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Cover: The Unusual Suspects

Meet the lesser-knowns of the Iowa Fringe Festival

A week before the premier of the first-ever Iowa Fringe Festival, StageWest Executive Director Ron Ziegler was still finalizing equipment needs, filling out volunteer schedules and planning and implementing a kick-off party. The four-day theater and performance art event, which starts today and runs through Sunday, will take place at five venues and feature 20 performance groups showcasing 21 different shows. By the time Sunday evening rolls around, attendees will have had 83 chances to see a show. And though small by Fringe standards, Ziegler hopes to expand the event in future years should it go off as well as he hopes.

Soon, he'll find out if Des Moines is able to sustain such a typically bigger city event reserved for places like Minneapolis, Orlando and Cincinnati. What will he consider a successful event? "Breaking even in terms of finances," he says. "I hope that everyone is satisfied with how it runs. But we're going to make some mistakes. We know that. We'll just use those mistakes to make corrections for next year's event."

But with the help of a few grants, if there's a shortfall on ticket sales, Ziegler is optimistic that they "should" be able to cover it.

For anyone even close to being well-versed in the Des Moines theater scene, there will be some familiar names participating in the event: FLB Productions (responsible for many of the shows brought into the Vaudeville Mews), Theater ... For A Change and The Drama Workshop.

However, there will also be some new names, some unlikely suspects, if you will. And in lieu of this, we decided to provide you with an introduction for these talented up-and-comers.

Aggravated Assault Ensemble

Michael Sokoloff didn't choose theater, the stage chose him.
"Theater is a calling, like the priesthood," the amply tattooed Iowa City playwright explains. "I was drawn to it right away from an early age. It's like being queer; you just know it."

Of course, in Sokoloff's case the inherent drive was aided by his dramatic environment. Born in Keokuk, Sokoloff grew up in New York City where his parents kept him acquainted with Broadway, and where one of his pals at his private prep school just happened to be the son of the famous Ethel Mermen, allowing Sokoloff to hang out at the theater where "Gypsy" became an American classic.

But, while his New York City escapades were a worthy baptism, Sokoloff soon said to hell with traditional standards and, while the "prissy prep school kids were all trying to get into Princeton and Brown, [Sokoloff] rejected all that" and came back to Iowa to cash in on his home state's burgeoning arts reputation. However, once education had run its course, Sokoloff says he was never clever about plotting a career path.

First, there were years of professional dancing that took him to the highest realms of the New York City circuit, teaching him the value of a rigorous "physical vocabulary" that he believes is critical, not only for dancers, but actors, as well. From there, it was on to stunt fighting work and stints at acting conservatories around the country, teaching the finer points of fighting and tumbling. But after theatrical involvement in just about every big city from the Bay Area to the Big Apple, Sokoloff decided to come back to his home turf and harvest his own interests.

But even Sokoloff admits that his intense ideas and the Aggravated Assault Ensemble that sprung up to reap his often-disturbing, deep-seeded drama, are a lot to swallow for folks in the corn-fed Midwest.

"Well-received is not the way to describe it," Sokoloff says of his provocative plays, which often include hefty doses of violence, profanity and nudity. "The stuff is strong; there are ideas here, images here that are disturbing. It's always been important to me that people be engaged and agitated by what we do. People at 'Mustapha's Bride' [performed in Des Moines this year] later told me they didn't know what to think about the piece, but they realized they were still talking about it hours later. That's really it: 'It's not a matter of whether I liked it or didn't like it, but I'm stirred up and feel the need to talk about it.'"

The Corky St. Clair Players

These guys have no qualms calling each other fat, old and lazy.

Long-time friends who can banter with the best of them, Mark John Conley, Steve Berry and Andy Elliott grew up together on the stage of the Des Moines Playhouse. Over the years, the trio became local favorites of Central Iowa theatergoers and, so often linked on stage, Conley says when people ask about his "older brother," more often than not, they're talking about Elliott, who played that role in a show years ago.

When the curtain dropped on their childhoods, though, the stage brothers went their separate ways: Elliott now a radio program director, Berry the spokesman for Prairie Meadows and Conley a communications consultant at Wells Fargo. But last May, as the three reminisced about the drama days gone by over drinks at 801, the topic turned to reuniting for another show together. That cocktail-hour idea quickly turned into a community fund-raiser for the Des Moines Art Center and, in the fall of 2004, the friends found themselves back onstage in "Art," a Tony Award-winning comedy ideal for a small cast, simple set and a trio of old friends who have a solid history of gleefully maligning each other with razor-sharp humor.

