Aug. 10 2016 11:18 AM

Renegade Theatre Festival expands to two weekends

Left: Renegade Theatre Festival co-founder Chad Swan-Badgero mans the information booth at last year's festival. Right: Lisa Biggs performs her one-woman show, "Where Spirit Rides," in the former Chrome Cat building at last year's festival.
Left: Photo by Helen Murphy Right: Photo by Paul Wozniak

Hopefully Lansing residents aren’t feeling festival fatigue yet. Before the Great Lakes Folk Festival gets going Friday in East Lansing, Renegade Theatre Festival kicks off its 11th year Thursday in Old Town. The annual celebration of theater — and theater-adjacent activities like music and spoken word — expands to two weekends this year.

This year’s festival includes approximately 30 performances and events ranging from short one acts to feature length musicals. Virtually every business and street corner in Old Town will be filled with theater, music or speech. While the two-weekend schedule means that there are more opportunities to see some shows, unlike Pokémon, you can’t catch ‘em all.

“Some people, if they could, would see everything,” said festival co-founder and organizer Melissa Kaplan.

This year’s theme is “Creative Chaos,” but Kaplan admits that that could be the theme of any year.

“For the past few years, we’ve felt that we were approaching capacity,” Kaplan said. “The main festival is not a juried festival, and spaces come and go as far as their availability. Old Town has a really high occupancy rate as far as businesses go. There aren’t that many vacant spaces anymore.”

Faced with an increasingly popular festival with limited space to grow, the festival’s leadership team decided to essentially split the festival over two weekends. This weekend, Thursday through Saturday, will feature Renegade N.O.W., a juried segment of the festival featuring 10 original scripts. These scripts are performed at the Red Cedar Friends Meeting Hall (which, thankfully, is now air conditioned). The second weekend, Aug. 18 through 20, features the non-juried festival entries, which include productions from over 18 theater companies and range from dramas and musicals to staged readings and stage combat. The second weekend also includes an encore performance of the winning Renegade N.O.W. production.

“Renegade N.O.W. is where we want to take our festival,” said Chad Swan-Badgero, also a co-founder and organizer of the festival. “It’s what really distinguishes our festival in this region and in this state. We’re featuring new plays that have never been seen before.”

The decision to put a brighter spotlight on Renegade N.O.W. is partially in response to the unexpected number of submissions the festival received this year.

“Last year we had about 35 play submissions,” Swan-Badgero said. “This year we had over 200.”

For Renegade N.O.W. founder and coordinator Paige Tufford, who reads all of the Renegade N.O.W. submissions, this year was especially challenging.

“I kept counting as (the scripts) came in every day,” Tufford said. “Once it hit 155, I said ‘There’s no way. I need to get a commit tee to help me read these.’”

Tufford assembled a five-person committee and whittled down the submissions to the 10 plays featured this year. Submissions came in from as far away as Florida, New York and Texas.

“We looked at dialogue — whether the dialogue seemed real to the style of the play. Does it move the story forward?” said Tufford.

This year’s winning script, “I, Cockroach” by Irene L. Pynn, is a creepy, absurdist commentary on relationships with nods and references to Franz Kafka’s horrific body transformation allegory “The Metamorphosis.”

“It is so clever, and I think it really does make a statement about what we value in a relationship, how people treat us and what we’re willing to accept or not accept,” Tufford said. “It’s just not (a script) that you’re going to see in this area.”

Renegade Theatre festival takes virtually all applicants for its non-juried performances, meaning the second weekend will feature a bounty of scripts that might not make it into a typical theater season. This year’s offerings include Rich Helder’s “Internal Enemy,” about the Armenian genocide in World War I; Sandra Seaton’s musical “Ogden Avenue,” about racial tensions in the ‘50s in Chicago; and Jane Falion’s “The Gales of November,” a rapid-fire retelling of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

For Badgero, these off-the-beaten-track shows belong at Renegade, which is designed to be a “safe place” for diverse story telling. But he hopes it is pushing local theater groups to take more risks in their season schedules.

“In small and large ways, that’s creeping into theater companies, perhaps emboldening companies and audiences to be braver in their programming,” Swan-Badgero said. “That is by no means the mission of the festival, but it’s certainly a byproduct. It’s absolutely thrilling to me in regards to crafting a theater community and a theatrical experience in our region.”

But it is summer, and there’s plenty of lighter fare, too. Improv productions, spoken word and a “Renegade Cabaret” provide a needed counterbalance to the edgier plays. The festival also includes lots of opportunity for audience feedback, including talkback sessions with the playwrights themselves.

If this expanded schedule feels a bit like drinking from a fire hose, Kaplan assures potential attendees that schedule grids and information booth attendants will be available to help navigate the festival’s offerings. As she glanced over the schedule for the second weekend, she composed a schedule that might provide a good variety.

“In the Absolute Gallery, you can see Raymond Goodwin’s play at 7 p.m. and then the Renegade N.O.W. winner at 9 p.m., and that repeats for all three nights,” she said. “And at the MICA Gallery, we’ve got Riverwalk at 7 p.m. — that’s a 25 minute show, so then you could walk up to the Red Cedar Friends and catch the 8 p.m. performances … .”

She paused for a moment and then admitted, “It’s kind of a monster.”

Renegade Theatre Festival

Aug. 11-13, 18-20 (See web for complete schedule) FREE Old Town, Lansing