By Stephen A. Mintz
It all started at the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission building about 14 years ago. Or 13. The Rogue Performance festival wasn’t much more than a few inspired locals putting on plays in a dusty dark room, folks filling the churchlike seats and clapping away at this one-off event.
Technically, of course, that isn’t true.
The Rogue Festival started in the backyard of Marcel Nunis, the famous Rogue muse being a distinctly cheap bottle (or three) of scotch. Nunis had developed a reputation for fearless original plays, put on for under $17 on stages (or in garages) throughout Fresno. Of all the local directors, his career was the longest for independent work, and he’d gathered a loyal team of actors and friends keen on supporting whichever little video, play or dream project Nunis would come up with.
Nunis was also known for habiting the local watering holes and coffee shops, providing a backbone for the Tower District and shopping relentlessly for bargain educational supplies online. He also was highly sought after as an instructor for underprivileged youth, slyly smiling as he encouraged their creative ideas to grow as artists.
So that one backyard soiree helped to get the first fringe festival off the ground in Fresno, as the local team of performers and directors listened and plotted to garner inspiration (i.e., steal all the ideas) from other fringe festivals like Edinburgh and San Francisco.
And now, Nunis sits back and simply enjoys the explosion of his labors and ideas. All of the original backyard crew of Rogues has given way to more than a hundred annual volunteers, a hardcore group of dedicated county-wide sophisticates and degenerates, all with the singular goal of providing Fresnans with the largest fringe festival this side of the Rockies, save for that persnickety Frisco holdout.
Performers come now from as far as Ireland and England, Canada and Mexico, and of course, from Fresno. Performances have moved to more than a dozen venues, loosely centered in the Tower District, with professional sets and lights, and yet still that special fringe feel.
The muse has moved forward to feature one local artist each year, with Tiffany Hurtado providing the official look for the current festival. Hurtado is a self-taught artist, known mostly for her enchanting doodles.
The festival has grown so much it requires three producers: Jayne Day is the mother of the tribe, having been involved the longest, and while she spends her days with middle-school kids (Miss Day is the most popular teacher at Cooper Intermediate, according to a poll of one), Day spends her nights organizing all of the business aspects of Da Rogue (as it’s known). Sponsors provide funds and programs and traded goods, and Day’s job is to keep all of that together. In addition, all of those performers (hundreds this year, literally) need to be paid at the end of the festival.
Nunis must still be proud his main edict remains after all of these years—all of the ticket monies, every penny, is returned to the artists after their shows. The hardcore staff (as they’re known) work for nothing, a true fringe not-for-profit. The Rogue sets and lights and many expenses are paid for by begging bucket collections after each and every show, with some minimal funds coming from T-shirt sales and minor fund-raisers held throughout the year.
Barbara Coy-Hogan cleverly envelops her husband Jonathan into the mix as co-producer, her first year as full staff. She whips the crews into shape and acts as ad hoc manager for the festival, but in reality she simply clones herself into multiplicity-style bodies and oversees everything from volunteers to the green rooms for performers to the late-night hotspots, the constantly updated Web site (www.roguefestival.com, naturally), and the Rogue center for all information and sales. It is she who will sweat the most on Feb. 27, opening day, not willing to wipe away the joy until the festival closes two weeks later in a party Nunis will proudly attend as the godfather of the event.
The third producer is a southern sparkplug, Amy Querin, who herself is a muse and director/choreographer and aerialist, founder of NOCO dance and who herself has performed many times at the Rogue, which included bringing her own venue to the site, the large Tower Theatre, which she filled over and over again with guest dance artists and her own NOCO works. The saying goes, if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it, and Querin fills that bill perfectly—she’s constantly on the go teaching and flying on fabric and performing and teaching and teaching again (let’s just say she has many teaching jobs).
These three accomplished women bring structure and order to the purposefully disordered nature of a fringe festival, where no juries oversee award-giving, where attendees go wherever the word-of-mouth tells them and where professionals to sparkle-eyed amateurs provide the goods.
Presenters have ranged in age from eight to 88 (seriously), and there is no possible correct description for the range of shows provided. Some performances may take place on the streets, in a bus, on a stage, or will be busked about as a marketing tool. Postcards and begging for audience members take on performance quality theatrics of their own, making the Rogue a living, breathing essence for two entire weeks.
There is no possible way to see every show. In fact, audience members must sit carefully with a Rogue Map (the essential program) and scope out a plan for attendance. Clever viewers will purchase a weekend pass for $75 (until supplies last, and they always run dry), allowing them entrance into as many shows as they can tolerate before passing out from too much art.
Speaking of art, performances aren’t always people-driven. There are films and videos within shows, and artists provide sculptures and paintings (remember that muse?) to be displayed throughout the fringe. At its most simple, the Rogue Festival cannot be described, except to say there’s an inundation of creativity with prospects for every possible observer. The Rogue is no longer a calloused group of old local hands trying to push their product and support each other through time and compliments; instead, it is a remnant of a dream provided through blurry eyes so many years ago, now grown to proportions only imagined by the godfather of it all.
Nunis can be spotted with his long hair and pith helmet, cradling a program and hopefully a cocktail, smiling like the cat who ate the canary, sitting in the front sections of any of more than 50 performances, remembering why he loves the arts. There are no limits to the Rogue, except for seats. Make sure you get in line early for the shows you wish to see, because once those seats are filled, once the Rogue has ended, the moment is gone.
Until the next year. And the next. And the next.
Nunis’ dream lives on, now in the hands of three capable producers, hundreds of dedicated volunteers and thousands of attendees. What you do with the experience is up to you.
Just the way Nunis intended.
Stephen A. Mintz is a freelance writer for national publications.