Then, when the DMAC fund-raiser had cashed out, the Fringe Fest, with its emphasis on the uncensored and unusual, seemed like a natural second run.

"Well, we say 'fuck' a lot," Berry says. "Aside from that, we're contemplating doing one of the shows in the original French."

"Oui," Conley quips.

"I think we're fringe-y because we're not a formal company," Elliott adds. "We're just out there to have a good time. Each night, it's random. It can be anything."

"I like to think we're fringe-y, because we're akin to garage theater," Conley continues. "We want to do a show. Where we do it doesn't really matter. It's like Andy Hardy: 'Come on kids, let's put on a show in the barn and everyone will come to it.'"

But will these former child actors continue the newly formed troupe with future performances?

"God, I hope not," Elliot says facetiously. "But you know, these guys are getting up there in age, so if we're going to do another show we'll need to do it soon."

"Bite me, Fat Boy," Berry replies.

We'd wager that's a "yes."

Tramp Theatre Troupe

For Julie Joyce, "fringe" is more than a theme for a theater festival; it's a daily experience.

The Des Moines native and boisterous founder of the recently created Tramp Theatre Troupe fell in love with classical musicals while she studied English at Notre Dame, widened her horizons with independent theatre during nine years living in Chicago and landed a full-tuition scholarship to study in the masters program at Smith based on the merit of the first play she ever wrote.

But, Joyce's stay at Smith was short-lived. Suffering her first nervous breakdown, the "wannabe writer" came home to Des Moines and was soon diagnosed as manic-depressive. But that unexpected turn didn't thwart the constant flow of dramatic ideas. From the unique experiences of her varied work life - from liquor store clerk to legal assistant to crowd control at Wrigley Field - to the everyday encounters at her favorite coffee shop on the South Side, Joyce continues to see inspiration just about everywhere.

"The absurdity of life makes me write," she explains. "Through my writing I try to communicate thoughts I'm unable to convey in everyday conversation because of social conventions and time constraints. I tend to write plays that attempt to slyly change people's minds on subjects I care about."

That was certainly the case in her role as assistant head writer for "Voices," a play written by people with mental illnesses and performed for both the entertainment of the public and the education of state legislators this year. Or the debate about a certain sacrament that recurs throughout her current play, "Cup of Communication," which subtly takes on the intolerance of the religious establishment that has rejected her because she is gay.

And for a "cynical idealist" whose experiences tend to exceed the carefully manicured margins of mainstream society, Joyce defines the upcoming festival as an apt metaphor for life.

"Fringing is an act of faith," she says. "I fringe for fun. I fringe for freedom. I fringe for food."

Iowa State University and Ankeny High School drama departments

Robin Stone is pretty sure his parents were just faking it.

Growing up, Stone was fascinated with impressions, endlessly imitating comedians and celebrities for family members who pretended to be impressed with his living room performances. In fifth grade he got his big acting break as Santa Claus, but even then it was only because he was the only one who volunteered. But now, all grown up and directing the latest production of Iowa State University's Theatre Department, Stone has become the real deal and has an invitation to the world's largest independent theater festival to prove it.

Back after a riotously successful run last year, Stone and three ISU actors will bring their lightning-speed production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" first to the Iowa Fringe Festival this weekend and then, in August, they will head to Scotland to perform the satire at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest.

And the college kids won't be the only Iowans at the world-renowned festival that sold more than 1.2 million tickets last year. Performing their rendition of "All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten," the drama troupe from Ankeny High School will join their college counterparts in Edinburgh as one of only 35 high schools from the United States and the only from Iowa to participate in the 58th annual event.

And like the Shakespearian satirists who rehearsed in a theater without air conditioning, these high school kids will go to great lengths to raise the green necessary to get across the Atlantic in the name of drama. Earlier this year, AHS hosted a Ankeny Fringe Fear Factor fund-raiser that had students, teachers and community leaders alike munching on Haggis. Eating a sheep's internal organs for the love of the stage? Now that's the kind of commitment you just can't fake.

Ankeny Community Theatre

Just like the city of Ankeny, the Ankeny Community Theatre has grown exponentially over the years. Founded in 1981 by a small parish led by a Methodist minister, the group now includes members of the community, a board of directors and a number of actors, directors and stagehands who present three to five productions each year during its 10-month season.

"We've grown and we hope our participation at the Iowa Fringe Festival will introduce ourselves to more people," says Monica Green, president.

