The Feminist’s Guide to the Hollywood Fringe

It’s summer, which means elite theater professionals all over America are headed to the country for summer stock. If you can’t make it up into the mountains this summer (or if you can’t afford the expensive tickets to these high-society productions), fear not: Our cities are full of all variety of underground artists hawking their wares at Fringe Festivals.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which began in 1947 when uninvited artists showed up and performed on the fringe of the Edinburgh International Festival, is the crème de la crème of fringes, but today almost every major city in this country holds their own Fringe: New York, Cincinnati, New Orleans and Los Angeles are just a few. Even the Berkshires—the nucleus of America’s summer stock culture—hosts a Fringe Festival.

Discounted rental rates and collective marketing opportunities attract so many artists to Fringes that sorting through the list of hundreds of shows can be rather overwhelming. I can at least help you out with the affordable, eclectic, feminist-friendly offerings at this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival—here are my top picks:

Gracie and Rose, written and performed by Anastasia Coon, June 16-29

Set in Wyoming in the late 1950s, Gracie and Rose tells the story of two lesbians: Gracie, who passes as a man in order to do the work she loves (cattle rustling and farm work), and her wife, Rose. Gracie, or George in public, does not want to be a man; in fact, at home she lives as Gracie, and as a character one of her driving concerns is reclaiming the girl she was before society and her parents made clear that her desires were “wrong.” But when Rose has a child, Gracie becomes George—and Eula May’s father—full time.

Playwright and performer Coon, who performs all of the roles, told Ms. that she has always been fascinated that strangers, primed to see any couple as male/female, tend to refer to her butch girlfriends as “sir.” The play—a movement piece in which Coon uses her body and voice to travel through time and place as well as between characters—also grew out of her admiration for women throughout history who have had to pass as men in order to follow their hearts. Asked why she stopped short of writing a play about a woman who actually thinks of herself as a man, Coon offered:

The dominant paradigm has the opportunity to tell lots of different stories, but since there’s so few queer stories, there’s a lot of pressure to make each one represent every queer person, and I understand that. That’s just not my experience. This piece unpacks pre-Stonewall queer history in the American West, the deep human longing to live authentically despite being rendered invisible, gender performance in a butch/femme tradition, the body as landscape for desire, and the violence and redemption of breaking and making family.

Take Me to the Poorhouse, written and performed by Liz Femi, June 8-28

Liz Femi’s Take Me to the Poorhouse draws on her childhood in Nigeria to tell the funny and touching story of a young, middle-class girl named Lizzie who yearns to be poor just like her friends—for the poor, she says, have:

rugged spirits. The best Your Mama jokes. They sit in circles and telling tales by moonlight. Triumphant stories about rising from the streets to the throne. Heart aching blues. … It’s a Cinderella world … If you’re lucky enough to be persecuted by a stepmother.

The play grew out of a graduate school assignment to make an autobiographical 10-minute solo piece. Femi chose to use a dream she had as a girl about a boy in her class at school. She developed the story and characters further in writing workshops and eventually realized she was writing a comedy about an adventurous, ambitious, outspoken little girl who, it turns out, is a little more attached to her middle-class life than she knows.

Femi says her play is part of a larger effort to depict African children as having a sense of humor, having crushes on one another, and enjoying television instead of exclusively as starving child soldiers:

The thing is kids do the same freaking stuff everywhere! They tell the same kind of lies, and they have the same insecurities, they imagine things and have crushes on one another. That other reality is true and deserves attention, but I just want people to have a curiosity about this reality, too.

Poorhouse will donate 10 percent of its ticket sales to Mama Hope, a nonprofit that aims to “stop the pity and unlock the potential” in African communities.

Define: Dif-fer-ent, written and performed by Keaton Talmadge, June 8-27

Buster Keaton‘s great-granddaughter delivers her share of comedy in her one-woman show, Define: Dif-fer-ent, about her experience falling in love with a woman for the first time. Talmadge both narrates and reenacts her journey, from the terror of realizing she may never have really known herself to an embrace of all of the possibilities now before her.

Talmadge definitely inherited her great-grandfather’s penchant for physical comedy as well as her father’s love of musical theater. She sings, dances and trips over herself with abandon in this show. Even in real life, she says her favorite party trick has always been falling down the stairs. Asked how her DNA and extensive physical training come to bear on this show, she says:

It’s easy to be yourself, you know what that body is, and you [the actor] know how to embody another character for a whole play, but in a one-woman show you get to do that with both characters. You’ve got to figure out how you go from one character to the next, and as long as you keep the crispness, it’s very easy for the audience to see all of the people. The thing that has always made sense to me is that you have to build the character from the feet up.

Part poetry, part pop culture, this ode to falling in love finds a way to celebrate heartbreak as much as romance. Though the very personal story stays mostly away from politics, a gentle reminder at the end that marriage should be a question of love and not of laws will help the audience take the compassion they have developed for their protagonist out of the theater and into the world.

For a list of more shows by women at the Hollywood Fringe, check out the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative Fringe page.


Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.