This summer, while my friends were jetting off to exotic locales like Paris, Dublin and Reykjavik, I was driving off to Buffalo and Cleveland. For a moment or two I felt the bile of jealousy rise from my gut, until I reminded myself that I was getting what I wanted –- a chance to take my modest one-man show about life in middle age on the road.
In Buffalo, I would be one of many performers in their ten-day Infringement Festival, a gathering of musicians, storytellers, actors performing in a series of small venues around town. I didn’t know anyone in Buffalo, but the city was just three hours east of my hometown of Cleveland, and was basically on the way home. Besides, Buffalo’s festival, while not as high profile as similar gatherings in New York City and Washington, DC, was extremely democratic –- anyone could get in, without paying any registration fees.
One sticky morning in late July, I loaded up my Nissan with all the accoutrements I’d need on the trip: ten days’ worth of clothing, my Cleveland Indians ball cap with the politically incorrect Chief Wahoo logo on the front, my running shoes (which I wore once), and six audio-books, designed to help me pass the time and the highway miles, particularly on the dreaded New York Thruway, which has to be the most boring slices of highway this side of Lincoln, Nebraska.
The festival organizers offered to find housing for out of town performers, and so I was offered a place to stay, just a mile or two from the artsy neighborhood around Allen Street where the festival was located. There I was, a fifty-something guy couch-surfing in the apartment of the festival’s theater-maven, who was all of 22 years old.
I spent the next two days going to other shows, two magician/psychics, one fire dancer, and one man with wild gray hair who was supposed to talk about the cartoonist R. Crumb but who instead rambled incoherently for 15 minutes, until one of the five folks in attendance finally said, “I have no idea what you just said.”
After two days at the theatre maven’s, I moved over to the house of another young woman who volunteered for the festival. Joan lived in a large two-family house with a roommate and a mid-sized dog that had been abused by a previous owner. The dog, Bowser, barked furiously as I came in, then kept up a low growl as I carefully moved about the apartment. I’ve always viewed myself as a bit of an ‘animal whisperer’, but Bowser wasn’t impressed. When I went to gently pet the dog, despite my host’s suggestion that I ignore him, I found the Bowser’s teeth locked around my index finger. I extricated my hand, and found that the cut didn’t look all that deep, though it was bleeding steadily.
It was an hour to showtime, and now I had gauze and a bandage wrapped around my finger. But the show must go on, and it did, for an audience of eight people, one of whom worked at the gallery. At least I got a last minute offer of another place to stay, which meant that I didn’t have to go another round with Bowser, and earned about $40 in donations, enough to buy me dinner at a nice restaurant.
The next morning I drove down to Cleveland, where I was confident I’d have an audience of more than eight, which I did –- sort of. After Buffalo, I was particularly excited about sharing my stories, which included my frustrating, unrequited love for the Cleveland Indians and Browns in my hometown, where people would truly understand the heartbreak that is an integral part of being a Cleveland fan. (We are truly loyal, and deeply stubborn).
I was scheduled to do my show at a local florist’s, in an old firehouse down in the city. He sponsored a “First Friday” gathering, and I was slated to be this month’s entertainment, along with a photography exhibit and a woman who was promoting a new line of cosmetics. But when I arrived an hour before showtime, it quickly became apparent that folks were expecting a cocktail party rather than a show. It would be impossible for me to hold the crowd –- clumps of people standing around, schmoozing – for the full 50+ minutes.
I quickly changed my plans, and ended up doing three short vignettes. But for that relatively short time, I pulled in the crowd of 40 people, spread around the store. For most of that time, they were with me, locked in, and I tried to savor each moment, knowing this was as good as it was going to get -- on this trip at least.
Next summer, Cleveland is hosting the Gay Games, an international competition with events ranging from “Cheer” and chorus to figure skating. Several volunteers from the Game’s organizing committee came to my gathering and saw excerpts of my show. They liked what they saw, and in August of 2014, I hope to finally do the full show during the Games.
I had three main goals for the trip: to get my first fringe festival under my belt, to hopefully engage audiences who hadn’t yet read or heard my work, and to perform the show in Cleveland, the city where I grew up. Now, two weeks after landing back in Boston, I can look back at my 1500 mile-long journey and say, as Meat Loaf sang back in the ‘70s, “two out of three ain’t bad.”
Judah Leblang is a writer, storyteller and teacher based in Boston. He will be performing his show, “One Man’s Journey through the Middle Ages,” at Arlington Street Church in Boston on Saturday Oct 5 at 7:30 PM, paired with the singer/songwriter Maria Sangiolo. For tickets and more information, go to www.judahleblang.com or call 617-466-9637.