Q&A with Fringe performers James & Jamesy

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What you see on the stage is only part of the story. The story of Fringe is one that’s logged over thousands of miles, countless performances, and numerous relationships. The Beat spoke with two London Fringe veterans, Aaron “James” Malkin and Alastair “Jamesy” Knowles, who are best known as the Vancouver-based comedic duo James and Jamesy to get a behind-the-scenes look at what separates Fringe theatre from the pack.

The London Fringe Festival runs from May 31st through June 11th. James & Jamesy will be reprising their show 2 for Tea at the Palace Theatre. Knowles will also be performing in Bushel and Peck, also at The Palace.

The Beat’s Jay Ménard spoke with Knowles and Malkin during the latter’s tour at the Orlando Fringe.

Beat: We’ll have to figure out a way to differentiate the two of you, as your voices sound a bit alike over the phone.

Malkin: “I’m the tall one.”

Beat: Why Fringe? It can’t be an easy experience putting together a show and a tour.

Knowles: “There’s a range of experiences that go into putting on a show. Some of them fall into place and are lovely and fun and delightful and are wonderfully rewarding. And that’s a small but significant part. There’s a huge amount of work that goes into the managing and organizing tours – the logistical element of showbiz.

“What I find unique about Fringe is that everyone who participates in Fringe is their own theatre company. So gone are the days of one producer in town who auditions people and actors strive to get a role in the major show. Fringe has opened up this opportunity for performers of all ranges of experience to have an opportunity to present their work to a growing number of audiences, particularly in Canada.”

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Beat: Why does Canada seem to embrace Fringe so strongly?

Malkin: “I think a big part of why it’s so embraced in Canada by artists, and why the Canadian Fringe circuit is embraced by international artists, is because of how they are organized. The Fringes do a lot of work to get sponsorships, grants, such that the money required to put on the festival is largely covered by secondary sources and all of the revenue from ticket sales can actually go to the artist.

“Because that is the case in almost all Canadian Fringes and some American Fringes, those are Fringe Festivals that have the best chance of sustaining artists.”

Knowles: “And sustaining our interest.”

Malkin: “There’s a relatively low initial cost. The Fringe Festivals have a fee that you need to pay as an artist, but it’s nothing like what you would have to pay if you were to go to Adelaide or Edinburgh, which are the two largest Fringe Festivals, where you pay a huge portion of your revenue to the venue, or you need to actually rent the venue outright and pay exorbitant fees for publicity just to be noticed.

Beat: Is it feasible to sustain yourself on a Fringe schedule or do you have to get to a certain stature? Your shows are well known, well regarded, and well anticipated. But for newer artists, is it a little more daunting? Can it be done?

Knowles: “It is daunting. If your goal is to earn all your income that you need for the year from a single Fringe Festival, well, that’s likely not going to happen. But, you’re much more likely to generate a profit from doing a Fringe Festival than if you produce yourself outside of the Fringe context. Before we started doing Fringes, we would rent theatres and perform. We would do all of our marketing, we would try to get reviewers out, we would try to get audiences out. And in the very first production we did, we pulled in just under $5,000 in revenue and we spent just over $5,000 in revenue such that the company lost $12.

“In the Fringe Festival, the cost to put on the show is maybe a $1,000 and you get six or seven shows out of it. And you’re nearly guaranteed to get a review and at least some audience members.

“Does that include transportation and housing costs?”

Knowles: “No, that would be the venue fee and some marketing/publicity costs.”

Beat: There seems to be a much different form of marketing at Fringe than it may be in more traditional forms of theatre or arts and entertainment. Is it more rewarding? It has to be exhausting.

Malkin: “I would say that the most likely person to come to your show is likely someone who is already going to Fringe shows. And because, to varying degrees, the Fringe Festivals are centralized – there may be many venues in proximity – you can anticipate where you’re going to find people who are going to be attending other shows: lineups. So those lineups are a great opportunity for you to convince people that there may also be something else they may want to see.

Knowles: “A friend once described to me why he was so attracted to this woman. And the reason was that every time he spent with her, she would leave before he had had his fill. She left and he would always want more. So we try to approach our marketing that way. We’re introducing ourselves to these potential patrons of ours and with each interaction, we’re essentially starting a relationship. And we want to have that relationship have both of us excited – me excited to perform for them in the audience and them excited to see more of what we do to take this relationship further. But in a lineup, there’s only so much time you have, so you try to leave them with a thought that, ‘Hey, you know, I want to see more of what that person and their creative work is.’”

