Festival veteran David Lee rises to the challenge of making a dark reality into an Orlando Fringe show

By : Anna M. Johnson
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The lights went out at the Orlando Fringe Theatre Festival 2017 local teaser show. A hush dawned over the audience that filled the sold-out theatre.

Twelve groups had performed two-minute excerpts from their shows in the festival that starts May 16. The 13th performance started completely dark. A light went on from center stage, illuminating the face of a woman. She stood in the dark for a moment before beginning to speak.

“We don’t have space here for everything at the History Center,” actor Jenn Gannon said.

She continued on, performing a monologue about what it was like to memorialize the deadliest act of violence against LGBT people in United States history. Her monologue is an excerpt from a show in the theatre festival that honors the lives lost during the Pulse nightclub shooting and the community surrounding it.

Long-time Fringe participant David Lee’s new show, O-Town: Voices from Orlando, is premiering at the Orlando Fringe in May. The play is a collection of 18 monologues written by Lee and performed by six local actors and actresses.

Last year’s Fringe featured Lee’s one-man show Rocket Man and Kaleidoscope, which won the critics’ choice award for best solo drama. That festival also saw Lee given the Fringe’s lifetime achievement award.

Orlando Fringe, which has seen shifts in leadership over the past year with the exit of George Wallace in November and the ascent of Alauna Friskics following earlier this year. Friskics comes from the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden and has roots with Orlando Fringe dating back to 1999, when she was volunteer coordinator.

“I love Fringe because it fosters accessibility to a wide range of artistic experiences in a low-risk environment for the artist, producer and the audience. This is the perfect recipe for creativity to flourish,” Friskics said in a press release. “I am committed to using my nonprofit management experience to take Fringe to the next level,” she added.

It’s also a sometimes cultish theater arm-wrestling exercise. First there’s the lottery to see if your show will make the cut for the nearly two weeks of performances. Then there’s the social media bonfire of vanities attempting to make sure that tickets fly out of the box office, or printer, or wherever. It’s no small task, pulling a Fringe show together, but it’s generally a chaotic and rewarding one. It’s been Orlando’s theatrical mainstay for 26 years for a reason.

David Lee, a Fringe veteran, did not expect to know what show he was going to stage for 2017’s Fringe until at least a few months after 2016’s wrapped. He was planning to move back to New York City to start a new chapter of his life after the passing of his mother, who he had returned to Orlando to spend time with.

His plans changed on June 12, 2016.

Lee started writing in June and finished near the end of November. He thought of it as his way to cope and heal, not as a show he hoped to eventually direct. He is a homegrown Orlandoan. Before earning his degrees in acting and directing from the University of Miami and the Yale School of Drama, respectively, he was a student at Boone High School.

After graduating from college as an undergraduate, Lee came back home in 1990 to start his own theatre troupe named the Per4mants. In a 1994 review for the Orlando Sentinel, Elizabeth Maupin refers to the troupe as “Orlando’s longest-lasting proponents of what might be called alternative alternative theater.”

Lee’s current production company, Ant Farm Productions, has performed at the festival many times. He worked at Shakespeare Theatre and the University of Central Florida for nine years in between stints of living in New York City. He didn’t come home for his current stay until 2014.

O-Town is written in an alternative style. Lee’s show emulates verbatim theatre, works that take actual interviews, speeches or conversations and stage their transcriptions. Lee was inspired by verbatim playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith and her production of Notes from the Field that he saw in December.

“Her show really packed a wallop on me,” Lee says. “Her show made me feel even more empowered and inspired to present mine.”

The first monologue Lee wrote is presented by a character playing on the stage manager from Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town. He leads the audience through Orlando the day before the attack and introduces people who are about to become very influential in the next 24 hours and coming weeks.

“I wanted to write something about Orlando the day before the attack,” Lee says. “To kind of celebrate not only the town but the calm that was here before.”

Margaret Nolan of Kangagirl Productions coordinated the Orlando play submissions for the After Orlando Project, an “International Theatre Action” organized by two production companies in New York. Lee’s piece was included along with eight others by local playwrights.

The After Orlando Project has been performed all over the United States and in some international theatres. The producers of each individual show chose which pieces from the licensed anthology to include in their production. Many used Lee’s original O-Town monologue as part of their lineup.

