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BWW Feature: Iceland's Reykjavik Fringe Is Far From Melting Away This Summer: The Show Will Go On!

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by Valerie David

In the wake of COVID-19 and cancellations of fringe festivals across the globe, Iceland's RVK Fringe Festival is forging ahead. Providing a platform of live-streaming and in-person performers from all over the world, Icelandic audiences and beyond will gather from July 4th-12th for this exciting event.

Valerie David, writer, performer and producer of the multi-award-winning global hit The Pink Hulk: One Woman's Journey to Find the Superhero Within, interviews three of the performers on their experience with this pandemic and how they are adapting their performances, including The Pink Hulk.

BWW Feature: Iceland's Reykjavik Fringe Is Far From Melting Away This Summer: The Show Will Go On!Iceland... what do we imagine when we think of it? When I was a kid, I used to fantasize it was a land full of giant, glistening ice cubes all around, its inhabitants residing in ice houses with sparkling icicles dangling from the roofs, trees and flowers. Ice was on everything - even suspended from natives' noses. And they survived eating Fla-Vor-Ice freezer pops, which was a staple in my diet as a child (and still is) in multicolor flavors like lemon-lime, grape, orange and cherry. In fact, it was their only food source and water from ice cubes was their only liquid source. I always wanted to go there. I was obsessed.

Flash forward to 2020 - my childhood dream would be fulfilled with my invitation to perform July 4th to July 12th at this summer's third annual Reykjavik Fringe Festival (RVK Fringe) in the country's capital. Flying out from my home base of New York City, I was finally going!... Whoops, I mean am I still going? Whoops... I mean I can't go because of a travel ban!... Whoops, I mean I'm kind of still going... but virtually! This global pandemic is not preventing me from performing, along with 48 unstoppable acts participating in the genres of theater, standup, fine art, poetry, photography and so much more. My inspiring, comedic solo show on how I became a three-time cancer survivor, titled The Pink Hulk: One Woman's Journey to Find the Superhero Within, will be among a worldwide representation of artists from Sweden, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Finland, the U.S., the UK, Mexico, Canada and Spain, along with local Icelanders.

The RVK Fringe is forging ahead, even in the wake of the mothership of all fringe festivals, Scotland's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, having fully canceled its programming this August - the first time in its 73-year history.

The RVK Fringe will still be a place for us to create our art and entertain audiences globally. It will be hosting live, in-person performances in addition to those of us live-streaming: 32 local live shows and 16 live-streamed from abroad using the Crowdcast streaming platform. Because of the pandemic, attendance is understandably down from the 100+ performances last year, but is on par with the original number of 50 from its 2018 debut. Pretty darn impressive for a city with approximately 131,000 residents. Living in Manhattan with a population of about 1.6 million, I witnessed the official March 12th shutdown of all theaters and cultural institutions until further notice-with the most recent announcement that there will be no theater re-openings until at least the beginning of 2021. The Great White Way is dark, with Times Square, known as the Crossroads of the World, at a complete standstill.

By contrast, Nanna Gunnars, the RVK Fringe Festival Director said, "There was never a complete lockdown in Reykjavik. Bars, some restaurants, hairdressers, swimming pools and gyms closed down in March. No more than 50 people were allowed to gather in one place. However, the restrictions have been lifted in stages throughout May and June." (thus, allowing the RVK Fringe to continue).

And more of my nostalgia: I'd like to call the Reykjavik Fringe "The Little Engine that Could," the children's tale by Watty Piper that is celebrating its 90th year. As the animated train climbs up the hill, meticulously, slowly but determined-heavily puffing, it says, "I think I can... I think I can." Then climaxing at the top of the mountain, it exclaims, "I thought I could!" Just like the Little Engine, the RVK Fringe made it to the top. According to a CNN June 19, 2020, travel story by Max Foster and Mick Krever, "Ultimately, Iceland's screening and contact tracing system has been so efficient that it can boast one of the lowest [Corona] virus death rates in the world."

BWW Feature: Iceland's Reykjavik Fringe Is Far From Melting Away This Summer: The Show Will Go On!
Dan Zerin (photo by Vilborg Happy
Friðriksdóttir)

This positive statistic for Iceland is demonstrated by the latest congregating number allowance: "Five hundred people can gather now, and all places that were closed have reopened, although there's a restriction on bar opening times. Things are pretty much back to normal," said Gunnars.

The mega-popular Secret Cellar, Iceland's first and only comedy club located in Reykjavik, will be presenting most of the live in-person acts. Boston-born Dan Zerin, living in Iceland for the past 5 years and one of the owners, described the temporary shutdown from March as "torture," though he adds that the reopening has seen the club "swarmed with our regulars."

At age 21, as a result of a Tourette's Syndrome diagnosis, Zerin co-created and is the host of the award-winning variety show My Voices Have Tourettes, borne out of the need to de-stigmatize mental health with both humor and honesty, and centers around comedians who have disorders/syndromes. Co-founder Elva Dögg, who also has Tourette's, shares the Secret Cellar stage with Hannah Proppé Bailey (schizophrenia), Carmela Torrini (autism), Þórhallur Þórhallsson (anxiety), Stefnir Benediktsson (bipolar disorder) and Steindor Haraldsson (autism), to raise awareness of these conditions in an entertaining way.

