Remembering lovably gruff Frank Hilgenberg; Scott Browning Zooms the Canterbury Tales into the 21st century

2020 has already provided plenty of painful object lessons about life's brevity, and the latest memento mori gut-punch was last week's passing of Frank Hilgenberg, the lovably gruff "uncle" of Orlando's theater community. A talented producer-director-performer from Chicago's Organic Theatre, Frank with his wife Fran ran Ivanhoe Village's much-missed Theatre Downtown for a quarter-century, and helped launch the careers of countless artists – including my own. I first encountered Frank while emceeing Theatre Downtown's production of The Rocky Horror Show in 2000, and over the next decade I worked on nearly a dozen shows there as a producer, director, designer and stage manager. Thanks to Hilgenberg, I was introduced to my extended artistic family – including other late local legends like Paul Wegman, Tommy Mangieri and Barbara Solomon – all of whom I'm sure are now sharing a whisky with him in the hereafter.

Hilgenberg's death, half a decade after his troupe was ungraciously evicted from their broken-down yet beloved building, elicited an emotional outpouring online from scores of friends and colleagues; many warmly recalled his long-winded curtain speeches, especially while introducing his signature annual production of A Christmas Carol. If there's any justice in this multiverse, I can only hope that the executives at Florida Hospital (now known as AdventHealth) who were responsible for forcing Theatre Downtown to close, and then allowing the structure to sit vacant for years, are now being haunted nightly by Hilgenberg's hectoring "Where the hell have you been?"

"What Frank gave us was a community," says Scott Browning, who performed in four shows at Theatre Downtown, and attended "almost every show they did, [or] I would always at least be there having a few beers afterwards." More than a mere artistic venue, the Hilgenbergs' home-away-from-home nurtured a unique social ecosystem where "you would have your conversations, you would talk about your dreams [and] aspirations," as Browning recalls. "And we just haven't had anything like that since Theatre Downtown closed."

The importance of community connections, even in the face of death and devastation, is something we could all stand to be reminded of right now. It also happens to be the central theme of The Canterbury Tales Project, which Browning's Howler's Theatre has updated and adapted for live-streaming performances on Aug. 21 and 22 benefiting Orlando Fringe ( The concept for this virtual production was born after Browning lost his job after nearly a decade performing at the Holy Land Experience when the religious attraction closed in March. He abandoned his plans to stage socially distanced live shows and instead began binge-watching Amazon's the Great Courses' 24-part lecture about the Black Death.

"I started watching that, I started thinking about Canterbury Tales [and] started asking a few questions," says Browning. "First, I looked for a published piece: didn't exist. And then I was like, 'Well, everybody wants to collaborate and work right now. So how about we do it this way?' So it's experimental; we're giving it our best try."

Inspired by the characters from Chaucer's unfinished medieval manuscript, The Canterbury Tales Project imagines an alternate reality where survivors of a modern-day bubonic plague meet in a modest motel along their pilgrimage to a healing shrine, and compete in a tale-telling game via video intercom.

Browning wrote and directed the "host" segments that bridge the stories, and recruited a who's-who of local writers and directors – including Irene L. Pynn, David Lee, Tara Kromer and two dozen more – to create five- or 10-minute-long scenes, which range from dramatic monologues to Thom Mesrobian's five-person musical (directed by Jamie DeHay, with music and arrangements by Erik Branch and Ben Shepler) to a "puppet show with humans."

"We have a range of different stories; I really wanted to get a bunch of different genres in there," Browning says.

Browning will bring those different genres – along with a 22-person-strong cast that includes Jamie-Lyn Markos, Eric Pinder, Jason Skinner, Tymisha Harris and Michael Marinaccio – together in real time over Zoom, with the aid of stage manager Love Ruddell-Cosgrove and Fringe marketing director Brian Sikorski.

With the possible exception of some prerecorded music, "Everybody's gonna be live, just like theater. So, stage manager calling 'five minutes to places,' having all the actors making sure they're paying attention so they don't miss their cue – everything that [we do] in theater, but just streaming," Browning says.

Like several other directors I've talked to about online theater, Browning hasn't been watching many virtual shows ("For the first few months, it was just too depressing"), but says that he's made "some fun discoveries" during the process of creating one. "Sometimes it's easier, sometimes I feel very disconnected, he says. "I hate that, but it's just part of the process."

So while he's putting the finishing touches on his Canterbury Tales, Browning is still looking forward to the day he can produce an in-person performance again, even if it has to be in a parking garage "using the cars as natural spacing, so [you] are guaranteed that you are six feet away from the next party." That sounds better than spending another opening night in my living room ... but we'd both still rather be back at the corner of Orange and Princeton, with Frank Hilgenberg forever holding court behind the bar.