Other monologues came from various community members. Among others, Lee adapted an interview with Pamela Schwartz from the Orange County Regional History Center; Barbara Poma’s speech to New York Pride less than two weeks after the shooting; news stories; and a post from Joe Jervis’ blog, Joe.My.God.

Once Lee decided that the show needed to be staged, he thought immediately of this year’s Fringe festival.

The process of applying for the Fringe Festival is lengthy. Prospective companies must apply by mid-November to have their name in a lottery drawing for venues and spots. The 2016 drawing (for the 2017 festival) happened in early December.

Another Fringe veteran, James Brendlinger is the theatre teacher at Lake Howell High School and is producing Dog Sees God for Teen Fringe. He also applied with his own show, which did not get drawn for a guaranteed spot for the first time this year.

“Your number comes up or it doesn’t,” Brendlinger says. “If anyone ever says to me that the lottery is rigged I say ‘No, definitely not.’”

Fringe may not be an easy contest, even with the cults of personality it has developed, but it’s certainly important. Even if it seems like everyone is rushing toward the beer tent to grab their sustenance just in time to rush to another show, even if it’s often a bit audacious, and smells of funnel cake on a carnival midway, a lot of blood sweat and tears go into making a show happen. And this year, at least for Lee, it had extra purpose.

“It’s so close to the one year anniversary and there’s absolutely nothing else that I’m working on that is more important,” Lee says.

With only an hour time slot, Lee made the decision to split the show up and alternate monologues every night. Nine will be performed in the “A” shows and the other nine will be performed in the “B” shows. The six actors in the show memorized three monologues each.

The cast of the show was solidified mid-March. Lee brought on assistant director Tara Kromer to take his place while he travels and help guide the actors through the process.

Lee cast people that he knew would be able to work independently. The first time the entire cast was together was for a photoshoot was in early April. At the end of month, some members of the cast were meeting with Kromer for only the second time, both at her home and her work.

Brendlinger says that his shows tend to rehearse for about six weeks prior to the festival, similarly to Lee’s. No shows get to work in the space until their tech rehearsal less than a week before Fringe begins.

O-Town’s tech rehearsal is on Sunday, May 14. After that, they are not allowed back in the venue until their first show the following Wednesday.

Lee is anything but worried. He trusts his actors and his assistant director immensely. He feels calmer about the coming festival than any other he’s ever participated in.

“Every year as an artist you’re concerned whether your show is going to be successful, whether it’s going to make any money or not, if anyone will like the show” Lee said. “For the first time for any of us at the Fringe, none of us are worried about any of that stuff. It just feels like a way to give back.”

The show is tangibly giving back, as well. All profits will be donated to The 49 Fund, an Orlando-based scholarship fund specifically for LGBT youth.

The show is set to continue giving back to Orlando’s LGBT community even after its Fringe run.

Twelve more actors will be joining the production after Fringe with the help of Kromer and local director Beth Marshall for a one-night performance of the whole show. All 18 monologues in their entirety will be performed on June 11, 2017, in the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Margeson theater. The six Fringe actors in the cast will be directed by Lee while Kromer and Marshall will choose six additional actors each to join the show.

All proceeds from that performance will benefit the OnePulse Foundation.

The original O-Town monologue will also be featured in “Orlando Love: Remembering Our Angels,” an event founded by City of Orlando District 4 Commissioner Patty Sheehan. Lee sent the monologue to Karen Brown, the producer of the event, and his friend, who immediately saw the need to include it.

“I began to read as if it was in David’s own voice and cried,” Brown said in an email. “In the middle of my ugly crying, I picked up the phone and called David. I said, ‘If Commissioner Sheehan agrees, it is in.’”

She and the event’s director, Douglas White, more than agreed. The monologue will open the ceremony, which takes place at the Lake Eola Amphitheater on the one-year anniversary of the shooting.

O-Town does not originate from any kind of selfish intent. Lee wrote the show first to help himself cope and then continued to tell the stories of the people involved in a tragedy and the town that grew together after it.

“All of these stories were coming out and all of these people were doing things,” Lee says. “I thought, ‘Maybe this could be my contribution, to record some of this stuff.’”

His contribution went through a long process to get where it is today and still has a bit to go before its presentation on stage. Lee, the cast and the crew of this production have woven pieces of history together to play their own parts in telling a new history of Orlando – one that empowers its artists and its citizens to create and to remember, all together, part of O-town.

That’s what Fringe is for, after all.

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