ORLANDO – The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival kicks off at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 16 at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, and runs through May 29. This year the nearly three-week long festival will feature the largest line-up of shows in its history.
And one of those shows aims to transport audiences somewhere else — to New Orleans.
The Big Easy will be in display, circa the 1840s, when cotton was king and money was flowing freely along the Mighty Mississippi.
At the same time, though, there are different factions battling for control of the city, including Creoles, seductive vampires, vagabonds, pirates, and even voodoo practitioners.
But guess who helps decide who wins? It’s the audience in control in this interactive thriller, which is being produced by Gini Lynn Productions. “New Orleans: The Beginnings” is making its worldwide debut at Orlando Fringe, and the performers will physically navigate through an outdoor tavern, meeting and interacting with the local citizens. Producer Andy Frack noted, “We want to change the world. Everything has become so divisive lately, and it is our hope that by taking people back to the challenges of the 1840s, we can get people thinking and talking about the issues that divide us today. People are just people, but stereotypes and preconceived notions make that tough to remember. If we can break down those barriers, we can find ways to work together instead of tearing each other apart.”
Freeline Media reached out to the show’s director, Lisa Fritscher, to find out what this Big Easy trip is all about.
Freeline Media: New Orleans is such an exotic place, it seems like the ideal setting for a stage show. How did you pick N’Awlins?
Lisa Fritscher: My producer, Andy Frack, also happens to be my father. We both lived in New Orleans, in the heart of the French Quarter, from 2001 to 2005, and returned for about six months in 2007. It’s such a vibrant, culturally rich city with a mysterious yet well-documented past. If you have ever taken a ghost tour there, you have some idea how easy it is for the modern world to fall away. I’m a writer, a history buff, and an actor, as well as a director, and I have never felt as energized and inspired as when I lived there. When the opportunity arose to develop this show, Dad and I agreed that for us, there was no other possible setting. The city is iconic, instantly tapping into the collective unconscious. And the French Quarter is a National Historic Landmark, so the names and businesses may have changed, but the setting has not.
FM: Are you attempting to recreate a New Orleans tavern through set design, or are you aiming more for the ambiance?
Lisa: For Fringe, our set design is minimal, but highly effective. The French Quarter is filled with tiny courtyards and patios, connected to both commercial establishments and private residences, almost all dating to our time period or earlier. We’ve drawn inspiration from several of our favorites, but are not attempting to exactly replicate any one spot. So I would say that ambiance is the key, but every set piece and prop is accurate to the time and helps to create the illusion. Our bigger, longer permanent installation, coming later this year, will recreate iconic Jackson Square — known as Place d’Armes in our setting. It’s changed very little since the show’s time period, and we’ll be using the buildings around the Square — the Pontalba Buildings, the Cathedral, the Cabildo, the Presbytere, etc. — as our characters’ homes and businesses.
FM: Are you aiming to comment on current events, particularly those dealing with immigration?
Lisa: Absolutely. The issues of today — immigration, racial tension, women’s equality, religious clashes, homophobia — are the reason for the show. All of these issues and more are addressed within the complex web of characters and relationships — and are handled in ways that are authentic to the time period. The overarching story is wrapped around race and slavery, because those were the biggest issues of the time. But we also have women striving for power within the limited opportunities that were afforded to them, bisexual men who risk being hung if their relationship is discovered, and players entering this exotic and overwhelming world as brand new immigrants who know nothing of the social mores, customs, and expectations that are placed upon them.
FM: Why did you look back to the 1840s?
Lisa: The 1840s were a time of rapid change in New Orleans, somewhat analogous to today. Immigration was at an all-time high, particularly waves of mostly poor Germans and Irish. The Americans were also moving in, and their sensibilities were far different than those of the proud but hedonistic French Creoles who had held onto their status as the city’s elite right through years of Spanish occupation. The clash between the Americans and the French had led to an almost total segregation of the city — not between black and white, but between French and American. Canal Street was the dividing line between the French and American sectors, and the “neutral ground” — the term that would eventually be adopted for all street medians — in the middle was the negotiated open turf where people from both sectors could freely conduct business with each other. Thanks to a deal cut between legendary voodoo priestess Marie Laveau and Pere Antoine, head priest at St. Louis Cathedral, voodoo and Catholicism had largely merged into a strange blend that had people of all backgrounds attending Mass on Sunday morning and then stopping by the local voodoo shop for supplies for their Sunday night rituals. New Orleans was fantastically rich thanks to its strategic placement at the mouth of the Mississippi River. In fact, during the 1840s, it was the wealthiest city in the nation, and the third largest in population. Everyone wanted a piece of the action, which led to a growing criminal element — everyone from pirates to gamblers to prostitutes was pouring in, and arguments raged. Some believed that the underbelly was part and parcel of the city–after all, it was originally dug out of the middle of the swamp by Parisian convicts who were released in exchange for marrying a prostitute and moving there. Yet some worried that the criminal element had become too bold and too dangerous. And the loudest struggle was between slaveholders and abolitionists — in a Southern city where a full 13.2% of African Americans were free people of color, many of whom owned slaves themselves, and slavery was governed by the incredibly complex Code Noir (Black Code), the conversation was anything but simple.
In short, New Orleans in the 1840s provides a historical mirror of the U.S. as a whole today. But it feels safe, because it’s a step removed. Players are able to let down their guard and probe the issues far more deeply within this context since it isn’t personally threatening. Never once is modern society mentioned or directly referenced, and if players bring it up, the actors redirect the conversation toward the historic setting. Yet we believe that the lessons learned will stay with players long after they depart, encouraging them to unpack today’s issues in a new light.
FM: Tell us more about how this show will be interactive for the audience.
Lisa: For the Fringe show, players are escorted into the experience by Larry and his research assistant, Jennifer, under the guise of helping with their research project by traveling to the past. Characters are all around, going about their evening’s business. Players are encouraged to disburse and get to know the characters. Depending on whom they choose to spend their time with, they will have the opportunity to play games, solve puzzles, or even participate in voodoo arts and crafts as they learn about the characters and the new world they have entered. They may also be sent on missions of intrigue, to spy or gather information about other characters and, depending on their choices, might find themselves negotiating with other players as well. The ending is less interactive and more immersive, as a shocking turn of events cuts the project short.
The full show will take interactive to a whole new level, adding in escape room elements, multilayered puzzle solving, crushing moral dilemmas in which both decisions have equally disastrous consequences, and a real sense of open-world play. In that show, the cast will hit a few key bullet point events, but everything that happens in between, as well as the entire ending, will be based solely on the decisions that the players make throughout the night. Players themselves will be under suspicion of grievous crimes and must prove their innocence, and virtually any character’s life or death is up to the players’ choices.
“New Orleans: The Beginnings” will be located in a tent on the lawn of the Black Venue at 511 Virginia Drive. Show times are:
* Thursday May 18 at 8 p.m.
* Friday May 19 at 11 p.m.
* Saturday May 20 at 8 and 11 p.m.
* Wednesday May 24 at 8 p.m.
* Thursday May 25 at 8 p.m.
* Friday May 26 at 8 and 11 p.m.
* Saturday May 27 at 8 and 11 p.m.
For tickets visit Orlando Fringe.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..