The Time Two Capital Fringe Performers Had to Make a New Set. From Cardboard. In 103 Minutes.
When the Capital Fringe Festival offered Jacy Barber and Jason Patrick Wells an additional primetime Saturday slot for their show The Clocks, the pair didn’t hesitate to accept. The annual festival thrives on nimble productions that often juggle out-there concepts with unusual performance spaces, so for the couple, adding another show in another venue was an easy call.
Less than two hours before showtime, Wells and Barber had cause to reconsider their enthusiasm: As far as they could tell, part of their set had been tossed out with the trash.
At 7:47 p.m. on Saturday, Wells called Capital Fringe Artist Services Manager Alex Engel in a panic, saying there was no way to perform the show without a collection of about 15 pieces of cardboard that he’d cut to precise dimensions. The curtain was scheduled to go up in 103 minutes.
Engel conferred with Capital Fringe Executive Director Julianne Brienza. Tickets had been sold. Tweets about the added performance were flying around. Engel called Wells back to deliver the clichéd verdict: The show must go on. She asked him what he needed to make the show work.
Cardboard, Wells told her. Lots of it. And a straightedge.
The theme of the eighth Capital Fringe Festival, as it happens, is “Turning Cardboard Into Gold.”
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The Clocks includes a key sequence wherein a puppet controlled by Barber withdraws a series of objects from within the body of a six-foot-tall replica grandfather clock made out of corrugated cardboard. Wells, hiding behind the cardboard façade, passes the props to the puppet. Without that fake clock, the scene wouldn’t play. “You can’t pull something out of nothing,” Wells says.
Wells and Barber are partners in Not a Robot Theatre Company. Their debut production aims to explore the effect of objects on our memories. It’s inspired by an experience Wells had when he 12. Two of his friends were brothers whose father ran a clock-repair shop. When it went out of business, the proprietor didn’t return the clocks he’d been working on to their owners. “He kept them. He put them in his attic,” Wells says. He recalls being over at the brothers’ house, playing video games, when a former customer pulled up in a pickup truck and pounded on their door, angrily demanding the return of his clock.
Something about that afternoon lodged in Wells’ mind for decades. But he’s aware that the very act of revisiting the memory has probably altered it. “Memory is sort of like a cassette tape,” he says. “You can put them aside and not play them, or you can think about them and investigate them. But the more you do that, the more they degrade.”
Wells and Barber moved to Capitol Hill from New Haven, Conn., last August. He and Barber previously were affiliated with a New Haven company called A Broken Umbrella Theatre. The relocation offered them the opportunity to strike out on their own. “We’re really interested in using nonverbal, nonlinear techniques—puppetry, movement, objects, masks—to tell stories,” Wells says.
Their show incorporates all those elements, but it’s still intimate in scale. Wells and Barber are the only performers. There’s no tech crew; the audio/video elements come from a pair of boomboxes and a projector, all positioned on and operated from the stage. That portability is one reason Fringe offered them an additional performance when the cancellation of four shows in the festival made some desirable time slots available, according to Engel.
The Clocks opened Friday, July 12 at Studio Theatre’s Stage 4, where its remaining performances will take place. But the Saturday night show added to the slate was booked at the Goethe-Institut at 7th and I streets NW, about a mile away.
The fact that Capital Fringe venues host multiple shows throughout the festival requires producers to load in and out within 15 minutes, says Engel. After their opening performance at Studio on Friday night, Wells and Barber carried their puppets and equipment down to Wells’ Volkswagen Jetta. He recalls leaning the cardboard pieces of the clock against a wall next to the elevator. Disassembled, the clock just looks like a bunch of flattened boxes, Wells admits. It’d be easy to mistake it for trash.
Not until he was driving to the Goethe-Institut for the added show the following day did Wells realize he couldn’t find the cardboard panels in the car with the rest of the gear. He called Barber. She hadn’t seen them, either.
Wells immediately detoured to Studio Theatre. He’s worked at Studio as an electrician, so he knew all the places to look. He checked the dumpsters and recycling bin in the alley behind the theater complex, rainwater trickling down his neck as he rummaged through garbage bags. Nothing.
According to Studio Theatre publicist Liz O’Meara Goldberg, the theater’s staff stays clear of the Stage 4 space while it’s being rented by Capital Fringe; not even Studio’s cleaning crew goes up there. With other shows loading in and out of that space throughout the day Saturday, the potential for someone to discard the cardboard by accident seems reasonably high.
Wells called Engel. In keeping with the “Cardboard into Gold” theme, the interior of Fort Fringe had already been decorated with cut cardboard panels. Fortunately, a large box that had stored a kegerator remained intact. “It was a big box,” says Engel. “You could live in it.”
Capital Fringe Production Manager Austin Byrd and Julia Larsen, Brienza’s intern, grabbed the flattened box and carried it west across New York Avenue NW and then south down 7th Street—“probably taking out a few Deltas along the way,” Engel jokes. The sidewalks surrounding the Washington Convention Center were packed all weekend with red-shirted attendees of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s centennial convention. Buses heading to or from the same event had snarled traffic in Chinatown, where the Goethe-Institut is located. Behind the wheel of his gridlocked car, Wells was freaking out.
When Wells finally arrived at Goethe, Engel asked how she could be most helpful. Wells asked her to park his car, which she did. With less than an hour remaining before the house was set to open at 9:15 p.m., Wells prioritized. The other set pieces could be sacrificed, but building a new grandfather clock was essential.
Byrd, Larsen, and Niusha Nawab—the Goethe-Institut Gallery’s venue manager—began slicing and folding, right on the stage. The clock they managed to rig under Wells’ direction wasn’t perfect, Wells said, but it was good enough.
“It was nice cardboard,” Wells says. “Better than what we had.” The show, as it had to, went on.
The Clocks’ next performance is tonight at 9 p.m. Wells told me he and Barber planned to construct a new set before then.
“It’ll probably go a little faster this time, since we’ll have done it three times now,” Wells says.
He chews that over for a moment before revising himself. “Actually, it’ll probably take a little longer than the second one.”
Illustration by Jandos Rothstein. Image by Julianne Brienza, courtesy Capital Fringe.