Thursday, August 9, 2007


Stephen Hunt
Calgary Herald


The Calgary Fringe Festival starts Friday and runs until Aug. 19 at various venues downtown. Check to buy tickets.

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West End Winnipeg. Saturday. 9 a.m. Late July.

There are four cots lined side by side in the bare, concrete basement of a bungalow on Lipton Street in Winnipeg. This is where Obscene But Not Heard, the longtime Calgary-based sketch comedy troupe, has called home -- courtesy of local billets -- for the past 10 days, where they performed their show Jihad Me at Hello to Winnipeg Fringe Festival audiences of varying degrees of enthusiasm. If it resembles anything down here, it's that basement in Silence of the Lambs.

Nicole Zylstra drags a duffle bag out of the basement, ahead of fellow cast members Peter Strand Rumpel and Trevor Campbell, as well as their tour technician, Gina Marin. It's the end of the most recent leg of a road trip that started in June, when the group took Jihad Me at Hello to Montreal's Fringe and started a long, slow trek across the country that included Fringe festivals in Montreal (good parties, bad attendance), Toronto (lots of buzz, not such a hot sense of humour), Winnipeg (good money, steaming hot weather), and continues through the Calgary Fringe (starting tomorrow) and on to Vancouver.

"We're not used to being up at this hour," Zylstra says, a little solemnly. "There wasn't a night in Winnipeg that we got to bed before three in the morning."

Last night, the group performed not only their final show of the Fringe to a solid full house, but also performed some new material at a late night show in the living room of an apartment on Arthur Street -- a show that included complimentary shots of tequila and peppermint schnapps.

Today, we are driving from Winnipeg to Calgary in an air-conditioning-free minivan with 192,000 kilometres on the odometer. That's the bad news. The good news is, it's a much easier drive than the one the group made from Toronto to Winnipeg, which is about 22 hours of northern Ontario bleakness.

Welcome to the fringe festival circuit. It starts out in June, in Montreal (or mid-May, if you choose to travel to the Orlando, Florida Fringe Festival.)

For many theatre artists, the fringe circuit that has sprouted across Canada has become a kind of 21st century vaudeville circuit, the gen X equivalent to the carnival lifestyle.

From Montreal, they go on to Ottawa, Toronto, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and finally Vancouver, which ends late in September.

Some of the most popular fringe acts, such as British spoken word performer Jem Rolls, or TJ Dawe (star and author of Maxim and Cosmo and director of Local Celebrity, which is playing Calgary), can earn upwards of $35,000 over the summer fringe circuit, affording them a winter off to create a new show.

For others, who struggle to differentiate their shows from more than 100 that play many of these festivals, it's strictly a break-even proposition.

"Stars are everything at fringe festivals," says Zylstra, referring to the reviews every local paper runs. "A lot of people just photocopy the four and five star shows, and see them." (One Winnipeg paper gives Jihad Me at Hello four stars. Another gives them an A-plus, declaring them one of the Best of the Fest, both of which compensate for the Winnipeg Free Press's critic, who is less enthusiastic about the show).

10 A.M. Breakfast.

Peter Strand Rumpel used to come to this Perkins in west Winnipeg at four in the morning in the early '90s, when he worked a dinner theatre by the Winnipeg Airport called Celebrations, so it's a nostalgia trip in addition to the most important meal of the day.

Jihad Me at Hello is a collection of sketches and monologues created by the group, written mainly by founding member Tony Binns, and performed on this tour by Zylstra, Campbell and Rumpel. (Members Tammy Roberts and Tom Sarsons didn't do the 2007 fringe tour).

They push the envelope in their sketches. The show opens with Campbell playing Hitler, stuck in a waiting room in Hell, waiting for a meeting with Satan. There's another sketch featuring an inappropriate weatherman. There's Campbell doing Christopher Walken, reading from a book of sausage recipes, and Campbell again, as Leonard Cohen. The finale is something called the Circus of Pain, featuring Rumpel as the host, dressed in black leather who verbally abuses the audience as he introduces characters such as the Armless Juggler, a mentally challenged Elvis and a consumptive Clown, who coughs herself to death onstage.

They're a bit like that dinner party guest in the corner who always says the most outrageous thing he can think of to get a little attention -- although Obscene But Not Heard are the easygoing, western Canadian version of that dinner party guest. They're amiable even as they offend. During last year's Calgary Fringe, the show played at the Big Secret Theatre in Epcor Centre, which is near a Muslim prayer centre. Despite the walls being lined with posters advertising the show, the group didn't receive a single complaint.

When Rumpel tells the story, he almost sounds bummed out that no one was upset by the title.

According to Binns, playing the fringe circuit is a way to introduce the group to audiences out east in a way that's affordable: between being billeted in each city, collecting 100 per cent of the box-office receipts for all of their shows, and driving between cities, the group can almost manage to pay its way across the country.

"We're hoping to get our name out there, and as far as that goes, mission accomplished," Binns says, over the phone from Calgary, where he's getting married Aug. 25. "There's been a lot of reviews where people loved us, and a lot where people hated us. But people were talking and that's the important thing, so now when we go up to people and say, 'Obscene But Not Heard,' people go, 'Oh, coughing-up-blood-clown, retarded-Elvis. I know you guys.' "

Noon. Somewhere West of Brandon, Man.

It's 29 degrees outside and mid-summer clear. Campbell is driving and telling stories about life on the circuit.

The last Thursday of the Winnipeg Fringe, he found himself in the King's Head Pub at two in the morning, talking to an actor who plays a character called Dishpig in a one-man show called Dishpig.