The non-profit group has been housed by a 100-seat theater located at 1932 S.W. 3rd St. for the past 12 years. In addition to producing adult theater productions, they also produce a children's theater show and sponsor children's theater summer camps. Green says the theater's work with children has been successful, both financially and creatively, and that the group hopes to expand its offerings.

"It's an effective outreach to the community," she says. "We're also raising future audiences."

For its participation in the Iowa Fringe Festival, the Ankeny theater group will present John Mann's "Karaoke Killer."

The interactive murder-mystery allows the audience to ask questions and vote. The winning audience member will receive a prize.

Green says the festival not only plays an important role in providing theatergoers another outlet for live performances, but it also helps boost Central Iowa's overall artistic community.

"It's really exciting," she says. "There's a lot of good things going on in Des Moines and this is another event a lot of people can enjoy."

I-You Theatre Company

The I-You Theatre Company's performance of Peter Parnell's "Scooter Thomas Makes it to the Top of the World" also marks the debut production from this newly formed troupe.
Inspired by Martin Buber's "I and Thou," the I-You Theatre Company was founded by Iowa City-based actor Kehry Anson Lane and actor-director Jaret Moreland, graduates of the University of Iowa's theater program. Lane, a former member of the Aggravated Assault Ensemble, says the duo formed the company to help them achieve their dreams of becoming professional actors.

"It's something we both want and we're best friends," Lane says. "So we decided to take a chance we could make it on our own."

The duo hopes to add Florida playwright Chad Simonds to the mix in the near future as well as recruit other members of the University of Iowa's theater program, but for now they're focused on producing meaningful community theater. The 28-year-old Lane says their first production, a "memory play" where estranged childhood friends Dennis and Scooter reconcile their relationship in dreams following Scooter's death, is a good start.

"It's a subject that's accessible to many people," he says. "It's a simple story that is personable and interactive."

Hurley & Dancers

Kathleen Hurley understands that sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate it. Like most young dancers, Hurley left Iowa to pursue a career in professional dance in New York. But after paying her dues for a few years in The Big Apple, she grew tired of the expensive lifestyle and returned to Des Moines in 2001 where she founded Hurley & Dancers, the city's only modern dance company.

"When you're young you think the East Coast is the place to be, and you do need to be in a community of artists to generate ideas," the 35-year-old artistic director says. "But the market is wide open here and I think Des Moines is hungry for cultural things."

Hurley says not only does Des Moines crave modern dance - a form of dance more abstract than traditional dance - but so, too, are cities throughout North America that have booked her company to perform. Hurley & Dancers have performed throughout the Midwest and in 2003 and 2004 they played Thunder Bay, Canada. Later this summer they will also play the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

In addition to Hurley, who teaches modern dance at Grinnell College, the group's core members include director-actress Patricia Choate, David Decker, Carla Hughes-Olson, Paula McArthur, William Schneider, Emily Finch, Ashley Miller and Claire Hruby. Hurley says their humorous and dramatic production of "Eat Drink Marry," an original work choreographed by Grinnell College professor Shawn Womack, for the Iowa Fringe Festival addresses same-sex marriages and unions through modern dance and text.

"It's a complex piece," she says. "Sometimes it's serious, sometimes it's fun and wacky. We started performing it six months ago and it's a nice, clean presentation."

Hurley says she appreciates the opportunity to participate in the Iowa Fringe Festival, adding it's another important event for the local artistic community.

"I'm thrilled to be a part of it," she says. "It's another cultural offering to present to the community and show people this can be an exciting place."

Mercati/Milligan Productions

When Cynthia Mercati works on a play she loves, she lives in that world with what she calls "an amazing intensity." She becomes the characters so completely that she is able to tell their stories with utter plasticity. Such is the case with "The Totally True Completely Fictional Story of the Mother of Jesse James" (produced and directed by Tom Milligan). We all know the story of America's most notorious outlaws, Jesse and Frank James, but it took a writer like Mercati to lay down the tale of a broad who was tougher than the two of them combined and truly ran the show: Zerelda James.

"I heard an interview about Zerelda about two years ago on public radio, and the woman has haunted me ever since," Mercati says. "She was gritty, passionate, strong, funny, mean, sexy, and had she lived today, she would be running a huge corporation or be a movie star or both."