Beat: Does that extend to the overall concept of Fringe and that it is an annual festival? You’re here for a limited amount of time, you get introduced to this market, and then you’re gone. Do you find that sense of anticipation translates over the years?

Malkin: “Certainly. We’ve been to London three times now and we’re coming back a fourth. And each year we have increased our number of relationships and there’s a growing number of people who have come to our shows and loved our shows.

Knowles: “What I find unique about Fringe is that audience members are able to develop relationships with performers. So they’re not just rooting for the show, but there are different performers – ourselves being one of them, Martin Dockery and Chase Padgett – some people who have toured the Fringe for a number of years. And people don’t even read the show description – as soon as they see that person or that group of people are back with a show, they’re going to go because their believers in that person. That is something that really excites us with the tour. Going to London, there are so many people in London that I know we’re going to see and we’re going to take our relationship to the next chapter.”

Beat: What do you take out of Fringe for your full-time lives?

Malkin: “Just for context, we’re doing a lot of festivals this summer. We’re doing over 100 shows between May and September across Canada. And [at the time of this interview] we’re currently in Orlando, for the first time, at their Fringe. During the year, Jamesy and I continue touring. In some cases, we rent theatres and produce and present ourselves. In other situation we are presented by theatres.

“So, I remember after my first year touring with Jamesy, we did a 2 for Tea tour, and I was blown away by the audience response. I didn’t want it to end. I generally have a grim outlook and Jamesy is much more optimistic – I thought, ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to teach spinning? Am I going to work in a coffee shop? Oh no.’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t want it to end either. Let’s keep doing it.’ I thought, ‘OK’, so we rented some theatres and started promoting ourselves similarly to how we do at the festivals.

“One thing we do that I haven’t seen anyone else do is we look at what events are in town, where we can anticipate big groups of people who might like theatre, and we go and flyer them. We go and talk about our show and try to get them interested.”

Knowles: “Something that is different and unique about Fringe is the community that develops around the artists. So coming to Orlando this year, which is our first stop on the Fringe circuit, is this wonderful reunion of people whom we’ve gotten to know over the five years and have spent months with. We’re all doing the same task, we’re all doing shows, and we’re all exploring Canada together. So we’ve all gone to beaches, we’ve all gone out to the fields, we’ve all seen the Northern Lights together, we’ve had the bonfires, we’ve gone to the West Edmonton Mall. That community, when the Fringe Festival circuit ends, we all say goodbye to each other and it’s a teary, but excited, goodbye. And we all enter the rest of the year where some of us continue to tour, like James and I. Some of us have other jobs. Some of us work in more mainstream theatre industries and companies.”

Malkin: “Some of the performers work as front of house or technicians in theatres in their home cities, so they keep afoot in the theatre world, and possible work on a new show for the next Fringe season.”

Beat: You mentioned the experiences you, as a group, share on the circuit. So are the stories that you as a Fringe group tell on stage more or less interesting than the stories you experience off stage with this collective?

[laughter]

Knowles: “My partner Stephanie [Morin-Robert], who will be in the London Fringe with her show Blind Side, as well as a show I’m doing with her called Bushel and Peck, she saw our friend Jon Bennett, who you may know from last year’s London Fringe and will be back this year...”

Malkin: “He did Pretending Things Are a Cock last year.”

Knowles: “She went to go see a new show of his and was delighted to hear how he had turned some of their experiences in day to day life into a Fringe show. We draw from our experiences in the creation of new work. And sometimes those experiences are, in fact, from the Fringe Festival circuit.”

Beat: With the struggle and the unique way that people get from Fringe to Fringe, do you find that the relationships are better or are there still people you can’t stand? Is there a different level of relationship?

Malkin: “Oh certainly! In my experience, performers and people in theatre, I find, are very open people. Not exclusively, but I find it easy to get to know people quickly and to share wonderful experiences with them the first day I know them, which isn’t as common with my non-theatre friends.”

Beat: Looking at your show this year, you’re reprising a performance you’ve done before. Are there any changes? If people have seen it before, why should they come back?

