The Fringe Hit Experience (And Now What?): An Interview With Terry Brennan About 2011’s Heavy Metal Dance Fag
In every Philly Fringe a few shows capture the festival buzz, and take off in popularity, audiences, and critical attention. In the 2011 Philly Fringe, Heavy Metal Dance Fag by Tribe of Fools definitely caught that buzz, establishing itself as a festival hit that nearly all Fringe goers knew about. It became the default show to see if you were going to see a Fringe show, and got a long glowing review from The Philadelphia Inquirer and a parade of good press from just about every media outlet. We wanted to find out how being the center of Fringe attention felt, what Tribe of Fools did to make it happen, and how, and if, the company has been able to use their Fringe success as something more than a one-off. We caught up with Tribe of Fools cofounder, and Heavy Metal Dance Fag co-creator and performer, Terry Brennan.
Live Arts: Did all the pieces just kind of come together for Heavy Metal Dance Fag, or did the buzz and the attention take you by surprise?
Terry Brennan: I can’t really speak for the rest of the cast, but the buzz and attention took me by surprise. We were hoping for some good buzz and word of mouth, we were promoting the show everywhere we could, and we tried to get as many reviewers and media folks in as we could. But Tribe of Fools has been creating shows since 2003 and every year we hope that lots of people come to see our shows and while recently we’ve been getting larger audiences, there were many times in the past when we thought we had a knock-out only to discover that the show just wasn’t received as well as we’d hoped it would be. So, I was psychologically prepared for Heavy Metal Dance Fag to be received tepidly as well. After a bunch of good reviews the first weekend, the biggest being Howie Shapiro’s glowing review in the Inquirer, I was floored. I didn’t really know how to react.
LA: Were you prepared for the attention, and did it alter the show in anyway—either as a performer or a producer?
TB: Well, as a performer the only thing that really affected me was occasionally there would be people in the audience that I saw who intimidated me. During the show I have six sections of a eulogy for [the main character] Timmy’s father that I give. If I didn’t hit my light correctly, which was rare since it was a single spotlight, I could see people in the first row. One night I saw that Frank X was sitting in the front row and I almost went up on my lines. But usually I just tried to do the show, not think about the buzz or who might be in the audience, and if I did that it didn’t really affect the show too much.
As a producer, it altered a lot of stuff. Mostly ticket stuff and infrastructure stuff: boring stuff. But it really changed the way we deal with audience members because so many different types of people came to see our work. We usually just get Fringy young adults and a few older theater-goers who are looking for something weird and different. But Heavy Metal Dance Fag brought in everybody: young, old, theatre-types, non-theatre-types, LGBT, old-school South Philly—everybody.
LA: Can you talk about the evolution of the show? I know it started as a shorter piece.
TB: The original concept was a 10-minute play. Actually the first scene of the show was it. A South Philly guy (Timmy) in his room dancing gets caught by his best friend who thinks it’s weird and over the scene we discover that Timmy’s girlfriend recently dumped him for reasons we don’t know and there’s a lot of ambiguity about whether or not he’s gay. We purposefully crafted it to have a bunch of stereotypes worked into the piece so that you didn’t really know where we the creators were coming from. By the end of the piece you still don’t know if he’s gay but you do know that his buddy doesn’t agree with what he does and clearly refuses to accept it for homophobic reasons. We created it for the first SPARK Festival.
And back then it was a big hit. So we decided to expand it. We created a follow-up piece the next year for SPARK and then used Timmy as a cabaret character for a while over the years. When we were building Dracula for the 2010 Philly Fringe I told [Tribe of Fools cofounder] Jay Wojnarowski that I wanted to do a full length version of Heavy Metal Dance Fag for 2011 because the show is so physically demanding that if we wait 5 years I might not be able to pull it off anymore.
We had a lot of discussions with the cast during creation about the use of the word fag, how to address it, how not to overstate our message, and how to make sure that we weren’t just being sensational and loud with the word without having anything substantial to say. There were a few days that I went home from rehearsal with serious stomach problems because the discussions could be heavy, but I knew they were good for the show and that we were on the right path. But that still didn’t keep me from being nervous.
LA: It must have been a rush to have put together the show and perform in it and have it do so well. How did you feel after it was done?
TB: It was a big rush. A very big one. But, when we were done it was time to be over. I had a tour coming up hard on the heels of Heavy Metal Dance Fag and those rehearsals were about to begin—so that helped to phase me out of the process emotionally. And the show was pretty physically demanding so it was good to have a rest. And I wasn’t really sad or down when it ended. I just had a sort of tingle about how well it went. I even got recognized on the street a few times which was weird but also kind of cool.
LA: Have you been able to use all the attention that was generated during the Fringe to either carry over for more productions of the show, and for the company in general? What are the lasting benefits so far? Or challenges for that matter.
TB: The Annenberg Center will be presenting Heavy Metal Dance Fag this year in their By Local series in December. So we’re pumped. There is also the possibility for touring the production. But that brings up the challenges that came with the show. And that is that we’ve been noticed by a lot of different people in important places. While that is really exciting its also a bit scary because we’re a small organization and Heavy Metal Dance Fag has pushed us into a really great growth spurt and a lot of things we’re learning on the fly about producing theater. But if you have to have a problem, I think that’s a good one.
LA: What are working on now?