The Louisville, Ky.-based Clark went on to learn how to do magic himself, working extra hard on sleight-of-hand to compensate for his poor motor skills. Now, at 23, he’s a college graduate and full-time stage magician who does everything from weddings to a kids’ show as the character “Conductor Cody.”
But Clark has found one sort of showcase particularly receptive to his craft: fringe festivals, those increasingly popular programs highlighting smaller-scale, often unconventional performance art. Clark has played fringe fests in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, with bookings forthcoming in Orlando and Kansas City. And his show Cody Clark: A Different Way of Thinking is among the acts at the fourth annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival. “At a fringe fest,” he says, “they are very open to anything being an art.”
This year’s festival runs March 31-April 2 and features 30 acts, up from 19 last year; there’s also visual art, and more music. And while the festival is still mostly contained within a few square blocks on the North Side — including social club St. Mary’s Lyceum, a venue from last year — new locations include the nearby Alphabet City, Allegheny Inn Bed and Breakfast and, serving as “Fringe central,” Artists Images Resources.
The acts, most of whom perform two or three shows each over the weekend, are a mix of local and national talent. Pittsburgh Fringe, like most fringe fests, is uncurated. But Xela Batchelder, in her second year as Pittsburgh Fringe organizer, says 13 of this year’s 30 acts are nationally touring.
Some, like Boston-based humorist Randy Ross’ sex-and-love-themed monologue The Chronic Single’s Handbook, have played Scotland’s fabled Edinburgh Fringe. Philadelphia-based performer Bradley Wrenn, who’s also played Edinburgh, brings his solo, medieval-knight-themed comedy piece Cockatrice. Other fringe-fest faves include The Portable Dorothy Parker, Grove Goddess Productions’ one-woman show about the famed author and wit reminiscing about her famous friends (Hemingway, Fitzgerald) and career.
Other likely fest highlights include One Man Apocalypse Now, in which Philadelphia-based Chris Davis acts out what he calls a dark-edged “comedic send-up” of the legendary 1979 film. Speaking by phone, Davis says he’s been fascinated by Apocalypse Now since viewing it in the 1990s, as a high school student. His 50-minute show finds him acting out a condensed plot with rewritten dialogue but all the key characters, including Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard, Dennis Hopper’s whacked-out photographer, Marlon Brando’s iconic Kurtz and even a female stripper. “It’s good for dark times,” says Davis. The show premiered this past September at Philadelphia’s fringe festival, and is booked at Edinburgh, where Davis has performed three years running.
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Locally based productions include Eva & Hillary, Erika Fricke’s satirical play imagining a conversation between the über-charismatic Eva Peron and the wonky Hillary Clinton. The 30-minute work stars Jennifer Tober and Emily Askin, and asks, says Fricke, “What do we really expect of our female leaders?”
Other Pittsburgh Fringe acts include: Betsy Carmichael’s BINGO Palace, an interactive comedy led by a Buffalo, N.Y.-based drag performer; Approaching Happiness, a monologue on happiness and mental health by Washington, D.C.-based comedian Krish Mohan; The Dorothy Matrix 8-Bit Orchestra, in which a Philadelphia-based drag queen conducts a classical-music concert with an orchestra comprised of vintage Nintendo Game Boys; The Pink Hulk: One Woman’s Journey to Find the Superhero Within, New York-based Valerie David’s monologue about surviving cancer; The Seven Suitcases of a Snake Oil Salesman, with storytelling, magic, juggling and more by O’Ryan the O’Mazing; That Really Funny Improv Show, from St. Louis; and Bent Antennae Productions’ Triage, an edgy sendup of “reality” competitions. April 1 brings the one-night-only Fringe StorySlam, an open-mic competition.
For his part, Clark, the young magician, will deliver an hour-long theatrical magic show built around the story of his often challenging life. Rather than a stunt-driven approach, he says, “I really like the more personal approach to magic.” His tricks reflect life episodes, like one in which he conjures boxes of Velveeta mac-and-cheese to recall his grandmother’s cooking, or represents his struggles learning magic with autism by doing the cut-and-restored-rope trick.
Clark is especially happy to make his Pittsburgh debut because of a certain local icon. “Mr. Rogers has been such a big influence on me,” he says. “I couldn’t really be the macho man, but for Mr. Rogers that was OK.” In Fred Rogers, Clark says, “I found an example of manliness that I could get behind.”