Knowles: “When we brought the show to London three years ago, the show was just out of the womb. We knew the structure and the spirit of play that James and I have on stage and our willingness to invite the audience is something that has been there since the beginning. But the show itself has been refined and recrafted to the point now where it’s this wonderful precise journey that feels both very alive, rich, and spontaneous. We like to think it feels that way every time.”

Beat: It’s completely different in tone and tenor from what you performed last year at London Fringe [In the Dark]. Do you think people are going to embrace that? For someone who hasn’t seen the previous two performances, but only experienced what you did last year, which was visually stunning, but not in the same style as your other shows, what should they expect?

Knowles: “We think that 2 for Tea is quite an accessible piece of theatre. It’s comedy, it’s British, it’s about tea, friendship, imagination, and nurturing audience interaction. Our show, In the Dark, was about taking our craft in another direction that was both challenging and exciting. And we weren’t sure how much they were going to embrace In the Dark. If they did see In the Dark, I think they’ll enjoy the familiarity of us as players, but also the familiarity of the context of tea parties and British humour that 2 for Tea offers.”

Malkin: “When Jamesy refers to us as players, I think it might not be in the conventional sense of players meaning actors, but the nature of our performance style has everything that we do come from what we call, ‘a body of delight,’ where we play our characters like a child plays with a toy. We play our situations; we look for the game in the situations, and I think that is present in all of our work.”

Beat: You referred to the precision of 2 for Tea. One of the things I enjoy about Fringe is the intimacy you have with the crowd and that there are times when things do go wrong, or may not be according to script based on how the audience reacts. Last year you had a challenge with one of your headlamps during a show…

Knowles: “Oh, that’s right [laughing].”

Beat: Does that experience help you grow? Is that something you enjoy being a part of? It’s obviously got to be stressful in the moment, but looking back, does that help refine what you’re doing?

Knowles: “I say it certainly does. With every performance and every theatre festival we go to, I think that our shows and ourselves as performers becomes more robust. We learned to do a show like In the Dark or 2 for Tea in a theatre that’s really deep, or a theatre that can’t have a blackout. We’ve performed in 60-seat theatres and we’ve performed in 700-seat theatres. How do you change a show to accommodate 700 people versus 60?

“With a show like In the Dark, we’re not aware of technical challenges until they happen. So now with our In the Dark costumes, we now both have two complete circuits, so that if one of our LEDs goes out, we just flip another switch, and ‘Voila’ we have light again in another different circuit. And we’ve had to use that since then, so our costumes are becoming more technically reliable.”

Beat: This is your fourth time in London. You mentioned the people, but is there anything else you’re looking forward to seeing in the London market? You must be getting to know the city and the venues.

Knowles: “Oh! Something that’s fun this year and last year, The Works Burger Bistro, they’re supporting us with our Fringe project and they’re sponsoring us with burgers and milkshakes for the duration of the time that we’re in London.

“There’s a shoe company in the marketplace that I’ve had repair my shoe a couple of times in exchange for tickets. And there’s a bike shop that I’m looking forward to going to that I want to get my bike looked at. Also there’s a mechanic – Chris Hall – he’s a wonderful mechanic who is so generous with us.”

Malkin: “Last year, we had some serious problems and he really helped us out. For me, one thing that we haven’t mentioned specifically, our first year we were in the Spriet Family Theatre and there’s 100 seats there. We didn’t know anyone in London; it was our first time presenting [2 for Tea] for an audience away from home.

“Word got out. It was our third show where we started selling out. Word got out that this show was rocking and really a lot of fun. Initially, we didn’t know where the people were coming from. We were wondering, ‘How do they know? Where are they coming from?’ And it was such a wonderful experience. But because of the size of the theatre, only 400 to 500 people got to see the show.

“The next year, with High Tea, we were at the Convention Centre, In the Dark was at McManus, we’ve been at larger venues that could accommodate more people. So there have been a lot more people who have seen our other shows in London and now that they know our work, I’m sure they’ll be quite eager to see 2 for Tea.

“And it’s a show we’ve done now over 150 times. It’s like going back to an old favourite book, or a favourite place to play. It allows us to channel a lot of delight.”