Dishpig is about 25-years-old, brown-haired, a likeable, Matt Damon type of guy. Earlier in the night, upstairs at the pub, which had been transformed into a fringe festival venue holding about 130, Dishpig killed: another sellout house that loved Dishpig's tale of 20-something woe, about being a smart, funny guy trying to find meaning in a life dominated by a meaningless, brainless job. It was a big-bucks night for Dishpig, even after 10 or 11 earlier performances in Winnipeg.

Then, at 2:15 a.m. in a pub filled with wired fringe performers and fans, Dishpig was plastered.

"You know what I like about you?" he asked Campbell.

"What?" responded Campbell, who performs standup when not performing sketch comedy that pushes the boundaries of popular taste.

"You're so average-looking," Dishpig said. "Bald guys. Just average-looking people. I love that about you guys," Dishpig slurred. "You can do anything, and get away with it."

Campbell laughs at the story while, on the dashboard, an iPod plays an animated show called Strongbad. Road trip entertainment has come a long way.

It's easier to laugh at such moments when you're not flat broke. That doesn't always happen, but things are looking good for Obscene But Not Heard on this year's circuit.

"I don't think we expected big numbers at all out this way. They've (eastern audiences) never heard of Obscene But Not Heard. . . . For an absolutely unknown commodity, an unknown show to get labelled offensive that early, I think we did OK, actually. Hopefully we're returning to friendly stomping grounds, back home to Calgary.

"(The final show in Winnipeg) was actually pretty full. There seemed to be less hate in the room than usual. I think we only had a couple of arms folded, in disgust."

4 P.M. Boston Pizza. Regina.

It's 34 C outside. It's gorgeously chilly inside, where we sit at a banquette and gaze over at the Roughriders' paraphernalia hanging on the walls. After six hours in a hot minivan driving across the flat, barren prairies, Roughrider paraphernalia is practically erotic art.

"I've never been in a Boston Pizza," Zylstra says, gazing around at the generically decorated walls. "It's so popular. Why?"

6 P.M. Tim Hortons.

The old motel signs rising into the prairie sky look cool, like lost Vegas nightspots that got blown across the desert onto the prairies. You drive past each one of them and feel the tired eyes of everyone who ever drove across this stretch of blacktop, doing their best not to doze off at 110 kilometers per hour. We drive and listen to a podcast of Ricky Gervais of The Office.

For all the members of the troupe, the fringe circuit is far from a financial windfall. It's a crazy, unpredictable, economically dubious life.

Zylstra, who also toured a one-woman show on the fringe circuit in 2006, works on a casual basis at the Glenbow Museum when she's back in town, where she lives with her boyfriend Ben Rose, a popular busker on Stephen Avenue.

Rumpel has worked the festival crews for eight years now. He owns a home and has tenants who cover his mortgage.

"I remember being told, when I was in college, doing a summer fun tour, (I met) some children's festival performers," Rumpel says. "We got along really well, and we got chatting, and they told me, 'Ahh, you're a lifer.' I said 'What?' There are certain people who will do this their whole lives.

"You hate to be the cliche, but when you talk to students, one of the first things you say is, 'Is there anything you can do that will make you happy?' If there is, you should, because your chances of having what most people consider a fulfilling life doing this are pretty minimal. But if you're happy without all the material possessions, without the security, and are willing to put up with the roller coaster ride that it is, then it's fun. I'm not saying it's bad. It's just not for everybody."

10 P.M. Gas Station. Medicine Hat.

The neon lights of the gas station cast a weirdly surreal light across the parking lot and beyond, where cars zoom down the highway. We've been grinding it since 9 a.m. It's time to crack open a six pack and a bag of Old Dutch chips and watch some DVDs of old Monty Python and the Flying Circus (OBNH's comedy heroes) on the TV set in one of those sketchy Trans-Canada Highway motels -- at least it would be, except we still have 3 1/2 hours of driving to do.

All of which leads one to ask: why keep doing it?

For Binns, (who stayed behind in Calgary), there's a big difference between standup and sketch.

"In sketch comedy, the audience is more willing to go with you," he adds. "They're more patient. They're more willing to take flights of fancy and they don't need that laugh every 30 seconds, which is a big deal.

"They don't need that structure. They can actually follow a piece even as it gets weirder and weirder and weirder, even just for a payoff at the end."

1:30 A.M. Northwest Calgary

For Zylstra, it's something else. "It doesn't really pay off financially, when you're splitting it four ways," she says. "Even though we draw more than I did when I did the one-person show last summer, I made more then. But I also remember that there wasn't a day, last summer, when I was out on tour, that I didn't burst into tears.

"You do meet other performers and make friends, but it's nice just to have a gang," she adds as the van pulls up in front of tour technician Marin's house in the northwest part of town.

It's still hot out as the group says so long to Marin, who leaves the tour here. She's got another trip ahead of her, this time to Halifax, where she has a new gig as that theatre's assistant technical director. It's nice to see that fringing has paid off in a legitimate theatre job for someone.

For the others, this is just the end of another leg on their long trip. They'll be back on the road soon, collecting more anecdotes from their life on the fringe.

One More From the Road . . .

There's a bandstand in a Winnipeg park that musicians play during the fringe. Atop it, a dozen performers stand in a semicircle, guitars poised. They're mostly theatre people in their 20s, circuit people. They might have started out in Montreal with some notion that this was a training ground, which it may or may not prove to be. But, it turns out, the fringe circuit is just as much a way of life.

One through 12, the dozen deadly six-string guitar players and their bits and pieces of beards face off. It's not easy trying to think up a song that 12 guitar players can play.

Then, as if on cue, they break into a 12-part guitar symphony of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues.

Not everyone knows all the words, but everyone knows the line about shooting a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

"It's nice," Zylstra says, remembering why she asked her sketch guys to go on tour, "to have someone to have breakfast with."

© The Calgary Herald 2007

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