (Aug. 9 at 11 p.m.; Aug. 11 at 4:45 p.m.; Aug. 15 at 7:45 p.m.; Aug. 19 at 5 p.m.; Aug. 21 at 10 p.m. at Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St. at Seventh Ave. So.).

Ron Lasko, longtime promoter of FringeNYC, has seen many an act of sacrifice. Lasko described a recent incident where one cash-strapped creator balked at the relatively modest cost of producing a glossy postcard, a crucial marketing tool for any Fringe show. “She confessed she had to choose between paying her rent or paying for the card,” he explained. “She opted for the card.”

Naturally, Fringe participants are taking to the blogs to vent their tribulations. In a recent post in, Halley Bondy says she's thrilled that her show, “The Redheaded Man,” was accepted by “the beautiful clusterf*ck that is the Fringe,” comparing the festival to “a rock 'n roll fantasy, minus the music, drugs, and fan base” (Aug. 13 at 5:30 p.m.; Aug. 16 at 9:15 p.m.; Aug. 17 at 4:30 p.m.; Aug. 20 at 10 p.m.; Aug. 24 at noon; Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St. at Seventh Ave. So.).

But she warns, “He who acts in the Fringe must double as custodian, accountant, advertiser, press agent, flyer-giver, holder of things, transplanter of things across long distances, Internetter, resident sell-out, and toilet paper refiller.”

The unique Fringe spirit cannot be taught, but it can be nurtured. According to Holy, FringeNYC holds training sessions for participants to ensure they are there for art's sake and have realistic expectations. Troupes that wish to use the festival solely as a springboard to fame are discouraged. “I'm determined to keep it scrappy and downtown despite our growing numbers,” she said.

When plays do end up with a life beyond the festival, many times the Fringiness has been leached out in a flashier production – but not always. Holy cites two soul-baring shows currently running Off Broadway which managed to stay true to their Fringe roots — “Bash'd,” the gay rap opera, and “Perfect Harmony,” about a high-school a cappella group.

“I found the gritty charm of 'Bash'd' to be really moving,” Holy said. “And I'm a straight chick.”