Beat: For people who may be reading this but have never been to Fringe or perhaps the term “fringe” may be a little off putting to them because they’re more traditional theatre-goers, what would you say to them to encourage them to experience what London Fringe has to offer.

Knowles: “What you see at Fringe is straight from the artists’ mouth. It is the works that the artists are most excited about presenting to the world. What you’re seeing isn’t curated. Many of these artists are professional touring artists too, so you get to see a whole assortment of theatre for an amazing price.”

Beat: Other thoughts?

Knowles: “Something that I’m excited to share is that new for me this year, I’ll be performing in a contemporary dance clown piece and that’s Bushel and Peck, and taking my work out of my comfort zone and I’m hoping that London audiences will join me in this new direction, as well as James and Jamesy, which I love.”

Beat: Looking at the schedule, Alastair, you perform 2 for Tea Sunday at 3:30 and then you turn around and are doing Bushel and Peck at 6:30. And that’s not the first or only day you’re doing multiple shows. Is that a challenge?

Knowles: “Oh yeah, it’s a challenge to change my mindset – to drop one character and get into another; changing from working with James to working with Stephanie, both of whom have very unique approaches to the work; and also the technical and physical requirements of the shows are quite different.”

Beat: So who’s easier to work with? Aaron/James or your partner Stephanie?

Knowles: “I’d say I’m most familiar working in a theatrical context with James. We know our roles very well, so when the show’s underway – and even getting set up for the show, leading into the show – we all know who’s going to be the one editing…”

Malkin: “There’s no discussion.”

Knowles: “We just get underway and begin the process. With my partner Stephanie, London will be the first Fringe, the first time we present our show Bushel and Peck, so there’s a lot more decision-making that happens on the fly with her.”

Beat: OK. Diplomatic answer. That was good.

[Laughter.]

Malkin: “Yeah, I think we’re both within earshot.”

Beat: So Aaron, when Alastair’s off doing his show. Are you heckling him? Are you watching? What do you do?

Malkin: “Oh, interesting… When we initially decided to not create a new James and Jamesy show this year, we both had a mind to creating solo shows. It was a challenge that we each looked forward to. He ended creating a show with his girlfriend; I ended up creating a solo show, which I’ll be debuting in Montreal.

“Depending on the luck of the draw, it’s something I’d like to bring to London the following year, but that’s something that will be occupying my time in London as I get ready for two weeks later when I debut it in Montreal.”

Knowles: “Something I think that’s interesting about London Fringe is particular, there are a number of shows that were developed, at least in part, in Vancouver. And we actually formed a group where we met, somewhat regularly, and were witness and supporters of each others’ process.

Bad Rabbit, Falling Awake, Curious Contagion, Bushel and Peck, Blind Side, and 2 for Tea. 2 for Tea wasn’t created this year, but all of those other shows were created this year with each other’s support. In London, we’re all very excited to be witnesses and supporters because once you’re on the Fringe, there’s no director – you don’t have someone that’s giving you feedback, so it’s really wonderful to have supporters of the arts and people whose opinions you trust giving you feedback on the shows.”

Malkin: “The closer I am to a performer, the more likely I’ll offer feedback if I feel they would want it. That’s something I look forward to with my solo show, particularly, because it’s such new territory for me to do that. So I’ll be asking other artists to be directors in various capacities.”

Beat: Why is B.C. a hotbed for Fringe theatre?

Knowles: “One of the reasons that it’s such a hotbed for Fringe is because of the success of James and Jamesy, in that we were all part of community theatre projects and Aaron and I began to do Fringes…”

Malkin: “James!”

Knowles: “Oh, yeah, James and I began to do Fringes and came back with these wonderful stories about fun it is to tour and the opportunities to present your work and how supportive the communities and reviews are, and that there’s potential to earn an income doing theatre that you’ve created.”

Malkin: “The people we listed, there are maybe 10 listed in those shows, eight of them trained under a gentleman named David MacMurray Smith, who is a co-creator of High Tea and In the Dark, and has functioned as James and Jamesy’s director for the three shows we’ve toured. He’s a person who unites us all as he is a physical theatre and clown teacher in Vancouver.”

For more information on the London Fringe Festival, which runs from May 31 through June 11, please visit londonfringe.ca.

Jay Menard is a corporate communications writer and freelance Arts & Culture writer. See more of his work at www.jaymenard.com.

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