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Site-specific Fringe productions not afraid to get wet

Melissa Aston didn't expect to become "a poo warrior." But when your rehearsal and performance space is a duck pond swarmed by geese on Granville Island, raking the grounds for waterfowl souvenirs becomes a daily routine.

Melissa Aston didn't expect to become "a poo warrior."

But when your rehearsal and performance space is a duck pond swarmed by geese on Granville Island, raking the grounds for waterfowl souvenirs becomes a daily routine.

"I'm on a losing end of a battle, me and my rake," said Aston, who'll perform her solo show, Duck Off, during the Vancouver International Fringe Festival, Sept. 8 to 18. "But I feel like I'm making a difference, a little bit, and that feels good."

Aston had wanted to develop a show that takes place on water when she learned about an initiative called Fringe Onsite and its workshops developing site-specific shows on Granville Island for the festival.

According to the festival's executive director David Jordan, the plan was to have a Fringe "explosion" all over Granville Island. "We just wanted to put theatre in every nook and cranny," he said.

Enter pond right. In Duck Off, Aston's alter-ego Cosmo-the clown she morphs into when she dons her red nose-is obsessed with sailing. So taking Cosmo from her cardboard box sailboat with its paper towel sails she's floated on stage to a pond made a lot of sense, said Aston.

But it hasn't been smooth sailing. Aston has had to reach a "tentative" understanding with the pond's geese and ducks. On top of that, her first borrowed dingy disappeared from her storage space, her cheap replacement took an hour to fill and then deflated within 10 minutes and she's on her fourth pump.

Still, with the help of director Ian Wallace, co-founder of Pochinko Clown Technique, she's written a clown tragic-comedy that will take Cosmo on a journey replete with a transformation, in an interactive show produced by Kazoomco Clown Theatre, where Aston is head clown.

Duck Off is Aston's first sitespecific show, but the 37-yearold Kitsilano resident and native of Quadra Island brings years of experience to her performance.

Aston taught herself to juggle, hooked up with community theatre before joining community circus and studying circus clowning at the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco.

In 2005, she toured across the United States, travelling with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on a train that was more than a mile long.

"I was working with 11 other clowns. They were all male, and mostly very young. Half of them were Hungarian, for some reason, that year, so that was interesting," Aston said. "I learned a lot of Hungarian drinking songs and some other bad words in Hungarian."

Aston performs at festivals, corporate events and with Flying Not Falling, a local vaudeville act, and appears as a juggler in internationally exhibited artist Stan Douglas's Midcentury Studio collection.

The 27th annual Fringe includes 17 site-specific performances, 13 of them developed through Fringe Onsite. Aston is impressed by the diversity of what her peers have shaped.

"We've got a superhero, we've got the duck person, we've got some sort of underwater creature in a raft happening under the wharf-it's everything," she said.

Jordan says the onsite project not only makes Granville Island even more animated, but he also sees the Fringe Festival assisting artists in the creation, not just the production, of new work. Fringe Onsite collaborates with an established theatre company, The Only Animal, and nurtures a new generation of site-specific artists. Jordan said the project quickly attracted financial support from RBC and the city. And free outdoor settings make good money sense.

"It's another way to add opportunities for artists where we didn't have to go out and rent venues, which is really a huge cost," he said.

The Fringe Festival includes award-winning plays, awardwinning production teams and emerging artists from far and wide performing in musicals, serious dramas, comedies and more.

For more information, see vancouverfringe.com.

crossi@vancourier.com Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi