What does an A-list Fringe performer do while he’s on a Fringe tour? If you’re acclaimed solo artist Sam Mullins, you write a new show that’ll be premiering at Canada’s biggest Fringe Festival … just five weeks away. “I’m not even focussed on the show I’m currently performing every night,” he laughs. “I’m debuting it in Winnipeg — which, along with Edmonton and Vancouver are the three Fringes where you make all your money — so it better be good!”
Last seen locally at 2014’s Uno Fest with Weaksauce, the Toronto-based Mullins is now on his fifth year of Fringing — which, apparently, is enough to earn him “veteran” status. “It’s disconcerting to roll into town and hear people describing me as ‘Fringe veteran Sam Mullins!’,” says the writer-performer of the likes of Tinfoil Dinosaur and The Untitled Sam Mullins Project. “I mean, I was a ‘fresh face’ just a couple of years ago, and now I’m like Jem Rolls!” he laughs, citing the truly veteran British spoken word artist. (“I was just with Jem Rolls at Splash Mountain in Florida — he was on his 101st Fringe Festival,” Mullins offers as a thematic aside.)
When not Fringing, Mullins — who graduated from UVic’s Phoenix in the same year as fellow Fringe faves Peter ’n’ Chris and Ingrid Hansen — keeps busy as a staff writer for CBC Radio’s sketch comedy program The Irrelevant Show and as an in-demand storyteller contributing with the likes of The Moth, Definitely Not the Opera, and NPR’s This American Life. The winner of this year’s annual Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals lottery, Mullins is performing two different shows at nearly a dozen Fringes this summer: a bittersweet multi-character road trip called Grandma’s Dead (that’s the new show), and the Untitled Project that will be one of the 50 shows playing at the Victoria Fringe Festival.
“I find it helpful to get things out of my brain and onto paper, so these are four stories from one document that exists on my computer where I write my deepest, darkest truths,” he says of the Untitled Project. “So when I’m trying to come up with a story for a play, a sketch or a story, I like to see if I can pull something from that document and make light of it, turn it into something useful, then connect the dots.” Not that it always works, he admits. “Really the only thing these stories have in common is that they all started in this top-secret, really embarrassing Word document. But it’s turned into my favourite of my shows to perform, because the four stories are so unrelated and completely different in tone and scene and style.”
Living up to his “veteran” status, Mullins has also been busy mentoring the current crop of Fringe performers. After being asked for tips countless times, he decided to aggregate all his hard-earned suggestions in one long “advice blog” post (including such gems as “Bring good shoes,” “Don’t get your ass unfollowed,” and “Make your work better”). He also reached out to fellow Fringe veterans like solo superstar TJ Dawe (“Be interesting and funny with your curtain call speech”), the Wonderheads’ Kate Braidwood (“Don’t assume you’ll make money” and Promise & Promiscuity’s Penny Ashton (“Do publicity”). “That was my favourite part, asking all the people I respect the most on the Fringe circuit to contribute to it,” he says.
Obviously, Mullins loves the Fringe — and thinks you should, too. “We all value supporting the arts, but there’s no better way to support artists than at the Fringe,” he says. “It’s one of the only places you can perform where no one is taking a cut. The audience is just going and consuming the art and handing your money to the artist.”
Tips for (In)Frequent Fringers
The 29th annual Victoria Fringe Festival runs August 27 to September 6 at various venues around Victoria. If you’ve Fringed before, you already know what to do, but if this is your first Fringe, here are a few handy tips:
- Study your program guide and plan your shows. Follow the stars, but always try someone new.
- Get a button — and use it. The more shows you see, the cheaper that $6 button will seem.
- Talk to people in the lineups: it’s the best way to find out what’s good, what’s weird, and what not to miss.
- Make a day (or night) of it: many local businesses offer Fringe discounts for dinner or drinks, and you’re always welcome at the Fringe Club.
- Engage with the artists. One of the best parts of the Fringe is chatting with the stars of the show.
For complete festival listings and tickets, see intrepidtheatre.com
Words by John Threlfall
Published in analogue magazine’s August-September 2015 issue