The Agony and the Ecstasy of Putting on a Show at the Hollywood Fringe Festival

LAist spoke to Matt Chester, the playwright of In Dream, which is currently running with the Hollywood Fringe Festival at Theatre of NOTE. During our conversation, Chester gave us an insiders' perspective of the Hollywood Fringe, the Los Angeles theatrical community, and the state of theatre in our fair city.

LAist: In Dream is playing as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. What can you tell us about your play?
Matt Chester:
In Dream is two short plays that take place in dreams. The first is about a man that has been locked in a room with a man who has been mathematically proven to be the most evil man alive. The second is about a woman who meets her future daughter. The second piece was actually a birthday present that I wrote for my girlfriend. She is an actress and I wanted to give be a bit of really good material to work with. I was inspired by reading Neil Gaimen's Sandman comics. They are about dreams and creativity. A surreal tone was in my head when I wrote In Dream. I wanted to create something that was a little bit fantastical, but still very grounded and realistic at the same time.

With this play, I want to engage people intellectually while also entertaining them. It has two simple human stories with a focus on performance rather than staging. In Dream has some dark moments, but it is also a fun and interesting hour to spend at the theatre. I like the way that the play has turned out.

LAist: Did you have a particular person in mind when you made the character that is supposed to be the most evil man alive?
MC:
No, not especially. I reworked that character a lot. Initially, I thought it would be cool if the most evil man alive was just some weirdo down the street, like an awful, heartless serial killer that nobody knows about. When I finished writing that, it was definitely creepy and violent and shocking. But then I thought if you are just a serial killer—even if you are the serial killer that killed the most people out of all of the serial killers in this country—does that make you the most evil man? There are so many more people in power that have wreaked a lot more suffering on the world, so is that serial killer the most evil man just because he has done it in a gruesome way?

As I reworked the character, I still liked the idea of it just being someone down the street and maybe someone who doesn't even really know that they are the most evil, just some schnook in the world who was given a lot of power and he did what was expected of him. He just happended to make a lot of decisions that caused a lot of suffering. I didn't have a specific person in mind that I wanted to stick it to. The character is more about a guy that just does his job so badly that he ends up causing more suffering than anybody else currently alive.

LAist: Why did you enter this year's Fringe?
MC:
I had a piece of material that I wanted to produce and I knew that trying to produce it on your own can really be a serious uphill battle. I just wanted to go with the Fringe to be part of a larger infrastructure. Being in Fringe has been a great experience so far.

How is putting on a Fringe production different from a standard production?
MC:
Every time you put on a play it feels like the whole world is against you. There are constant challenges put up against you like the publicity that you are going to get, how you are going to arrange finances, and how to cast everything.

The Fringe gives you more infrastructure with a built-in network of supporters and there is a little bit more interest because you are part of a larger event. Fringe encourages you to keep things small so it kind of is impossible to let your ambitions get the better of you. We have a 15 minute load in and load out for In Dream. I mean that literally! We only have 15 minutes to get everything in and out of the theatre. There is pressure to be fast and get anyone you know with an SUV to pull up to the theatre and load. It is a mad rush to just do the very simple show that we have.

LAist: What are the benefits of putting on a Fringe production?
MC:
There are people that are willing to let you rent their theater for a modest price, there are people that are willing to help you out with house arrangement and tech stuff, and there is a spark of interest from theatre blogs without you having to do too much work. For standard productions, even if you just want to put on a little show, it takes a lot of networking to get the word out. It is never easy to get an audience to come out for a piece of theatre where people sit down and pay money for something you created, but Fringe makes it a little bit easier to do all of that. There are lots of people working at Fringe that are not just there because they believe in one production, but rather because they believe in theatre in general and think it is important to be a part of a larger theatrical community.

LAist: What are some of the challenges of putting on a Fringe show?
MC:
The biggest challenge was just trying to find and carve out rehearsal time and finding a space to do it. We monopolized the director's (Mary Evans) living room and we have to do rehearsals at weird times. The entire cast was really accomodating and everybody brought a lot of energy to rehearsal. Mary has done a really wonderful job with the play. Stephanie Giles, the producer, has done a lot of really hard work. She has been the engine that has let this production run from start to finish. In terms of realizing it artistically, Fringe is just as much work as a standard production. For something of this scale, whether you are doing it as part of Fringe or doing it on your own, artistically it is just as hard. Nothing is easier—you still have to get everything just right.

LAist: Hollywood Fringe is a very young fringe festival. How does our Fringe compare to more established fringe festivals?
MC:
I participated in the New York International Fringe Festival, which is much more established, as an actor. It is so huge in New York that every little basement theatre in the entire city gets swallowed up by it. The giant parade of weirdo theatre people was overwhelming. Everything at New York Fringe was really fancy because there was so much more money going into it. That was a little bit intimidating for me at the time because I was still in college and it felt like it was harder to get noticed as just a little face in the crowd. Hollywood Fringe is way smaller. In a way, Hollywood Fringe's immaturity is a benefit because everybody is working really hard to keep it going and to make it worthwhile for people to participate. At this point New York Fringe is just a stated fact that is going to continue to exist regardless of how much work you put into it. Here in Los Angeles, I think we just put a bit more heart into it.

