And the Beat Goes… Where?

One might think that if Westmont College and the word “fringe” are to appear in the same sentence about theater, it’s more likely to be something along the lines of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from the family-friendly musical “Oklahoma” than a visit to the outer edges.

But with its second annual Fringe Festival, the Montecito-based Christian college is once again taking performance to extremes, mixing arts disciplines, venues, locales and themes.

“We’re not a conservative Christian college,” explains Erlyne Whiteman, Westmont dance professor and the festival’s director. “Westmont considers itself an open evangelical college within a liberal arts setting. All of us are Christians by faith, but we don’t necessarily produce Christian art, so we’re interested in pushing the boundaries of theater, dance and performance.”

Hence the upcoming festival, which Whiteman says is meant to challenge the participants.

“The mission is to encourage students and faculty think in terms of experimental works rather than repertory pieces, to explore alternative spaces beyond the theater setting, go beyond what is typical,” she says. “If they want, they can adapt a play or a scene or some choreography, but it can’t be anything that’s already been out there a lot.”

The inaugural festival last April proved so successful that the program has been expanded for 2007, and now stretches to 18 segments spread out over a full six days – Tuesday through next Sunday, April 17-22.

Some of the more daring numbers to be presented at this year’s festival include “Influence” – from second-year participant Leah Benson and student Zak Landrum –which takes place on a trapeze. “It’s about the relationship between a man and a woman and how it changes over time,” Whiteman says, leaving the reader to extrapolate the metaphor of the apparatus.

Theater student Amber Angelo is directing “The Lottery,” which takes place in a ravine behind the science building.

Whiteman herself created “The Beat…,” which if it weren’t for copyright infringement issues would have “Goes On” in the title instead of ellipses. “Regardless of what happens in life, the beat continues to go on,” says Whiteman.

And all we can tell you about “Junk,” directed by theater student Diana Hall, is that it takes place in the department’s costume shop. “The performance itself is a surprise, so I can’t go into details,” says Whiteman.

There’s even a presentation that actually does directly echo the college’s religious approach: the biblical piece “At the River of Jordan,” from guest director Maria Rendina Frantz of Motion Theater Dance Company.

If it seems all the works are somewhat disjointed, that’s the point.

“The cohesiveness has to do with the idea that every piece is a fringe,” says Whiteman. “It could be a separate piece that belongs to one whole patchwork quilt, but so far between last year and this year there hasn’t been a cohesive theme.”

On the other hand, says Whiteman, the pieces are frequently “seamed together” by individual artists participating in the works.

“There may be a film clip that makes the transition,” she explains. “Or a dancer might invite the audience to move along with her from one piece to the next, or an actor step out of character and bring people on to the next performance in order to keep things connected. We ask the audience to move, too.”

Indeed, at the Fringe Festival, the audience is a big part of the production, Whiteman says. Which is why despite the fact that there may be up to 10 elements within a single evening’s performance, there are only three official starting times announced.

“We want to encourage people to see the entire evening, although you can come and go as you please,” says Whiteman. “But the idea is for them to see as much as they possibly can. It’s a more fulfilling theater experience for both the audience and the performers that way.”

(Fringe Festival performances are at 7 pm, 8:15 pm & 9:30 pm Tuesday-Saturday, and 4:30 pm & 7 pm Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 for an evening of three shows or $35 for all six days. Call 565-7140 for reservations and updates.)