Mercati, who dreams of a "nice, fat run" in the tough theater town of Chicago, says there are too few juicy parts for women, so picking up the ball and running with it regarding a play about Zerelda (who is played by Mary Bricker) wasn't a difficult decision to make. It's all about the character, and Mercati has written plenty of parts, but none quite like the James' boys' mama.

"I've made my living as a writer for years and years, but writing plays is my love... plays explode out of you," she says. "I want my work to take me right to the truth of life, as I see it, and make everyone else see it that way, too." Just make sure to duck when the bullets start flying.

zero-zero films

After working in the local commercial industry for a few years as freelancers, Cory Doss and Jaysene Overton realized they had all the resources to start doing projects of their own.

"With support from friends and family - both financial and emotional - we gathered the guts to blindly step into the world of narrative production," Doss says. It's a good thing they did.

And while film is not yet a full-time career, many would argue, and rightfully so, that the duo is ready to take zero-zero films to a professional level. With the award-winning short "On Account of Amber," zero-zero films has demonstrated it is one solid break away from being a self-sustaining production company. Its small, yet excellent library tells the story well.

"All three of these films were the result of an extreme time commitment from a wealth of local talent," says Doss of "Amber," "Crystal" and "Spring Cleaning" (all of which will be screened during Fringe). "We have a great mix of enthusiastic people who are looking for any opportunity to be part of a film project." And the result has been a trio of moody films, devoid of the "Hollywood" look.

"The world is full of shadows," says Doss. "Our goal is to ensure that contrast carries over to the screen." On with the show.

Central Iowa Repertory Theatre

The Central Iowa Repertory Theatre (CIRT) is an emerging company of theater artists who are dedicated to offering audiences quality theater ranging from established modern plays, classics from the past, and new work, including original plays by Iowans that will be developed and presented annually. And they want to go pro.

"Des Moines has a number of community theaters, but what Des Moines is missing is a professional repertory theater," says Joe Leonardi, who got his start in theater in his backyard doing Phyllis Diller impersonations. "Providing employment opportunities for talented local theater artists in Des Moines will enable our city to reduce the artistic brain drain."

And with the work done by groups like CIRT (which will perform George Bernard Shaw's classic comedy "OverRuled" and the gritty "Twyla's Boy"), we're on the right track. Leonardi says a more sustained talent base will benefit all the theater companies in Des Moines and complement the enhancement of "quality of place" of our city as a world-class metro. In short, CIRT will add one more reason for people to live, work, visit and spend their entertainment dollars here.

But it all goes back to opportunity. When asked about the cast, Leonardi says he realizes that in order to consistently produce outstanding theatrical productions with consistently across-the-board stellar casts, capable of garnering a reputation of excellence in the performing arts, we have to be able to attract and retain high-caliber talent. That means there has to be some professional opportunities for theater artists who live here, if we want to keep them here. Otherwise, they will keep leaving for other markets that do have ample professional opportunities.

"I've spoken with people involved with Des Moines' community theaters, and none of them are talking about going professional. Some of them don't think it can be done here," he says. "So, a group of us have started the Central Iowa Repertory Theatre to begin the process of bringing a professional repertory theatre to life in Des Moines. If a non-profit professional repertory theatre can be successful in Tama, The Old Creamery, if a small professional theater can be successful in Iowa City, Riverside Theatre, then certainly it can be done in Des Moines - the capital city." We couldn't agree more.

Tallgrass Theatre Company

Part of the mission of Tallgrass Theatre Company is to develop local talent within the theater community. Not only does that mean hiring Iowa actors for its roles, but it also means that, when possible, the company will perform plays written by Iowa playwrights. Such is the case with the Iowa Fringe Festival, where Tallgrass, one of Iowa's fledgling companies, will perform "Banter New Year" by local talent Shadley Grey.

"He is a local playwright who shares the same drive to enrich the Des Moines area culturally, and his enthusiasm for his work was contagious," says Jessie Philips, co-artistic director. "We felt 'Banter New Year' was the most appropriate of his works to perform at the Fringe Festival due to the cast and set requirements (making it simple to transport to several venues)."

This will mark only the company's second mainstage performance. Tallgrass began as the brainchild of two post-graduate students from the University of Northern Iowa. Having moved to Des Moines only to find themselves without a venue for their collective artistic vision, the two of them decided to form a company deeply rooted within the state. Incorporated and dubbed a non-profit in 2002, the company has since developed a board of directors, a group of donors and performed its first show, "Attention Deficit Drama," in October 2004.

"We are also working on side projects, including educational programs for both youth and adults," Philips says.