At this year's RVK Fringe, Zerin will be performing My Voices Have Tourettes again for the third year in a row at his club, where it debuted in 2018, and he'll also be presenting Squeak, his new solo play about one of the most significant physical manifestations of his Tourette's. "It [Squeak] came about for obvious reasons-the high-pitch squeak in my voice is the tick I feel the most embarrassed about, and I knew I had to own it. It's just so silly, and when you sound like Mickey Mouse all the time, you have to joke about it," Zerin laughed.

All kidding aside, My Voices Have Tourettes has garnered rave reviews and awards from other Nordic fringe festivals. Zerin mentioned that when his mom saw the show, "She had no idea of what I was going through, and the truth is that we don't speak about it. Getting people to talk about it is just amazing."

One memorable moment was when an audience member in his 70s who had Tourette's told Zerin after a performance that he had never seen anything like it and how much he identified with it. "Nothing gets done like this stuff, and that's what makes the show so important and rewarding," Zerin added.

Multitalented Nick Jameson, also a standup comedian in Reykjavik, has a long and storied career as an actor, comedian, voice-over talent, musician, recording artist and record producer. Acting roles include Russian President Yuri Suvarov on 24, Richard Malkin on LOST, and guest-star roles on Seinfeld, The Drew Carey Show and NCIS. Jameson was a member of the classic rock band "Foghat" and voiced over one hundred video games. A regular at The Comedy Store in LA, Jameson found comedy gold in the Secret Cellar for his routines.

Though he considers Philadelphia his hometown, it was when Jameson saw the Bobby Fischer Against the World documentary, which features the '72 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, that motivated Jameson to visit Iceland. "I moved here from LA. It's been five years now, and I've never looked back." A staple at the Secret Cellar, he said, "It's such a tight-knit community and we love each other and support each other," adding, "Iceland is beautiful, and the people are lovely."

BWW Feature: Iceland's Reykjavik Fringe Is Far From Melting Away This Summer: The Show Will Go On!
Nick Jameson (photo by Greg Crowder)

Jameson will be performing his solo show, Why Are You So Old?, inspired by a guy in the audience who came up to him after a comedy show performance and exclaimed, "Hey, you're really funny! But... why are you so old?" It's a moving mashup of stories, music and song, a combo of comedy and drama that he performed last year for the first time in the RVK Fringe and has revised it with new material for his 2020 performance.

This pandemic has offered him a time of self-reflection when things were closed down in Reykjavik. "It [the pandemic] has been subtly affecting my life and getting me to question it. Stuck in my apartment, I started to work on my show and record music."

The drawback of the isolation has been two-fold, though. "I miss hanging out with friends and seeing each other's work."

Returning to the Secret Cellar since it reopened, Jameson is trying out his new material, despite the lack of onstage practice time because of COVID-19. Not a stranger to obstacles in his career path, Jameson's first version of the show in the RVK 2019 Fringe happened despite suffering from pneumonia, moving twice before the Fringe and pulling 18-hour days to get it done in time. Jameson said, "The reception was great last year. There is some really serious and emotionally moving stuff-it's half funny and half not, with reflective dialogue plus comedic and non-comedic songs that I really felt resonated with audiences."

Jameson has been embraced by the Reykjavik comedy scene, despite the age difference between him and his fellow, younger stand-ups. He has more energy than most of his younger counterparts, he jokes. As to the future of Why Are You So Old?, his ambition is to "make the work as good as possible, eventually touring abroad and possibly adapt it to film."

U.S.-born Koschka Bahr grew up moving around different countries, but considers Berlin her home. With an untraditional upbringing, she was raised communist and Pagan, living in squats within East Berlin. With those experiences, she gained a unique world perspective and sense of humor that fueled her future career as a performer.

"As a teenager I was out of control since no parents were around, just substitute also out-of-control parental figures," Bahr said. They taught her about the best dumpster diving spots and how to not get caught. "So when I say I was raised by squatter punk cats in East Berlin, it's actually true. They were humans, but living like feral cats," she added. She reflects that the city at that time was quite different from how it is today.

Once a student of linguistics and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, she now divides her time among Berlin, London, Reykjavik and her home base of LA, where she has also performed standup at The Comedy Store.

Bahr will be performing from the West Coast, joining the other 15 live-streaming acts, with her solo show Pure Evil: A One Man Show About My Cat.

Pure Evil is described as "a comedic journey down the rabbit hole into the inner world of a ragtag Special Agent Task Force and a Secret Agent Cat who stands accused of creating Pure Evil-the feral human girl he took in and raised as his own, as they seek to prove his innocence to the world." In fact, Natalia Pawlowna Putinka, her character, was created out of living in that Soviet era, Communist time.

BWW Feature: Iceland's Reykjavik Fringe Is Far From Melting Away This Summer: The Show Will Go On!
Koschka Bahr (photo by Anthony Mongiello)

Like many of us, Bahr had to adjust to living in the age of COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown, loss of income and cancellation of in-person performances. She lost her job at the famed Upright Citizen Brigade Theater, one of its co-founders comedy star Amy Poehler, when it was shut down in March. Being unemployed and unable to perform her improv comedy several times a week-and missing the chance to try out her play's characters in front of a live audience-began to take an emotional toll.

