One of New York's biggest (and best) theatre festivals is back. The 16th Annual FRIGID Festival brings together artists from across the Indie Theatre Community, with plenty of fun, exciting, and uncensored shows to watch live or from home. Ahead of this year's festival, we spoke with just a few of the bold theatre-makers participating in FRIGID to find out where their shows came from and what makes them worth watching.
For Will Clegg, writer and performer of The Lonely Road, performing at FRIGID this year is especially exciting. Back in 2003, he lived just blocks from The Kraine Theater (where his show will now premiere), and it was in the same neighborhood that he picked up a 1964 book by Garry Winogrand that inspired a life-changing journey. In Clegg's own words:
"Garry Winogrand had taken a trip across the country in 1964 with a Guggenheim grant and made beautiful pictures in many places I had never been like Dallas, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City. But one picture of the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico had stuck in my mind. A classic car, a young family making a picnic on the pristine white dunes, and the perfect cobalt blue sky – I had to see that place for myself, so I modeled my trip after his and planned to take thousands of photos along the way."
But it wasn't until recently that Clegg decided to share his trip with a larger audience.
"I rediscovered my photos from the trip a few years ago while I was moving things out of a storage unit and found all of my negatives perfectly preserved. I thought it would be cool to someday go through them all again. Then I told a story at the Moth about visiting White Sands and people really connected to it that night. I thought maybe there were more compelling stories from that trip to explore, and before I knew it, I was writing the show and scanning hundreds of photos."
Now, Clegg is telling those stories in his solo show The Lonely Road, which features his own black and white photographs taken during the trip. But The Lonely Road is about much more than just photography and road-tripping. In Clegg's words:
"This show is as much about grieving as it is as about adventure and I’m excited to see who connects with it. It was both the most thrilling and also the most difficult time in my life, and I’m really fortunate to have not just a good memory of the events, but also so many well-preserved photographs to support the experience. I have always loved these pictures and this trip, even though it was sometimes hard to talk about. Sometimes you have just to wait for the wounds to heal and become scars before you can show the world."
The Lonely Road may be scripted, but not every FRIGID performance is. As You Will is a Shakespearean improv show created by Conor D. Mullen, David Brummer, and George Hider. According to Mullen, the idea stemmed from a college Shakespeare class. While studying the rigid poetic structure of sonnets, Mullen and his friend David Brummer--who were both into improv--decided to try and improvise a sonnet. According to Mullen: "We got good enough that if somebody gave us a suggestion, we could immediately conjure a sonnet without skipping a beat."
That summer, while performing with the Saratoga Shakespeare Company, Mullen, Brummer, and their friend George Hider started busking for tourists--which in this case meant making up sonnets and short Shakespearean style scenes.
Then, according to Mullen, a lightbulb went off:
"At some point, we all looked at each other and realized the three of us could improv an entire Shakespeare play. Before long we were getting gigs doing more structured shows, and having the time of our lives doing it."
The trio may have made a name for themselves doing Shakespearean improv, but as Mullen explains, it isn't always easy:
"The promise we make to the audience at the start of each show is that we will perform a Shakespeare play for them, and it will be a Shakespeare play that has never been seen before and will never be seen again. That promise comes with a lot of baggage that your average improv show doesn’t have."
Some of that baggage includes following a traditional story structure (beginning, middle, and end), pulling from the Shakespearean canon as opposed to the actors' collective experiences, and speaking in Elizabethan English.
But As You Will isn't completely in a world of its own. Like a lot of improv, the audience plays a big role in how the action unfolds, most notably by giving the title of the production. (Greatest hits include “A Midwinter’s Nightmare,” “The Tarantula of Italy,” and “The Tragedy of Bees," but don't forget “The Fresh Prince of Denmark” and “1601: A Space Odyssey.”)
That's not the only way the audience affects the show. According to Mullen:
"Beyond their role as enlisted-title-shouter, they also serve as guides for us as the show unfolds. You can bet if the audience has a strong reaction to a character or a place that we’re going to find a way to bring that back. We’re constantly following the fun, but specifically the fun of the audience. There was also one show where David had a member of the audience come on stage and stab him with a (pantomimed) spear, but I can’t guarantee that will happen every night."
Besides just being good plain fun, As You Will has sharpened Mullen's appreciation for the Bard himself. Speaking about scenes such as the famous "To be or not to be," in which a character is working through ideas and plans, Mullen says:
"I don’t think I really appreciated these scenes until I had to live them in As You Will. It’s like walking a tightrope but instead of a tightrope it’s Iambic Pentameter and instead of a platform on the other end it’s a plan to murder a close family member. It’s given me an appreciation for what the characters in these scenes must be feeling that I couldn’t have gotten if I’d done a thousand scripted plays."
But if As You Will has helped Mullen better understand Shakespeare, he wants everyone to know that an understanding of Shakespeare is not required to enjoy the show:
"If you feel like our show isn’t for you because you haven’t seen or read a lot of Shakespeare, you don’t have to worry. At its heart our show is about three people putting on a brand-new play by a very famous and very dead writer in forty-five minutes. It’s about the hilarity of seeing us do something that really ought to be impossible. It’s about seeing your idea for a play come to life, and being there for the first and last performance. I’m so excited to share it with you."
"Seeing" a play come to life will be a much different experience if you attend Melody Bates' A Play for Voices: staged entirely in the dark. First written for a 24-hour playwriting challenge in March 2020, Bates collaborated with Met co-stars Julia Cavagna and Gulshan Mia, neighbors Fumio Tashiro and Miho Morita (of Mirror Tea & Sake House), and husband David Bennett to bring the work to life for FRIGID.
An immersive mix of "sensory deprivation tanks, ASMR, vision trips, lyric poetry, birthday parties, Beethoven, and Tik Tok," A Play for Voices seeks to blur the line between imagination and reality, solitude and company.
"It plays on themes that are always present for me," Bates explains. "Balance and imbalance, darkness and light, longing for connection, love above and below and within and at the end of all things…and I didn’t ask too many questions of it. It’s voices in the dark."
She wants potential viewers to know that this experience is just as immersive and intimate whether you're sitting in a darkened theatre or watching at home with headphones (and lights out, preferably).
Inspired by myths and stories of between places, like the darkness in The Neverending Story or the wood between the worlds in The Magician's Nephew, Bates wants to create a place where "the rules of reality as we know them are suspended." She also draws parallels to absurdist works like Beckett's Not I, in which the only visible part of the actor is her mouth. Like those works, A Play for Voices makes an extreme choice: to present "a show that is more of a hearing--to be together in the dark, sharing space and time but connecting less with our eyes and more with our ears. Darkness can be the void, or it can be the cradle of all possibility...And I suppose it’s like the darkness of an empty theatre, too. It might hold nothing. It might hold everything we’ve ever imagined. It might be both at the same time."
Magic and cake are also a part of the show, but you'll have to experience A Play for Voices yourself to find out what other surprises are in store, and what the darkness holds for you.
The 2022 FRIGID Festival will run February 16 to March 5 at The Kraine Theater and UNDER St. Marks. All performances will also be available to livestream. For tickets and more info, see the link below: