If you've used an online dating service more than once, you'll surely feel a pang of recognition when watching Reality Sucks, a 20-minute play written and directed by Sonia Cordoves. Two characters who connect on match.com meet at a restaurant, only to find that neither looks anything like his or her airbrushed photo.
"She says she's a stripper, and she's ready to go be this sexy seductress," says Vanessa Elise, who plays the seductress. "He shows up, and he's supposed to be this famous plastic surgeon who looks like Adam Levine, but he's a total nerd. She shows up, and she's a plus-sized mama and definitely not a stripper. As they talk, all the lies start coming out about who they really are, and it's just one thing on top of the next, until finally there's a major unveiling at the end."
Elise will join a cast of four in performances of Reality Sucks this Saturday at 4:10 and 8:55 p.m., as part of Broward College's inaugural Fort Lauderdale Fringe Festival. Her time onstage will offer respites from her primary job: running the whole damned festival.
The daylong event features more than 20 plays, largely written and performed by local talent and priced for budget-conscious audiences. It will follow the standards established by the United States Association of Fringe Festivals: The event is uncensored and unjuried, with proceeds returned to the artists. The plays will be staged in three Broward College classrooms converted to black-box-style theaters, while an outdoor street fair will offer food trucks and local musicians busking for tips.
The idea for a Fort Lauderdale Fringe Festival originated with Broward College President J. David Armstrong Jr., who wanted to stage a fest that would highlight the arts as well as the presence of higher education in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
"I think it is a prime location, between Miami and Palm Beach, so we have a draw from all three counties," says Thomas Meyer, dean at Broward College's Downtown Center. "And beyond that, this is the first of its kind in South Florida. We have film festivals and a book fair but not a fringe festival. It's kind of exciting that we're in on it."
The college brought on Elise, a playwright and Carbonell-nominated actor, as a consulting artistic director. When accepting submissions, she quickly found that the plays constituted a wide range of themes and styles.
"That's the beauty of the fringe: Every piece is absolutely different," she says. "We have one that is a musical in Spanglish. We have a theatrical composition that was submitted as a proposal — they built the script as they rehearsed. There's even a Noh [Japanese musical drama] play written by Cynthia Joyce Clay — it's very slow and poetic and quite beautiful."
There's also a performance (Comedy School Dropouts Broadcast Radio) by an improv comedy troupe and a gonzo ensemble comedy about vampires, mobsters, professional wrestling and — why not? — time travel (Triumvirate: A Canadian Mafia Horror Story). Reality Check centers on a delusional Kim Kardashian fanatic, and Demons Just Wanna Have Fun presents a girls' slumber party interrupted by a visitor from the bowels of hell.
And as at many other fringes, there are solo shows aplenty, often inspired by the playwrights' life experiences. That's the case with writer-performer Casey Dressler's The Wedding Warrior, a comedy loosely based on her chaotic time as a young wedding coordinator in Islamorada. She plays herself and about a dozen other characters, including the parents of the betrothed, whose demands run from the trivial to the crazed.
"It's a big day, so people's expectations are quite high, but they also get very focused on things that aren't very important," Dressler says. "The irony is that life isn't perfect. Your relationship isn't going to be perfect. I always joke that since I was a wedding coordinator, when it comes time for me to get married, I'm probably going to elope or do something incredibly simple."
Jerry Seeger, an arts educator for the past 14 years, likewise drew from his experience in the classroom to craft Demerits, Detentions, and Dismissals, a collection of inspirational spoken-word essays by Taylor Mali, an influential humorist, slam poet, and teachers' advocate. Eleven Mali pieces are presented as "lessons" to a "classroom" of audience members, with Seeger performing Mali's words and then extrapolating on them to his "students."
"My goal, and it could change with the show, is to work off the audience in between each piece so they feel like they're part of this event," Seeger says. "That could be dangerous. You never know what's going to happen in the classroom. The moment you open it up for interaction, all bets are off."
Interactivity, unpredictability, variety — these are the buzzwords associated with fringe festivals, not to mention "discovery." Elise hopes that by attracting audiences from across the counties, South Florida theater companies will gain new audiences and the arts scene will become more robust.
"It happens to be set in Fort Lauderdale, but it's really for Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, for all of us to have a place where different audiences can congregate and see the different kinds of work that are happening in our communities and become interested in something different," she says. "There's so much talent in South Florida — playwrights, directors, actors — and the fringe just wants to bring that all to the surface.
"As an actor who has worked in the different counties, I don't want to see more theater companies closing. I want to see audiences get excited about the different work — 'Let's see what Thinking Cap is doing; let's see what Maltz Jupiter is doing'— and take that drive and keep these theaters going."