The Gurus of the Hollywood Fringe Festival Explain How to Put on a Show

Producer Max Oken and director Brandon Baruch
Producer Max Oken and director Brandon Baruch
Photo by Bill Raden

This post is the first in a series of posts following one show through the Hollywood Fringe Fest.

It’s a Thursday, May 14, and the cast and crew for House of Rabbits — Charivari in Voyeurville, the hour-long rock ‘n’ roll, neo-burlesque musical-in-the-making, is just filtering into the spacious downtown rehearsal room. The show is scheduled to open in roughly three-and-a-half weeks at Hollywood’s Lillian Theatre as part of this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival.

There’s not a lot to look at yet as choreographer Angela Lopez of Post Mortem Movement Theatre, her associate producer Kyle Johnston and a handful of dancers run through some warm-ups. The pressure is on. But for a Fringe show, Charivari in Voyeurville is in remarkably strong shape.

For one thing it is being directed by Brandon Baruch, a six-year Fringe veteran, whose comedy No Homo was a critical and box-office smash at the 2014 Fringe. Baruch’s deep experience in navigating the zero-budgets, lightning-fast production schedules and audience-building challenges that help sell out Fringe shows and win home awards — which last year included Best Ensemble Theater, Best World Premiere, an Encore Producer’s Award and the Golden Elephant Award for Best Playwright — has earned him the unofficial title of Guru of the Hollywood Fringe.

For another, this year Baruch is reteaming with No Homo producer Max Oken of Praxis Limited Productions. Oken, originally a radio producer from San Francisco who relocated to L.A. four years ago, dove into the Fringe as a means of expanding into theatrical production. This will be Oken’s fourth Fringe. Oken is also a facilities manager for the Kirk Douglas Theater, which explains why Charivari in Voyeurville is in a rehearsal space at the Center Theater Group’s Grand Street annex. Being a CTG employee has its perks.

But in a very real sense, and in spite of past successes, Baruch and Oken are exactly where the other hundreds of Hollywood Fringe shows are at this point — unknown entities vying for the audiences and limited critical attention available for what each year is the mind-blowing, three-week onslaught of tiny shows, running June 11-28, in a town that on a busy weekend might see ten stage show openings.

Angela Lopez, second from left, puts Post Mortem Movement Theatre through their paces
Angela Lopez, second from left, puts Post Mortem Movement Theatre through their paces
Photo by Bill Raden

“Fringe is a process in which you have no time to get everything done and then put up a show,” Oken says matter-of-factly. “This is a process where not only do you have no time, you have no budget, you have no support. You are literally out there on your own, attempting to make connections with other Fringers, with other theaters, to find a way to make this happen. It’s literally ground-up.”

Oken and Baruch first met at the Douglas, where Baruch had worked several times in his capacity as one of Los Angeles’ top lighting designers. But their Fringe relationship began in earnest only last year, when Oken attended an early reading of No Homo and decided to come aboard as something of an executive producer — raising money and making sure that Baruch had the resources to mount the show.

Charivari in Voyeurville came together in late February, when Oken was having a drink at a Culver City bar near the Douglas and had a chance conversation with bartender Jess Gabriell Cron, who was also the lead singer and songwriter for the avant-metal band Feast of Fetus. The band had just taken a new direction into a more theatrical vein and Cron had written a concept album under the new name House of Rabbits.

"I listened to it,” Oken recalls, “and I was like, ‘Do you have anything written down? Like any sort of story?’ And I read the story, and I was just like, ‘Yes. This could be something.’ So we immediately started developing that. And then I went and found people who I thought could help develop the piece. So I went to Post Mortem Movement Theatre, got them in here, and they really jumped on the idea, and I brought Brandon on, because I knew he would be able to help collaborate.”

Ian Malcolm, left, Jess Gabriell Cron, Andy Kovari, Baruch and Oken
Ian Malcolm, left, Jess Gabriell Cron, Andy Kovari, Baruch and Oken
Photo by Bill Raden

Baruch describes Charivari in Voyeurville as a bit of Greek tragedy, a little Moliere, a little Restoration Comedy and a lot of burlesque, courtesy of Post Mortem.

“I like to think of it as an annotated rock concert,” Baruch muses. “It’s very much about the music. So, yeah, it’s a rock concert with additional stimulus. We’re looking for new ways to help tell the story along with the music.”

Today, Baruch and Lopez build a stylized fight sequence around the fifth song from the show, a driving, operatic number called “The Beating of Senor Hammerheart.” As Cron and the band’s keyboardist Ian Malcolm and guitarist Andy Kovari run through the song, five women dancers repeatedly swoop like malevolent crows, kicking, punching and elbowing Johnston around the performance floor.

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During a brief interlude, Baruch confers with Oken about the need the need for more masks to suggest the bird characters, and the producer whips out his smart phone and begins dialing — he just may be able to lay his hands on the costuming from a show he produced several years back with a San Francisco designer.

Shortcuts like that allow Oken to mount the ambitious musical as a Fringe show for a fraction of what it would have cost as a traditional independent theater production.

The Gurus of the Hollywood Fringe Festival Explain How to Put on a Show
Photo by Bill Raden

“If I were to have a co-production with another company,” Oken observes, “the budget would go up astronomically. The production budget would be, I can say that, about eight grand for the show right now — as a Fringe show, which is really high for a Fringe show. But because of the connections Brandon and I have — our access to materials and other things like that — we’ve cut it almost to a third.”

As it turns out, this is Oken’s last full day at rehearsals. From this point on, he’ll be devoting himself to generating the buzz that is essential for a Fringe hit. It will begin in earnest at a show benefit a few days later at the Mint, where House of Rabbits will perform the songs in concert. The video harvested from that event will then become the centerpiece of what Oken and Baruch call “the big push” that begins the week before opening.

“We’re going to film this,” Oken says. “We’re going to have a lot of photos. We’re going to have quotes. We’re going to like be talking to the audience a lot. We’re going to get other people talking about us that night. If you can get it spread out as wide as you can right before you push, then everybody who went and saw that show will be, like, ‘Yeah! That show.’"

House of Rabbits — Charivari in Voyeurville begins previews on June 8.


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