Fringe Online 2020
In 2007, American actor/writer Peter Michael Marino wrote a musical based on the Madonna film “Desperately Seeking Susan,” featuring the hit songs of Blondie. It opened on London’s West End…and closed a month later. Whoops! This high-octane, comical solo train ride fills in the blanks of how the $6 million musical was made and unmade. From hatching the idea, to deals with producers, MGM, Debbie Harry, and even Madonna…all the way to thrilling workshops, dangerous previews, scathing reviews, closing night, and beyond. Experience this notorious award-winning tale LIVE on your computer.
Theatre closures are forcing artists to find new ways to connect with audiences. Here, Peter Marino brings his very successful fringe show, “Desperately Seeking The Exit”, to a worldwide audience. (N.B.There are two ‘live’ reviews on the Fringe Review website). This review focuses on the online show, presented via Zoom on Wednesday 13th May 2020. This show was a fund-raiser for Frigid New York, and the preview to an online run. There is an underlying assumption that readers are familiar with Zoom, or other online group meeting software.
Joining the Desperately Seeking The Exit meeting, comes with its own set of instructions. Get there early, leave your microphone on, and behave like you are in a theatre. The aim is to make the viewing experience as ‘real’ as it can be. Unfortunately, no matter how many attendees are enjoying the show, it can’t fully capture the ‘live’ experience. This doesn’t mean the show isn’t worth watching, it is.
Taking an established live show, and performing it to a worldwide audience in this fashion, is both brave, and exciting. Adaptation is required; Peter has dressed his set, worked out his lighting, scripts are too hand, screens and cues are loaded, the tech is sorted, and places are correctly positioned for the dance sequences to fully fit the frame. Although some of AV is basic, for example playing audio over a handheld Bluetooth speaker and some of the pictures and video were not of premium quality, it does not undermine what he is trying to do.
While the audience waits for the show to begin, Zoom shows clips of cast interviews, show clips and Blondie songs. Already there is an upbeat anticipation brewing. The Blondie songs invite the audience to sing along, live microphones are inclined to stop you.
Viewing Zoom gives a strange perspective. Part of one’s focus is on the action, then you notice yourself looking back at you, before registering other audience members faces. It seems almost impossible to not be a little self-conscious, as random strangers from around the globe look into your home. You also get a frontal view of their reactions to the show. This wouldn’t be noticeable in a live theatre, where the audience looks the same way but here it is a part of the performance. It is worth noting that as Peter moves on with his story this feeling/experience lessens, only returning when the story finishes and a general chit chat ensues. Had the show lacked engagement or been boring, the audience would have become an easy distraction. If the new technology becomes mainstream, we will have to get used to this and performers will need to decide if they want camera’s on or off.
The show proper, starts with a POV shot taking the viewer from a Google Images view of New York, through the streets and into apartment 8F, where we meet Peter.
As he introduces himself, the show and covers the housekeeping rules, it’s clear he is a character. Bright, bubbly, outgoing, positive, cheery and slightly anarchic. He’s lively, there is a good chance the audience is going to like him.
Sitting at his computer, he tells how the show came about, of his Anglophillia, how he retired from STOMP, his love of POT and his dislike of Marmite, before explaining how, on one over-medicated evening, he came up with the idea of mashing Madonna’s hit movie, Desperately Seeking Susan, with the music of global pop superstar and icon, Blondie. As he says, “who doesn’t love both of these?”
Just hearing the idea, even without reading a script or seeing a show, it sounds like a lot of fun.
Peter explains how the idea took hold, how he wrote an outline, how it got picked up, how successful workshops led to investment, and how its charmed life led to London’s West End, where everyone was going to be showered in accolades and cash. Life-changing it certainly was.
The story moves to London, where Peter’s Anglophillia is dialled up to 11, sadly things quickly start to go wrong and they keep on going wrong. It wasn’t only issues with the show that caused concern, Peter had some difficulty in dealing with the British. Turns out that there was a significant cultural divide between his outgoing, emotive, American ways, and the famous British reserve, its language and customs. Being British, there seemed some incongruity in his examples. Whilst some of the American stereotypes about Britishness contain more than a grain of truth, several seemed at odds with my understanding of British culture. For example, it seems unbelievable that anyone could think that a British audience in 2007 wouldn’t understand the use of the term ‘Pot’ or that they had not watched more than enough American TV, including Desperately Seeking Susan, to not understand the Port Authority Bus Terminal. It’s possible that people were messing with him.
His impressions of the British were amusing, largely well-observed but overplayed with a Dick Van Dye mockney accent. This may well work better in a live setting, where proximity and gesture would add a comic twist to the delivery. Via Zoom they were less effective, and a more accurate British accent may have served to make the point more effectively. Alright mate! Cheers!
Eventually the opening night arrives, its the high-point of Peter’s career. Everything was wonderful, until the next day, when the reviews sounded the show’s death knell. This led to a dark period in Peter’s life, much introspection, depression and despair. He understands much of what went wrong with the production and why it failed. He is frank about the difficulties he had in coming to terms with the closing of the show. But this is an American tale, and as such, there is a happy ending, which I will not spoil.
Peter is open and engaging, he runs through emotional moments with honesty. The story is compelling, there are genuine laugh out loud moments. Whilst hearing others laughing on Zoom is not as infectious as having them laughing next to you in a room, it shows that jokes have hit home.
Ultimately, what Desperately Seeking The Exit shows is that if you have a great story, if it’s funny, moving and real; and if the teller relates it with honesty and passion, the technology becomes secondary. People from all over the world can still enjoy it, in spite of the the glitchy broadband connection, the grainy image and the shonky sound caused by too many microphones being on. Hopefully, at some point, I will get to see the show as it was meant to be, I think I’d enjoy that.