LAist: Does Hollywood Fringe attract a different sort of audience than a standard production?
MC:
With a standard production, it is difficult to get people to care and you have to hit up Facebook and Twitter and hope that word of mouth will fill the theatre. But with Fringe there is a community of people that do not know you personally that will still come see your show. There is a certain amount of self-interest in that because those people are coming to your show in hopes that you will go see their show, but it is still nice. It is a group of people that have no other connection to one another other than this supportive theatre community that is self-created.

LAist: What is it like backstage at Fringe?
MC:
Cramped!

What sort of pressures come with putting on a Fringe production?
MC:
There is pressure to be social at Fringe and get out there and meet as many like-minded people as you can. This sounds like a platitude, but you definitely have to put work into it to get anything out of it. You have to talk to to other people and see their shows and go to their events if you want to feel like you are a part of it. There are Fringe events that I just have not been able to attend because of my own production schedule and it feels like such a missed opportunity. I will never be able to reach those people.

LAist: Is there any competitiveness between productions at Fringe?
MC:
For In Dream, no, we have pretty modest ambitions for this show. We are not putting excess pressure on ourselves to try to get a big smash hit. In terms of Fringe standards, I am sure some people do feel really competitive if they have invested a lot of money. If other shows sell out, personally I am not jealous of that success. I think it would be just great if we all sell out!

LAist: Most people do not go to theatre. They stay home, watch television, and sort of rot away on the couch. What are these people missing out on?
MC:
They are missing out on the experience of being in an audience, which is a really great thing. It is something that people are less and less willing to do because it is inconvenient and expensive. But our show is only $7. (He laughs.) Also, a lot of stuff in movies and television are just there to present you with what you already know. It is not asking anything of you. It is more of a buzzing noise that lies behind you when you are trying to sleep. Theatre, or at least the theatre that I try to make, tries to make you see things or think about things that you don't ordinarily think about. It tries to give you an emotional experience that you don't get to ordinarily have. If you are the sort of persons that only goes out to see movies, or whatever, you are missing out on the breadth of what theatre can do, which is make you feel less lonely and more connected to the rest of humanity. That is something that television and movies don't even bother to try doing.

LAist: Do you think that there is a negative stigma attached to theatre in Los Angeles? What role does Fringe play in changing that stigma?
MC:
Oh, definitely! I am not sure why, but I think that the unfortunate thing about theatre in Los Angeles is that people just don't have any expectations of it. In places like Chicago or New York, people go to theatre because those cities have a reputation for good theater. It might just be a weird chicken-or-egg thing, but when you live in a city that has a bad reputation for having bad theatre, you end up going to a lot of theatre that is just bad. I have no idea why that is. There is just so much creativity and so many talented actors and a lot of great theatre directors. I just don't know why nobody has taken the time to tap into that and to try to create something really great on a larger scale. It is baffling to me.

Compared to New York where there is an established built-in theatre community that is incredibly insular, you can put on something that is very strange that might be off-putting for the majority of people, but it could still be a success by New York standards. Here in Los Angeles, the theatre community is so small that it is hard to fill up any theatre space at all. So you have to appeal to people that may not actually or ordinarily want to go to theatre. They might see a musical with their mom once in a while, but that is their only experience with it. You have to be true to yourself as an artist, but also appeal to an audience that would just would not get up to go see a show ordinarily. Theatre in L.A. has a bad reputation. On the one hand, it is somewhat deserving of that reputation, but there are also a lot of people that are really talented that are working very hard to rise above that reputation and transcend it. The Fringe Festival is a way for artists to get their work seen and an opportunity for artists to support each other and make sure that we really blossom together.

LAist: What makes the Hollywood Fringe special?
MC:
What you get at the Fringe Festival in Hollywood is a group of people who are working a little bit harder than most. They are working in a landscape where where theatre is not very well-supported and is difficult to work in. They are just going for it a whole lot harder and than other people. Fringe is a place where, because you have so many expectations working against you, you have to dance and sing just a little bit harder while you try to produce something that is compelling.

LAist: Are there any plans to do a longer run of In Dream in the future?
MC:
No plans just yet, but if the opportunity arises I would love to write act. One of our cast members suggested that we turn it into a web series, which I am Stephanie agree is a good idea.

LAist: Is there anything else that you would like to share with LAist?
MC:
(Silence)

LAist: The standard answer to that one it usually "come out to my show!"
MC:
Oh great, now I feel pressured to say something original. How about, um...I am a unique and beautiful snowflake! No, no, I'm joking...I guess I might have to just have to defer to a version of "come to see our show." I think this is a really good play that we are putting on and I am personally very proud of it.In Dream is two very thoughtful and different plays. I would love to see you there!

In Dream is playing at Theatre of NOTE through June 18. Tickets are $7 and available online or at the door. Tickets, packages, schedules, and show information for all Hollywood Fringe Festival 2012 productions are available online.