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"It is sort of a crazy thing, but we're sort of a bunch of crazy people," muses Marcel Nunis, the creator of Fresno's largest performance festival: The Rogue.
Nunis, a Fresno playwright, sits on the Landmark patio in the Tower District. Nursing a drink and a few cigarettes, he recounts how the festival began.
"Well, there is the myth that it actually started in my backyard. In the 90's we used to do shows in my backyard once every two weeks, it was called "Weedwacker Theatre". That spawned Theatre J'Nerique [Nunis's independent theatre company], and that spawned the Rogue Festival. But really what spurred it on was the fact that as theatre people, we figured there wasn't enough theatre in this town"
Creating a safe, affordable environment for theatre and performance art has been the goal of the Rogue Festival since it began four years ago. The Rogue Festival is based on the "Fringe Festival" concept, itself a reaction to the exclusionary nature of the theatre world in post-war Scotland.
"There was a huge arts festival. It was supposed to be a pre war bringing together the nations through art organized in Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1948 there were about 7 groups who were shut out of the festival. So they basically said, 'Screw them. We're going to start our own festival.' Well, as the years have gone, the Edinburgh Fringe has eclipsed the original festival," explained Nunis.
"It started off where it was a festival by artists for artists- that was the idea behind it. You don't need to be invited in order to be able to perform. So we have kept that model- if you want to perform, just apply put in your money, and boom- you've got a slot, continued Nunis.
Rogue performances span venues large (Rogue Mainstage) and small (Rogue Cafe). There are also Rogue Galleries and Rogue BYOV (Bring Your Own Venue), which allows artists to arrange their own performance space and still be included in the Festival.
Since it is, for all intents and purposes, a "Fringe Festival," why not call it the "Fresno Fringe"?
"We were sitting at the Revue and what happened was we were gonna call it the "Fresno Fringe". Now the word "Fringe Festival" is actually trademarked and is owned by- not sure whether it's owned by the Toronto Fringe or the Montréal Fringe- but the Canadians own the term "Fringe Festival". And we just didn't want to go there," began Nunis.
(The term "Fringe Festival" is actually owned by the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF), which sets rules all member Fringe Festivals must follow. There are five American Fringes, including those in San Francisco and New York. CAFF charges members a fee and they must adhere to its guidelines.)
He continued: "So I downloaded a bunch of articles about Fringe Festivals, and in one of them they describe these groups as "rogue companies". And one of the people in the core [group of organizers] said, 'What about the Rogue Festival?' We all sort of looked at each other and had an epiphany and said, 'Yeah the Rogue is cool.'"
In the beginning, none of the Rogue Festival organizers had experience organizing a performance festival of this size and scope.
"We had taken a show up to the fringe in San Francisco in '95 and had a great time up there. There were 7 or 8 of us that went up that one weekend and had a grand time. Had a grand time and came back and started organizing. The Fresno festival is actually pretty unique. We borrowed the model from San Francisco originally and then that has mutated into what we have now," explained Nunis.
Last year's festival was a huge success, drawing an estimated 4,000 people.
"The caliber of performances were great, the audience was great, the fact that we did have some out of town acts last year, that was validation for us and the fact that the Bee and some of the media outlets picked us up we just said, 'Wow, cool.' Because no one had wanted to have anything to do with us two years before," laughed Nunis.
Even the Rogue's "mentor Fringe" is paying attention.
"Every year we've gone up [to San Francisco] and we've been stumping for acts. We go up there and give them applications. This year we go up, we didn't even have to do that. The entire time performers were going up to us. For some strange reason they already knew who we were," marvels Nunis.
At this point Joel Dyer, an actor and one of the Rogue's principal organizers, joins the interview. He explains how it took him 30 minutes to get a drink at a San Francisco Fringe party:
"People kept coming up to me to say, 'Are you from Fresno? Are you a Rogue? I've already got my application printed out.'"
Rogue organizers are hoping for that kind of validation from local audiences.
"I would love to turn people away at the doors. I mean, that's the dream," says Nunis.
He estimates attendance for this year's festival to be around 6,000. Venue capacity for all the performances is 6,500.
"There has been a renaissance, an underground renaissance happening in the city for the last 5 years and I think it is beginning to bubble up and I think this is one of those events that gives you an indication that yeah, there is a hunger in this town, it is bubbling up and we need to pay attention to that," says Nunis, citing the established music and art scenes in Fresno.
"I think people need to wake up and smell the coffee. Theatre should be rock n' roll. I mean that's what theatre began as. In Shakespeare's time that was rock n' roll- you had bear baiting and then you had the main event," explains a charged Nunis.
"A town this size should have at least 10 independent theatre companies," he affirms. "There needs to be more affordable performance space." He reminds me that all the new, interesting work is coming out of the smaller theatres. He cites the example of "Urine Town," which came out of the New York Fringe and was a Broadway smash.
So what's the best way to enjoy the Rogue?
"Come early. Catch as many things as you can, if you catch something that you don't like, you know what in a half hour there's something else that you may like."
With 150 performances $6 or less, it's hard to argue.
For up-to-date information and all your other Rogue needs, visit the Festival's official website at www.roguefestival.com. Also check the Famous Calendar for Rogue events, and give your feedback on performances at the Famous Rogue Review.