Tallgrass is working on expanding its talent pool and educational programs, as well as to solidify a season. Long-term goals include having its own performing space and to be able to compensate artistic and technical staff. What this means? You're going to hear a lot more from the Tallgrass Theatre Company in the near future. Stay tuned.

Robert Baca

It's amazing what a little bit of encouragement can do. Robert Baca was born with psychic gifts, but he suppressed those abilities because he was not encouraged to use them. However, after a life-threatening accident in May of 2000, he was no longer able to ignore the visions and messages from spirits close to people around him.

So, using Baca as a communicator to those in the physical world, these spirits pass messages on to the loved ones they've left behind. You've seen it before with world-renowned psychics John Edward, James Van Praagh and Silvia Brown. Like them, Baca conducts readings to deliver these messages from the other side.

Having made many television and public appearances, astounding both believers and skeptics, Baca has become one of the top psychic mediums in the Midwest.

"Continually, I am filled with gratitude to be able to help others to connect and communicate in this way," Baca says on his Web site, "The spiritual world has been, and continues to be, a great teacher for both others and myself. Being involved with this work keeps me connected to the Divine, and offers hope, validation and appreciation through this important communication to the spiritual realm."

Comedy XPeriment

Cinderella turning to Snoop Dogg for help with her gangsta style. Oprah Winfrey on trial for operating an illegitimate carnival game. Bruce Willis leaving Ben Affleck behind to blow up the asteroid. These are some of the warped improv comedy skits brought to the stage in the past by Comedy XPeriment. At the Iowa Fringe Festival, the troupe will perform more of these summer blockbuster movies with a twist.

Currently 13 members strong, the Comedy XPeriment has been together since April 0f 2003. The troupe performs around Des Moines, offering fun evenings filled with improvisanationalized skits and jokes.

"Our goal is to become an established attraction for Des Moines that any audience - regardless of age, creed or religion - can enjoy," says member Joe Van Haecke. "Our material is chosen for us by the audience. Our shows depend on the suggestions by the audience. We guarantee that no two shows are alike."

Which means, of course, that you can laugh at them multiple times at the Iowa Fringe Festival this weekend.

The Brink

The members of The Brink have never talked about doing improv comedy for a living. They've never even talked about making money at it. They've just always wanted to have an outlet for writing and performing while making enough money to be able to put on another show, says troupe member Shawn Wilson.

Six members strong (with a seventh alumni member returning to Des Moines from Chicago for shows in the Iowa Fringe Festival), The Brink has been reeling in the laughs since 2002. Wilson says the troupe is trying to provide Des Moines with big city-caliber sketch and improv comedy.

"We take a lot of risks, try a lot of formats and, most of all, have a lot of fun," Wilson says. "We have also tried very hard to give Des Moines some unique improv games that aren't played by most troupes. For instance, we are proud of the list of 'danger improv' games that we play like Mousetrap, Oxygen Deprivation and The Brink original game 'Bet Your Nuts.'"

The Brink's sketch material usually comes from its large brainstorming sessions or from individual writing. Though the comedy troupe performs quite a few shows throughout the year, at least 80 to 90 percent of them contain fresh material, Wilson says.

"Our biggest goal is to remain fresh and keep pushing out good quality entertainment that isn't going to break people's wallets," he says.

The Patsies

Dave Brooks assures us that The Patsies show at the Iowa Fringe Festival this weekend will only carry a PG-13 rating. Sometimes controversial and sometimes just plain edgy in its brand of adult humor, The Patsies have been writing, producing and performing original sketch comedy for the past year.

And many of that "tried and true" sketch comedy will appear in the troupe's fringe shows, though each performance will have a unique lineup so that audiences won't see the same show twice.

"We're really looking forward to seeing a lot of new faces in the audience during Fringe Fest," said Dave Brooks, co-founder of The Patsies, in a press release. "It's a great chance for people who've never seen us to check us out. We'll be a little light on some of our trademark mullet wigs, alien puppets and dance numbers. But you'll still get a healthy dose of what makes us The Patsies. We'll be doing everything from a psychotic psychic possessed by Harry Carey to the Crocodile Hunter trapped in the urban jungle."

The Patsies have performed throughout Des Moines to sold out crowds at the Stoner Studio Theater, and can currently be seen on stage as part of the "Tuesday Mewsday Madhouse" at the Vaudeville Mews, performing the fourth Tuesday of each month. They also air performances on Mediacom's public access channel on Thursdays at 6 p.m. and Saturdays at 8 p.m. CV

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