From Philly to Edinburgh: Meeting up with Chris Davis at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

I wanted to be sure to catch up with Chris Davis at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe where he’s performing his ONE-MAN APOCALYPSE NOW.  Last year in a Philly warehouse I encountered the sprawling, atmospheric movie reimagined in a small white room by one creative, introspective and funny person.

In his 4th year here at Edinburgh it looks like Chris has become quite a popular fixture. His BORTLE 8, CHINCHILLA COATS, DRUNK LION, ONE-MAN APOCALYPSE NOW, and other shows have attracted attention. Since the start of this year’s Fringe on August 3rd he has been performing ONE-MAN APOCALYPSE NOW and THE LAST EMPEROR OF MEXICO every day.

I’m in town with the Network of Independent Critics, which covers the Edinburgh Fringe in shifts. Luck of the draw: I pulled the last week, and got here just as everything’s almost ready to wrap up. Although he has only a few shows left, Chris agreed to meet at Sweet Grassmarket in the middle of Edinburgh.

4. Chris Davis, Apocalypse Now, pto Maria Shaplin (1)Kathryn Osenlund:  Chris, With your 4th foray into the huge and crazy Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I take it you don’t suffer from agoraphobia. What’s the draw? It can’t be the lure of filthy lucre when your lead show, One-Man Apocalypse Now, is reasonably priced and sometimes available at 2 for 1. And your other show, The Last Emperor of Mexico is in the Free Fringe.

Chris Davis: So many things here at the Edinburgh Fringe have changed my life. Seeing other shows, some inspiring, and some the most exciting art I’ve ever seen in my life, has changed me as a performer and artist.  You learn a lot from seeing other work at the Edinburgh Fringe.  And that goes for wherever you are, Philadelphia, New York, you need to engage and see other artists’ work.  It’s like if you want to be a novelist, you have to read novels. Want to make theatre?  See as much theatre as you can, good bad, ugly, whatever, just go, as my friend Peter says SHOW UP.  Edinburgh is a great place to do just that, thousands of shows allwithin a square mile, and you never know what you’ll find. The test of Edinburgh is not just about great reviews, accolades or huge houses, it’s about artistic survival. When surrounded by 3500 other acts, how special is yours? It’s not. But for those audience members that find you, it definitely can be. You will be surprised how much the the audience will change you, and vice-versa. You will have the best days of your life here and the worst days, and often they’ll be right next to each other. Wednesday is the best day of your life, and suddenly on Thursday it seems like you are performing in a vacuum. It happens all the time.

KO: After performing a piece a zillion times, how do you keep things ‘new’ (or don’t you try for that?) and how do you maintain your edge? Do you pull energy from your audiences? 

CD: Each time I enter the show it feels new to me. It may be a mental trick but I can’t imagine doing a show that doesn’t feel ‘new.’ While I may know what I’m doing, I understand that this particular audience has never seen the work before, and that they deserve a show just as strong, if not stronger, than the first audience that ever saw the work. For me, the keys to live art are experimentation and consistency. You should have both. And I definitely draw energy from my audiences. However if I have a particularly quiet group or a reticent audience, I draw the energy from myself to maintain the quality of the show.

I love performing my show 25x times in a row. Each year I learn a lot about the work, I suffer with it, die with it, thrive with it, so on, but ultimately I get to the heart of the piece and see just how much the work holds up to the test of Edinburgh. If you want to be a performer of live theater, you have to embrace the grind of producing work every day to an audience that constantly changes.

KO:  Speaking of an audience that constantly changes, from your experience shaping work at fringe festivals, what have you learned about writing for people who may have just wandered in?

CD: People want to be entertained. Some of them may be entertained by your humor, or perhaps it is not their particular style. But all people will respect work that is sincere in its effort, I think. The wandered in audience is my favorite because that’s how I can see the work through others’ eyes. It can be beyond challenging, but so what? That’s the whole point of doing this work.

KO: Do people show up after midnight for the free show? (Is anyone sober at that hour?)

CD: People show up at every hour in Edinburgh, so yes definitely. Most of Edinburgh turns to Stand-Up past 10 pm, so I am one of the only Theatre shows at this bewitching hour. It means I often get a non-traditional theater audience, and I’ve had to learn how to shape the show to their own comedy palate. And yes, everyone is drunk.

KO: You’ve seen some great shows and learned a lot from exposure to other artists’ work.  Do you get to know other performers and party hearty? Or are you too tired to raise hell?

CD: I see about 2 shows per day, on average. Some days I’ve seen 3 or 4 while performing my own shows. It’s inevitable that you meet other performers and interact with them. How well I get to know them is hard to say. Often in Edinburgh you have a night with people, maybe your audience, other performers, whoever. You go out, have a great time, and you never see them again because everyone is so busy. I try to stay in touch with certain people and so now I have 4 year friendships that I value.  I’ve made many friends this way and I love the the time I get to spend with them. Unfortunately I can’t raise hell here because I am so knackered all the time, I have to save that for Philadelphia. 

KO: Do you have any advice for others in Philly who may be thinking of putting on an Edinburgh Fringe show?

CD: I have lots of advice, but to keep it simple I’ll say this: FREE FRINGE FREE FRINGE FREE FRINGE. Especially your first year, I think surviving and managing a show in the free fringe will prepare you for all the other aspects of Edinburgh, and you’ll save money, and actually have a decent chance to make money too.

KO: What can Edinburgh Festival Fringe management do to make life easier for show producers and performers?

CD: Sincerely, the people that run Edinburgh Fringe try everything they can to help producers and performers. I’m not sure what else they can do because the actual fringe is an unmanageable monster that really just lives on its own. If anything, they just try to feed the monster and tame it a bit, but you can’t really do much to make life easier for anyone here. You have to do it for yourself.

KO: You’ve been doing great solo work for quite a while now. But I also remember your earlier collaborations on Holly’s Dead Soldiers, and the stunning Anna K. I understand that when you get back home to Philly you have a few more One-Man Apocalypses, and then you’re jumping into the Philly’s Fringe performing in Alchemist, a new play you’ve co-written with Mary Tuomanen. What kind of a work is it? 

CD: Alchemist is a new play that Mary and I are working on right now. We’ll be creating a lot of it in Edinburgh while Mary is visiting. In Alchemist we are exploring the idea of transformation, the transformation of the individual through the years, how our relationships define us, and how our relationships to each other and to the world define our perception of the world. For me alchemy is about changing a substance, and the substance I am thinking of is myself. Mary and I have known each other for 18 years so we have particular insight into each other that can only come from time, we’ve seen how we’ve each grown up in different ways. It’s going to be an exciting work and I really can’t wait for Philly Fringe.

KO: The idea of two talented and insightful people working on a play about relationships and transformation is intriguing. After this joint effort will you be taking a break from creating solo works for awhile? Do you have any new projects up your sleeve?

CD: If I take a break from solo-work I think I’d be out of a job at this point, so probably not. Solo-work allows me to travel, self-produce, and create work that I want to see, so it’s highly addictive. That being said I am working on a new play about Alexander Dumas (3 actors) that I hope to find a reading for this next year, I have a book I want to desperately edit and launch into the world, and I’d like to write another adaptation similar to Anna K of some long Russian Novel…and I want to do it all in a year.  

KO: Chris, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on your Edinburgh experiences with your fans at home. Congratulations on your success here, and I look forward to seeing your new work back in Philadelphia.

[Sweet Grassmarket, Edinburgh, UK ]  August 3-23, 2017; contact  media@edfringe.com 

 

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.