Brüka Theatre Takes Original Work to New York International Fringe Festival
A guy who’s about to commit suicide is interrupted by a fugitive bank robber who wants to take him hostage at gunpoint.
Though it sounds like a card pulled from a deck of Table Topics or the opening to a dark joke, it’s actually the premise of New Canula, an original play by Gary Cremeans of Brüka Theatre. Yet it’s a play that could actually be described as anything but dark, and its future may be very bright indeed.Lonely Hearts Club
Billed as “an original, unromantic, feel-good dramedy,” New Canula tells the story of two lonely men at the end of their ropes who find solace in their new, unlikely friendship.
John Wayne McGillicuddy (played by Cremeans himself) gave himself the “cool” nickname of J. Dubbs to impress his friends, but in the end he still has none. Alone, unsuccessful and going nowhere, he’s about to end it all when Bull (played by David Simpson) breaks into the apartment waving a gun and threatening to kill its inhabitant if he doesn’t do as instructed. The only problem is that he’s unwittingly given J. Dubbs his fondest wish.
Through the course of the play, the men realize they are more alike than they would have imagined, and their new friendship gives them redemption and hope.
Gary Cremeans came up with the idea as a college student and originally wrote it as a short story under a different title. Then, in 2014, producing artistic director Mary Bennett was looking for submissions to Brüka’s annual original short-play invitational, the Biggest Little Theatre Festival. Bennett approached Cremeans, a company member, about submitting something, and he decided to dust off this story for the stage.
“I’d never written a play, but I figured, ’How hard could it be?’” Cremeans laughed. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into … I didn’t know if anyone would laugh or hate it or what.”
Meanwhile, Bennett was wrestling with some real-life personal heartbreak. Her mother, Mary Ann Bennett, was terminally ill and in hospice care.
“My mom was a nurse, and she had this crazy sense of humor,” Bennett said, explaining that Mary Ann was wearing a canula constantly to assist her with breathing. “She would describe hospice for me, with nurses and visitors coming and going, and she said she felt like she was holding court. People would come in and tell her stories, or they’d write her letters and I’d read them to her, or she’d dictate letters to me and I’d write them for her … She would joke that she was living in this magical place called ’New Canula.’”
In her darkest moments before her mother’s death, Bennett shared these stories with Cremeans, and he liked the idea of New Canula, a place where even the darkest moments in life are imbued with light and hope and humor.
“It’s this place you can go where things will be better,” Bennett said. “You get to a place in life where everything’s going wrong. You want a place of hope, and this represents that idea in a really great way. There is a place you can go where there’s hope.”
It became the perfect title for Cremeans’ play, which honors Mary Ann Bennett as well as his own Grandma Betty, whose witty aphorisms and lessons for life are woven into the story.
“J. Dubbs is constantly referring to her good manners, how this criminal came in without being invited, how he’s using the lord’s name in vain,” Cremeans said. “It’s really sweet but not sappy in its portrayal of how these two men are dealing with their situations, and how this one-hour meeting changes their lives.”
“So much humor is divisive and negative, but this isn’t,” Bennett said. “This is a kind play.”Fringe Binge
That first production of New Canula in November 2014 was met with enormously positive response and suggestions that it should be entered into some festivals. Bennett took those suggestions and submitted the play to the highly selective New York International Fringe Festival in January 2015. Though it wasn’t accepted that year, a second submission in January 2016 struck gold. It became only the second show from Brüka to be accepted to the festival (the first was The Medea Project in 2012).
The three involved—producer/director Bennett, Cremeans and Simpson, who happens to be Bennett’s husband—opted to improve their Fringe game by taking New Canula to the annual, open-access Hollywood Fringe Festival in June, where they were at the time of this writing.
“New York is really the clincher to being able to get this show touring, but we needed to find out the environment,” Bennett said. “Hollywood is so local, 90 percent of the groups registered are local companies, and they all know each other and have been here forever. We’ve learned so much, but it’s still teaching us about New York Fringe, about new plays being done regionally and nationally. And the huge thing is that it’s representing Reno and Brüka in a larger place.”
The Hollywood festival ran a full week in June, and Fringe NYC goes two weeks, August 12-28. Getting to Hollywood and New York, not to mention lodging, food and associated fees and expenses that come with their involvement, is costly. Putting up the show in New York alone will be about $15,000 in all, Bennett said.
The company has actively been working to raise money to fund this dream, starting with a GoFundMe campaign. And they’re pinning high hopes on two fundraiser performances of New Canula on July 10.
The New Canula trio have committed to supporting this effort with everything they have, financial and otherwise, because they have seen the rewards such efforts can reap. They’re among the many theater companies who have returned home from previous Fringe festivals ready to mount the new works they caught there at their own theaters.
“If your show is popular, you can generate audiences, so your company is winning,” Bennett explained. “But also the theater will be interested in keeping you there because they’ll make money from it.”
The potential for having New Canula selected to remain in New York, picked up by other theater troupes or even optioned by Samuel French or another licensing company is worth the effort and costs to get themselves there, they said. So is the benefit for Reno’s art community at large.
“One of the neatest things is that many people we know from Brüka have gone on to New York from Reno, and we’re now working with them to get them to help us, to represent us out there,” Bennett said. “We’re connecting the dots with people we know and creating a larger base for people to perform, to band together and create a community that supports the show there. … We’re starting to get Reno on the cultural map.”