Actor, Director, Playwright Tara Varney On KC Fringe: 'It's Seat Of Your Pants Theater'

Jul 14, 2016

With about a week to go before the kickoff of the 12th Annual Kansas City Fringe Festival, local actors and performers are rehearsing intensely for the 11­-day festival that includes theater, dance, cabaret, and spoken word.

On a recent Wednesday night, actors read through their lines in the living room of Tara Varney's South Kansas City home. This year, Varney, a KC Fringe veteran, is directing a new play by Kevin King, Mimi Dafoe: Confessions of an Aging StarletIt's about a young filmmaker, Jennifer Critchlow (played by Devon Barnes), who tries to coax a reluctant aging actor Mimi Dafoe (played by Bonita Hanson) to cooperate in an interview. 

Hunched over her notebook in a corner of the room, Varney took notes.

Devon Barnes goes over her lines with Bonita Hanson as the two rehearse for 'Mimi Dafoe: Confessions of an Aging Starlet.'
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

For eight years in a row, Varney and Bryan Colley collaborated on creating new works for KC Fringe, such as Sexing HitlerKhaaaaan! the Musical, and Red Death. The two are taking a break this year, but that hasn’t stopped Varney from being involved in Fringe. 

Along the way, Varney says she's learned the key to a successful Fringe Festival production: getting all the elements right before arriving at the theater for tech rehearsal. But, even then, she says things can still go wrong.

Hanson and Varney check discrepancies in the text. A last-minute script change did not make it into the latest version of the play causing a hiccup in the rehearsal.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

“It’s seat of your pants theater,” says Varney. “All of your actors and everything else has to be exactly the way they need to be by the time you get to tech because you only have three hours. That is nothing. Typically, a show will tech for several days.”

But Varney's found that Fringe audiences are forgiving. “They know the shows are very raw because it’s the nature of the beast. The audience isn’t expecting perfection," she says. "Now you want to give them perfection. It would be really awesome if they got swept up in the whole production.”
 

Hanson (Mimi Dafoe) spars with the young journalist in the new play by Kevin King.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

According to Varney, once in a while all the elements can come together, but sometimes a production is still rough.

Varney shared vivid memories from opening night of the Star Trek spoof Khaaaaan! the Musical in 2010. The lights came up on Captain Kirk (played by Jay Coombes), and he waited in the spotlight for the music to start. No music. 

“Suddenly, Bryan [Colley]’s next to me in the booth, he can’t find the CD,” recalled Varney. “It’s really very obvious that something has gone wrong. There’s no way to hide it because he’s just standing there waiting.”

Moments passed and things began to get awkward, says Varney. “So Bryan was freaking out and then I was freaking out because you can’t have a musical without music,” she says with a laugh.

Colley did eventually find the CD, "but the audience was just laughing but they weren’t laughing because something went wrong.They were laughing because it’s Fringe. Of course something’s going to go wrong."

Barnes, (from left) Hanson, Varney and stage manager Jill Gillespie go over the notes from the evening's rehearsal.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

Despite the stress of bringing new productions to the stage, Varney says she looks forward to the festival each year because it helps her grow as a performer, director and playwright.

"We really base our lives around Fringe week. Fringe week, nothing else happens," she says. "It’s hectic, it’s stressful, it’s manic, it’s chaotic and it’s wonderful. There’s really nothing like it."

Kansas City Fringe Festival runs July 21 - 31, at area venues from downtown to midtown in Kansas City, Missouri. Attendance also requires the one-time purchase of a $5 festival button, available at any participating venue. Check KC Fringe Festival for a complete schedule.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.