However, pre-coronavirus she had put some of them onstage, after completing a character creations class, and she was blown away by the encouraging feedback and support from the audience.

Bahr said, "I learned that it is more about the character itself, the physicality and the funny quirks, rather than what the characters actually say. I brought them to life, and they are all different bits of my personality: the angry side, the bossy side, the socially awkward-and making that a relatable connection with the audience. I'm embracing all of it!"

In fact, Bahr's play has new cast members performing with her-her real feline friends. "This is a unique opportunity to have all three of my cats be in the actual RVK livestream performance, as well as my current foster kitty, Birdie. This is something I could never do live onstage in front of an audience," she added.

The star cat of her show is her male feline Pantalaimon, AKA Papa Kitty, named from the 2007 movie The Golden Compass. It's his "one man show." Bahr said, "He is the best Papa-I've learned so much from him, and we definitely have many wild conversations." Her play, she adds, is a special tribute to his amazingness and strangeness.

Bahr idolizes cats as "they don't ask permission and they don't apologize for who they are." "And that's something I would love to do more in my life-something females in particular seem to do too much of. I've learned from Pantalaimon that if you sit around waiting for other people's approval and permission, life will pass you by," she continued.

The RVK Fringe, her very first fringe, will be in memory of Bahr's beloved grandmother who passed away in April (not from COVID) and always encouraged Bahr "to keep doing what she's doing." Bahr feels, "I am honoring my grandmother by pushing through the muck, adapting to life's challenges, instead of letting them defeat me."

And as for me, my award-winning solo show's journey began in 2014 when I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. In July of that year, I was in Aruba with one of my best friends celebrating my 15th anniversary of being cancer-free of Stage 3 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

BWW Feature: Iceland's Reykjavik Fringe Is Far From Melting Away This Summer: The Show Will Go On!
Valerie David (photo by David Perlman)

I had found a lump under my armpit three months earlier, and decided to get it checked after the Aruba trip when I noticed it grew in size and became concerned. And that lump turned out to be breast cancer, and subsequently, that was the birth of The Pink Hulk-being so angry for having cancer a second time. I knew then that I had a story to tell, having been diagnosed with two different kinds of cancer.

Eight months after I finished my surgery, chemo and radiation treatments, I began to write and couldn't stop. Less than six months later, it became a full production in 2016.

But that's not where my story ends. In 2018, as I was entering the theater for a tech rehearsal for The Pink Hulk performances in Portland, Ore., I received a phone call from my New York oncologist who told me from my routine checkup and follow-up tests, they had unfortunately revealed Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer that spread to my bones. Though absolutely devastated, I was determined not to let cancer take me down. I performed that night and finished the run.

The Hulk persona of anger returned, as now I had cancer a third time and it was much more serious. I continued to tour The Pink Hulk as I began a regimen of oral medications. Miraculously, after five months of treatment, the medication worked. As of 2019, there has been no evidence of disease-no trace of my cancer. I incorporated this into the show, reflecting the Stage 4 diagnosis and conquering it, making my show's message of never giving up hope even more powerful.

The Pink Hulk has been accepted into 32 festivals to date. Thirteen have been fringe festivals, including four in the Nordic Fringes: Gothenburg and Stockholm in Sweden, Lahti in Finland, and now the RVK Fringe. Having performed in dozens of cities in the U.S. and abroad, I fell in love with the Nordic Fringes-one of my favorite geographic locales to perform-beautiful cities with such friendly, warm peeps!

I applied to the RVK Fringe after Gunnars saw The Pink Hulk in Stockholm last year, and she encouraged me to apply. Thrilled to have been accepted and still be able to do it virtually, I will be live-streaming excerpts from my show, followed by a talkback and Q&A with the audience. As has become my custom, I will be raising money for a local cancer organization.

In 2021, my plan is to come in person to Iceland, with the hopes that COVID-19 will not prevent travel, and perform The Pink Hulk in its 75-minute entirety. Thank you, RVK Fringe, for the home you are giving all of us artists. I can't wait to carry out my lifelong childhood fantasy to see the land of shiny ice cubes, icicles and popsicles. Though I hear those world-renowned hot springs of yours might also be an adult dream of mine to fulfill, too!


Valerie David is an award-winning actor and playwright residing in New York City, and the writer and performer of the critically acclaimed solo show The Pink Hulk: One Woman's Journey to Find the Superhero Within. She wrote the autobiographical comedic drama The Pink Hulk as a cancer survivor to express the empowerment she felt being able to find humor and superhero inner strength going through three bouts of cancer. Her story has been impacting audiences globally with its universal message of hope and empowerment. Valerie is currently developing her new solo show Baggage from BaghDAD about her father and his family fleeing Iraq in 1941 from religious persecution-and how their survival shaped who she is today. Valerie also teaches improv and writing classes across the country and worldwide. For more info, visit https://pinkhulkplay.com/.


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