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Feeding the Fringe 

Hotel Congress hosts a celebration of theater in unexpected and quirky forms

When Yassi Jahanmir and Sara Habib were 10-year-olds, becoming friends as they participated in the Tucson Girls Chorus, their idea of "fringe" probably included a decorative treatment for a piece of clothing.

They're all grown up now, and though they still are BFFs, their image of "fringe" has changed dramatically. They created the Tucson Fringe Theater Festival three years ago, and are organizing this year's version, which takes place this weekend at Hotel Congress.

"A few years ago," says Jahanmir, who is working on a doctorate in theater at the University of California, Santa Barbara, "we were taking in Downtown Saturday Night or some event like that, and we both were impressed at how lively downtown Tucson had become. And we thought, maybe Tucson was ripe for a fringe festival. We kept thinking about it and finally we just did it."

Fringe festivals, which have been springing up all over the country, offer artists who might not otherwise be able to handle the production costs or other issues an opportunity to showcase their creativity. And it gives theatergoers a chance to see some unique works they wouldn't see otherwise.

"It allows artists to take risks," Habib says. "And that's important for an artist, as well as to get an idea of what works and doesn't. The performers have a lot of freedom because they're not seeking a particular audience. It's a forum for experimentation. The pieces can range from avant garde to conventional. We don't have input into the content."

Another unusual feature of the fringe festival paradigm is that the pieces are not juried or censored. Calls go out for entries—there's a $15 entrance fee—and all of the pieces entered get a 60-minute performance slot. Period. No judgments about quality, suitability or value. If there are more pieces than slots, the organizers pull entries out of a hat and the lucky ones get a slot.

This year's festival includes eight performances over three days. That's different from how scheduling was done in the past, when some pieces were performed three times over the weekend. This year, each piece will be performed once—a "one and done" format.

"We'll see how this works," Jahanmir says. "Since we can be flexible, we can experiment to see what format works best for the artists and the community."

Another difference this year: The festival will be in one location, Hotel Congress. In other years, the performances were held at several locations throughout downtown. Habib and Jahanmir hope that having a central location will make it easier for both audiences and artists. And they both praise the folks at Hotel Congress for their support.

Financially, the Tucson Fringe Festival is a low-budget operation. Besides the $15 entrance fee, each of the artists pays a $50 participation fee, which helps offset upfront costs. Then, each artist receives proceeds from the ticket sales for their event. The festival also gets a few donations and it is seeking a nonprofit organization designation that will make it eligible for grants from various public agencies.

So what kind of performances can we look forward to this year?

Maryann Green is a first-timer at the festival. She's taught theater for 13 years at Rincon and University high schools. Her piece, called Twitterpated, is a one-act play that grew from a school project.

"Every other year we do a project which consists of a 60-minute show, which consists of 30 miniplays, each two minutes long. The piece that she wrote was "a huge crowd-pleaser," Green says, so she tossed around the idea of expanding it to a 60-minute play.

"It's a love story, and I think it hits really close to home,' Green says. The play is about two young people trying to navigate what should be an easy enough relationship, but because of the truncated communication nurtured by texting and tweeting, it's hard for them to communicate face to face. "It's almost impossible for them to complete a sentence," Green says. In fact, most of the dialogue is written in chunks of 140 characters.

Green is directing and some of her former students are handling the roles of the four characters in the play. And another former student has written three original songs for the show, which he will perform live.

Green says her piece may be one of the more conventional performances in the festival's offerings. Others, like Slideshow Fairy Tales: William (the Snowman) by Catfish Baruni, may be a bit quirkier.

Baruni, a lifelong Tucsonan whose nickname arose from being teased in high school about his mustache-growing limitations, chafes at trying to define himself as a writer or performer. He says he's always enjoyed writing skits, and has written for his own enjoyment short stories, essays and poetry—"really terrible poetry." But he tried his hand at a seven-minute play for Beowulf Alley's Out to Lunch program and he loved the experience of hearing people laugh at his words. Another short piece became The Starter House and was the biggest draw at last year's festival.

This year, his one-person show is "just meant to be entertaining, with some political humor and wonderful—by which I mean terrible—puns. I thought it might be entertaining to listen to a guy reading a story, but that guy would not be me. So I decided to add illustrations, created with help from Photoshop and clip art.

"The festival has given me an opportunity to try some things, boost my confidence that maybe more folks than just my friends could find what I do entertaining," Baruni says. "That maybe I could make this more than an annual thing."

Since last year's attendance was almost double that of the inaugural event, it appears that Tucson's fringe festival is on its way to becoming a welcomed annual event for folks seeking variety, originality and the unexpected.

More by Sherilyn Forrester

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