Edinburgh Bound: Chris Davis on Returning to the Mother Fringe
Chris Davis knows his Fringe Festivals.
The writer-performer is a stalwart of the annual Fringe Festival in Philadelphia, with his imaginative one-man shows (One Man Apocalypse Now, 2016) and modern adaptations of classic literature (Anna K, 2014) proving among the Festivals’ most popular and talked-about productions. But the locally based artist has also travelled his comedic solo shows to festivals across the United States and beyond, from Texas to Maine, from Pittsburgh to Edinburgh.
Davis returns to this year’s Philadelphia Festival with The Presented, a world premiere play about what it means to be a “chosen” artist in the theater world. First, though, he’s off to the Mother Fringe, the Edinburgh Fringe (August 3-27), with his bilingual semi-autobiographical travelog Drunk Lion. Chris gave FringeArts the low-down on performing at the world-famous festival.
FringeArts: When did you go to your first Edinburgh Fringe?
Chris Davis: I first attended Edinburgh Fringe in 2014. When I went there I knew almost nothing about the festival or its importance, only that it was very big. The idea came when Brad Wrenn of the Berserker Residents said something like “hey you do solo shows you should take your show and do the Free Fringe festival there this year.” Neither Brad nor I had attended the fringe before, but I decided to take his advice and go. I still miss that first year because I had no expectations about anything and there was a certain freedom in that.
FringeArts: What surprised you most about the festival?
Chris Davis: The quality of the artists that participate. It still surprises me. In every show I see here I find something to love about it, and that’s a rare quality. Also the number of people who attend these shows is phenomenal. It never seems that theater is cool except to small niche audiences in the States; in Edinburgh it feels like everyone, from all walks of life, is excited to engage in live art happening around them. I love it.
FringeArts: Do you get the chance to see many shows while you’re there?
Chris Davis: I see at least 20 shows in the Edinburgh Fringe when I am there, often more. Any time I am not doing my show or flyering, I’m seeing a show.
FringeArts: How has it influenced your work?
Chris Davis: I’ve performed six shows in the Edinburgh Fringe in four years. Each show was performed around 25 times, so that’s 150 performances. Simply that experience of showing up, marketing a show, flyering for hours, performing the work, and then doing it again, is an invaluable life experience for any self-producing theater artist. It’s experience and you go through a lot in Edinburgh. I don’t think anyone comes out of that festival exactly the same, and their work definitely changes and grows with each performance.
Edinburgh gave me the confidence to produce my work in other places, and to believe that when I have a room of five, ten, fifteen, or fifty, I can and must entertain them by drawing them into the story within the first five minutes and keeping them invested in the work, or maybe they’ll leave. That’s what’s great about Edinburgh, especially in fringe shows, people will stand up and walk out when they don’t like the show. That’s hard for any performer to deal with, but it makes you work even harder, which in the end is often a good thing. Also, if you can survive the Edinburgh Fringe, you can really do any other fringe anywhere and it’ll be way less daunting.
FringeArts: You’ve performed in a bunch of other Fringe Festivals. Can you share some memorable experiences?
Chris Davis: I’ve performed at PortFringe in Portland, Maine, for two years. One time a man took out a stuffed monkey, yes, during my show One-Man Apocalypse Now, and petted it for like 30 minutes. It was weird, it was Portland, it was fun.
At Ithaca Fringe, performing a show in a movie theater with the screen behind me. Staying in a communal house with a guy who had named himself “Seventh Moon.” He’d often sit in the backyard and stare up into the sky, our joke was that he was looking for the eighth moon. I never told him that one though, he was a very serious guy.
At Charm City Fringe in Baltimore, Maryland, I performed in an old church two days after Trump won the election. That was hard.
I did New Orleans Fringe three times. Unfortunately it collapsed, but my first year was in this place called the Red House, and in the backyard of the house was a huge, insane treehouse that stretched over five to six trees, including a gondola hanging from the tree top. After my shows I’d take my audience through this treehouse (don’t recommend this) for fun. Everyone made it out alive fortunately.
Those are a few, but there are so many more strange experiences. From Pittsburgh Fringe to D.C. Fringe to Philly Fringe, I’ve been fortunate to participate in a lot of great festivals. This year I add one new one to my list, Scranton Fringe.
FringeArts: What about the Edinburgh Fringe or other Fringe festivals would you like to see at the Philadelphia festival?
Chris Davis: I want a hub. A place where everyone goes to meet artists and talk. A place where visiting artists can do workshops. Press can do workshops. A place to encourage everyone to see each others shows and not just worry about their own show. I’d love a part of the fringe to be in a small contained area (like Old City) so people could flyer on the streets, and hopefully we could draw in people that have never heard of the Philadelphia Fringe before. Each year I tell people about the fringe and half of the responses I get are “I’ve never heard of that before.” It’d be great if everyone in Philadelphia knew about the festival, or at least it could achieve a higher profile. I think just getting out there and talking to people would be a great first step.
FringeArts: What advice would you give a Philly artist interested in taking work to Edinburgh?
Chris Davis: You will have the best day of your performing life, and the worst day of your performing life, and they’ll be right next to each other, like a Monday and a Tuesday. Edinburgh Fringe is a rollercoaster and all the performers experience extreme highs and lows. Learning to navigate that, and ultimately trust yourself, and your work, is the most rewarding thing you can do for yourself.
FringeArts: What can Philly audiences expect from you this September?
Chris Davis: I am working on a new solo show, The Presented. It examines what it means to be a “chosen” artist in the world today. And I am reunited with my longtime collaborator Mary Tuomanen as director. I’m very excited, I’ve been working on the show on and off for about a year now.
What: Drunk Lion
When: August 2–26, 2018
Where: Laughing Horse @ The Newsroom, Edinburgh, UK
Created and performed by Chris Davis
What: The Presented
When: September 8 + 9, 15 + 16, 19 – 22 + 24, 2018
Where: Panorama Philly
Created and performed by Chris Davis
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