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Orlando Fringe Winter Mini-Fest features a world premiere from award-winning clown-provocateur Dandy Darkly

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Between the shame of already broken New Year's resolutions and the depressing lack of daylight, we could all use a little artistic pick-me-up about now. That makes this weekend's fourth annual Orlando Fringe Winter Mini-Fest (see page 32) the perfect post-holiday hangover cure.

The January spinoff of the spring's signature theater event takes over the Lowndes Shakespeare Center for four days featuring acclaimed encores from 2019's Fringe festival, including John Mark Jernigan's Goodbye (direct from NYC's SoHo Playhouse) and John Michael's Meatball Séance, alongside new-to-Orlando festival circuit hits like Jon Bennett's It's Rabbit Night!!! and Orlando Fringe theater producer Lindsay Taylor's solo show, The Lightweight. And for the first time, Mini-Fest patrons can see staged readings of four shows that will return as full productions in May, or bring their children to a Kids Fringe "Mini-Mini-Fest" on Saturday morning.

But the most exciting element of the Fringe Winter Mini-Fest is the opportunity to experience a world premiere from award-winning performer Dandy Darkly, the psychedelic storyteller behind All Aboard!, last year's Critics' Choice for Best Show. I spoke with Darkly – via his creator, Neil Arthur James – ahead of this Friday's public debut of his latest piece, California Screaming!

How did you initially get into the theater, and what was your career like before creating Dandy Darkly?

My first big laugh was in kindergarten as the Cheshire Cat during a reading of Alice in Wonderland. I've been addicted to laughter ever since. Community theater. Drama school. Shakespeare. I "gave up" acting in my 20s, however, and began writing a fiction blog about this sissy exorcist named Dandy Darkly. And in 2010, I had an opportunity to bring him to life on the Stonewall cabaret stage. From there I've built a little performance niche for myself that continues to grow. 

What are the origins and influences behind your Dandy Darkly alter ego?

Growing up I loved those hilariously mean-spirited comedians like Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. Horror hosts, too – Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and the Cryptkeeper. It was a brand of campy dark comedy that this closeted country boy couldn't define at the time but just knew it was fabulous.

How did you come up with Dandy's distinctive costume and makeup, and how do they contribute to your performance?

The face is an homage to drag goddess Divine, another influence, painted over the sad clown Pierrot. Dandy's costumes have gotten more thematically focused over the years. For All Aboard he was a train conductor, and for California Screaming, Dandy's a Golden Age Hollywood director with beret and jodhpurs. 

How has the Dandy character been received by audiences, especially outside New York?

Outside of New York is where Dandy Darkly thrives. The U.K. and especially the South, where there's a celebrated history of folk storytelling. I don't know about my beloved NYC – too often "who's in the audience" ranks higher than "what's on stage." Tastemakers, aggregate scoring websites, that sort of crap is the death of weird theater, in my opinion.

There are New York producers who will take a gamble on outsider art: Horse Trade Theater, Dixon Place, SoHo Playhouse – their Fringe Encores series is top-notch. But I'm not swayed NYC is where it's at nowadays. I mean, after a decade of Dandy Darkly in the East Village it took me leaving the city to get my biggest run there. So thank you, Orlando Fringe!

What have your previous Orlando Fringe experiences been like?

Incredible! There's nothing like Orlando Fringe. That sounds pandering, but it's true. The enthusiasm for those crazy few weeks is unlike anything else. Last year was especially special. Dandy Darkly's All Aboard! received the top honor on awards night.  

And why did you choose to debut a new show at Winter Mini-Fest?

Well, festival producer Michael Marinaccio invited Dandy with the note he'd love something "new." And I'm a masochist, so sure – why not? Thankfully this show is an idea I've had on a back burner for a while now. Three of the tales I've performed previously, all relating to an iconic Hollywood scream queen named America's Sweetheart. So most of the writing, memorizing and music was already done. 

Speaking of the music, what is your process for developing the soundtracks for your shows, and how do you time your performance to the music so precisely?

The music is completely improvised during our recording phase. We start with the words and sound effects, then typically piano followed by percussion, synthesizer, bass, guitar, saxophone and more. I'm blessed to know some incredibly gifted musicians, and we jam and record for a long weekend. The stories initially inform the music, but the music becomes the backbone that the show rests on. A Dandy Darkly performance is rehearsed to the second, but Dandy makes it look off-the-cuff because we improvise it from the start.

Are you looking forward to anything outside the Fringe during your Orlando visit?

Galaxy's Edge [at Disney's Hollywood Studios]! Do you have a ticket to spare? Can anyone help a clown out?

This story appears in the Jan. 8, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.

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