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For Sandra J of the Montreal folk-pop band You & Me, impressions of the Windsor-Detroit divide come from the film Bowling for Columbine. "It's funny, Michael Moore, I have him in my head. He's standing in Detroit looking over at Windsor saying, 'Let's go over to Windsor! People are so friendly and don't lock their doors. They don't have 9-year-olds walking around with guns."

She and musical partner Shawn Donnelly will be traveling southwest for the first-ever Windsor International Fringe Festival. The 10-day event takes place at several venues in downtown Windsor and includes shows produced and performed by metro Detroiters.You & Me, who dub themselves a kind of "male and female Simon and Garfunkel," will be one of the musical acts during a fest that features 26 theater companies and 176 performances, including musical acts — and many within walking distance of one another.

Organized by Actors Theatre of Windsor (ATW), this particular Fringe is the latest to join the circuit of Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, a group founded in 1982 in an effort to "provide a direct link between theater artists and their audiences." The circuit has grown to include more than 15 festivals across Canada and a few in the United States too. It's based on the famed Scottish Edinburgh Fringe model from 50 years ago that not only allows but encourages artists to produce the play they want — "no matter what the content, form or style."

In contrast to traditional theatre fests, "fringes" — like FRIGID in New York and the Indianapolis Fringe Festival in Indiana — are open to all performers. There are no auditions. Instead, selection is based on lottery, with performers paying $500 to $600 for inclusion, but receiving all their ticket sales.

According to Windsor's Fringe producer Mona el Baroudi, the main purpose of a fringe is to be an "arts incubator." Groups have the opportunity to perform works they might otherwise not get a chance to show because of limited funding or lack of a venue. Whether the results are fantastic or horrible, hilarious or horrifying, is another story altogether — to be judged by the public.

For performers, these events offer something that typical shows can't. Veteran performer Glen Callendar of Vancouver, whose show Transcendental Masturbation will be at the Boom Boom Room, says: "You can do the weirdest stuff. You can bring a motorcycle on the stage and just work on it for an hour and not even look at the audience." Although audiences might stay away in droves, he adds wryly.

In many ways, Callendar is a shining example of the tradition. His one-man show, which he calls "a melange of music and mayhem," features him in glowing underpants and other weird outfits, performing music on everything from a cheap accordion to keyboard and spoons. "The whole show I call musical, physical, stand-up comedy," he says. "It's a wide-ranging smorgasbord of comic dementia."

Another production pushing boundaries with some innovative techniques is Surf's Up! by the Windsor company Monkeys with a Typewriter. The play is about "couch surfing" and the "hidden homeless," says Allison Prieur, the show's co-producer, who's with the Windsor area's Homeless Coalition. These are the people who sleep night after night on couches of friends, relatives and even strangers, because they don't have homes of their own. Surf's playwright, Rob Tymec, has a passion for theater that forces the audience to sit up and take notice. But he doesn't have a high impression of local theater, at least in Windsor.

"Eighty-five percent of our theater is what I like to call fluff," he says, meaning well-worn musicals. In this piece, the writer also plays the role of a muse who appears to help a few of the surfers work through their dilemmas by revisiting traumatic events in their pasts.

Detroiters are participating in this year's fest, but el Baroudi, who is ATW's artistic director and an acting coach in Detroit, says there are only two American productions this year. She's holding out hope for a real collaboration between the two cities soon.

Michael Carnow is a Los Angeles native who moved to Detroit last August and has already worked with Ferndale's Who Wants Cake? and the Matrix Theatre Company in southwest Detroit. He says he's impressed with the local theater scene, and also gives props to Planet Ant and Abreact. "A Detroit fringe would be great," Carnow says. "It would really enable a lot of these intimate, smaller theatres to showcase themselves and highlight all the talent that really is out there."

In the meantime, Carnow presents A Trois for the Fringe. The producer and director says he was captivated when reading playwright Barry Hall's script because it's a new take on an old theme.

"It's just a phenomenal piece and it's really unlike anything I've ever seen or read. It kind of flows between scenes," he says. "Somebody says 'I love you,' and it's unclear whether that's a good thing or a bad thing." The format is unusual as well. Hall says it's like a musical piece, and Carnow agrees with him: "There are these recurring monologues that serve as almost choruses that you go back to — sort of a jazz riff."

Other productions worthy to highlight are Toronto rock musician Fred Wilks' I Am Not Neil Young, The Musical, about Wilks's recollections playing in the revival band Buffalo Springfield Revisited; Joey Ouellette's Pelee Pirates, a much-performed and popular piece about "one man and his bucket" amid the islands of western Lake Erie; Hamilton comedian Colette Kendall's politically incorrect Tippi Seagram's Happy Hour (in which she takes on PETA and anti-fur activists), and veteran Toronto actor Hume Baugh's disturbing The Girl in the Picture Tries to Hang Up the Phone. From Quebec, there's musical couple Mario Landry and Viviane Lamy's Osmosaic folk fusion, which has elements of Middle Eastern and medieval sounds, and an entirely French theater show Shavirez, le Tsigane des Mers, which invites audiences to join Shavirez "the inveterate water gypsy, as he traipses the seven seas."

The Windsor International Fringe Festival is located at Art Gallery of Windsor, The Room, the Boom Boom Room and Capitol Theatre in downtown Windsor, July 18-27. Tickets are $9 adults per performance.

Ron Stang is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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