Tucson Fringe Festival Brings Uncensored Performance, Theater and Art to Hotel Congress

February 20, 2013

By Teya Vitu

Theater is not exactly an open community. Say you write a play and shop it around to local theater companies. Don’t count on a staging. Or say you want to act in a play.

“From my observation, from what I’ve seen, the Tucson theater scene is kind of cliquish. If you’re not in it, you can’t get in. I’m not in the clique. I haven’t tried to join,” said Catfish Baruni, a medical insurance claim processor by day and about to be a two-time participant in the Tucson Fringe Theater Festival.

Catfish Baruni is bringing slideshow storytelling involving a snowman to the Fringe Festival.

Catfish Baruni is bringing slideshow storytelling involving a snowman to the Fringe Festival.

The Fringe Festival is a different beast.

The 3rd Annual Tucson Fringe Theater Festival comes to Hotel Congress with eight shows on March 1, 2 and 3. The first night will have an after party at Club Congress at 9:30 p.m. following the first two shows.

“All the artists will be there, too, so you can talk to them,” said Yassi Jahanmir, who founded the Tucson Fringe Festival in 2011 with her friend Sara Habib.

Tucson Fringe, by definition, has no rules other than your presentation has to clock in under one hour. You get one hour to fill with whatever you want, be it several short pieces or one piece. You’ll get a mix of both concepts at this year’s Fringe.

“We really encourage the artists to take risks they would not take anywhere else,” Jahanmir said. “We are not judges. We take judgment out of the picture.”

The Tucson natives and lifelong friends founded the Tucson Fringe Theater Festival two years ago to provide artists affordable opportunities to craft original ideas and have a chance to stage them.

“No fancy sets. It’s all just about the work,” Jahanmir said. “The only expected is to expect the unexpected. We’ve been very impressed with the quality of performances. We never know going in.”

Fringe 2013 offers a play about a man’s last day alive (“Actualization: A Modern Apollo”); one of those meetings of contrasting characters on a TV reality show (“Flaming Rainbow Spiritual Healer”); a series of short scenes chronicling the relationship between two 20-somethings (“Twitterpated – A Love Story In 140 Characters Or Less”); a story reading about a snowman (“Slideshow Fairytales: William (The Snowman)”); a play set to live music and video sequences (“The Ship Is Sinking Normally”); three stories by three playwrights who weave words into lightning (“Storm Warnings”); A 1920s tale about Dorothy Park meeting Zora Neale Hurston on the Long Island Railroad (“Renoir Blue”); and a concert of the music of Country Music Hall of Famer Floyd Tillman (“Skip Heller Plays Floyd Tillman”).

Each one of these interpretations of theatrical endeavor will fill about one hour of your time. You can get one show for $7, two for $10, three for $15 and $5 for any additional show.

Skip Heller, whose credits range from The Flintstones, Dexter’s Laboratory, and The Bernie Mac Show to stints as a guitarist with Wanda Jackson, Yma Sumac, and NRBQ, is fascinated with Floyd Tillman, the Father of Honky Tonk, an early figure in the crossover between jazz, country, and pop, who was in his prime from the 1930s to 1950s but lived until 2003. Tillman songs were performed by artists ranging from Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills to Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Ray Charles and even the Supremes. Tillman influenced Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and many other country legends – and Skip Heller.

Skip Heller will play a concert of Floyd Tillman songs.

Skip Heller will play a concert of Floyd Tillman songs.

For Fringe, Heller has assembled a four-piece band (with himself on guitar and vocals).

“I will be playing his music the way he played it with his instrumentation,” Heller said. “I  spoke often with him while he was still alive. He told me things about the song, how he meant to to interpret them and that kind of thing.”

Heller plays and teaches in and around Los Angeles, where he makes his home, but spends about one week a month in Tucson. Has been visiting Tucson for 12 years and plans to move here in summer.

Fringe was the perfect outlet to enable Heller to share Tillman’s music with the public.

“Frankly, it’s not something you can just go into a bar and do,” Heller said. “There’s no place else where you can make this fit in. We’re going to make a record of these songs after the performance, and we’ll expand things a bit in the studio. What we play at Fringe will be the basis of the recording.”

Catfish Baruni returns to Fringe with “Slideshow Fairytales: William (The Snowman)” after staging his “The Starter House” at last year’s Fringe and not getting scared off by the experience.

“I don’t see myself as an actor,” Baruni said. “I saw myself as a behind the scenes guy. I was tricked into acting (in “The Starter House”). Maybe it’s not so bad being on stage. It was something about the immediacy of theater.”

That worked out well enough that this time he’s doing a one-man story reading with the assistance of a slide show.

“I’ve never done anything with just me on the stage,” Baruni said. “This is a huge experience.”

Baruni got to the Fringe via Beowulf Alley in early 2011.

“I’m part of this writer’s group,” Baruni said. “Beowulf sent out this invite to write for their Out to Lunch program. I’m not a playwright. Then the next day I said ‘I could do that.’ They were looking for 7-minute shorts.”

Baruni wrote a 7-minute piece for the February 2011 Out to Lunch and then a 12-minute piece for the Out to Lunch in March 2011. It was supposed to be one of three pieces for that month.

“They told me ‘if you make yours twice as long, yours will be the only one,’” Baruni said. “When I got serious into putting something into Fringe, I added another 20-25 minutes (and that became “The Starter House”).”

Precisely at the time he was writing this two short plays for Beowulf, the first Fringe Festival was getting staged. Baruni knew Jahanmir and donated money the first year and attended the shows.

“Tucson Fringe is an opportunity to force myself to put something together,” Baruni said.

Speaking of Beowulf Alley, Beowulf Alley’s artistic director, Michael Fenlason, is bringing a short play to Fringe, and Alison Torba, like Baruni, is back from last year’s Fringe Festival with a new show.

The Tucson Fringe Festival is an ever-changing event. Each of the three festivals has taken place at different venues, different weeks of the year and with different formats.

This is the first time the entire festival is at one location and also the first time that all shows will have only one performance – one and done, in the lingo.

“We changed venue and tightened it up a bit,” Jahanmir said. “Everybody said they wanted to do one-and-done.”

Well, that’s not exactly true. There were originally 14 applicants, but six fell away – including Catfish Baruni, who originally planned a “bizarre storytime” with three actors and “bunch of stories I was working on.” But he didn’t want to subject actors to rehearsals when the decision was made to have single performances.

So he quickly scrapped that idea and settled for his one-man slide show storytelling.

“The biggest thing with Fringe is it opened a door I could walk through and be in this completely different world than I am in during the day,” said Baruni, “I’d like to turn it into something bigger and more frequent than once a year.”


Tucson Fringe Theater Festival at Hotel Congress

Friday, March 1:

7 p.m. – “Slideshow  Fairytales: William (The Snowman)” by Catfish Baruni

8:30 p.m. – “The Ship is Sinking Normally” by Bryan Sanders

9:30pm – Opening Party


Saturday, March 2:

6:30 p.m. – “Storm Warnings” by Gavin Kayner and Michael Fenlason

8 p.m. – “Renoir Blue” by Joni Morris

9:30 p.m. – “Skip Heller Plays Floyd Tillman” by Skip Heller


Sunday, March 3:

1:30 p.m. – “Flaming  Rainbow Spiritual Healer” by Alison Torba and Elisabeth Black

3:00 p.m. – “Twitterpated:  a love story in 140 characters or less” by Maryann Green

4:30 p.m. – “Actualization: A Modern Apollo” by Taylor Rascher