click to enlarge Stéphanie Morin-Robert with her daughter, Olive

Photo courtesy of the artists

Stéphanie Morin-Robert with her daughter, Olive

Do you have to be nuts to take a toddler on a six-month North American Fringe tour? 

Maybe, baby

The 28th annual Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival is upon us, and as this year's "Fringe for All" slogan indicates, the emphasis this year is on audience diversity. Of course, the Fringe has long been famous for welcoming patrons of every creed, culture and orientation, and now you can also add age bracket to that list. With programs like Kids Fringe and Fringers of the Future (see our Fringe ABCs), there's a place at the festival for children from preschool to high school. But how about taking a pre-toddler to America's longest-running uncensored, unjuried arts extravaganza? The very idea of escorting an infant around the Orlando Fringe for a full day – much less the entire fortnight-long event – probably sounds exhausting to most parents. Well, two of the international Fringe touring circuit's most popular "power couples" became trios last year, and both will be presenting in Orlando with year-old babies on board.

Martin Dockery, who is returning for his 10th Orlando Fringe, is known for both his critically acclaimed solo shows (The Surprise, Delirium) and the award-winning plays like Moonlight After Midnight that he's performed with his wife, Vanessa Quesnelle. Their daughter, Elliadora, was born on the opening night of last year's festival, and she'll be celebrating her first birthday in Orlando.

Stéphanie Morin-Robert is an award-winning monologist and member of the The Merkin Sisters, one of last year's weirdest shows; Alastair Knowles is one half of the physical comedy duo James & Jamesy, who are reviving their fan-favorite 2 for Tea this year. Together, they conceived Olive at the 2017 Orlando Fringe, and debuted her during last year's festival, making her a three-festival veteran before age 2. I conducted interviews with both young families during the run-up to this week's ribbon-cutting, and received some insight on what it's like to juggle parenthood with performing while living the Fringe lifestyle.

Both couples met at Canadian Fringe Festivals (Dockery and Quesnelle at London, Ontario; Knowles and Morin-Robert at Montreal) and, after several years of touring, neither was necessarily planning on taking a newborn on the road. As Dockery put it, "We were totally taken by surprise. We were not trying to have one. Turns out, we're not good at not having a baby."

All four say they consider touring to be their jobs, so quitting the Fringe circuit wasn't an option. Only six weeks after giving birth, Quesnelle and their newborn joined Dockery's tour across Canada. And after traveling with their infant daughter to over 50 stages across North America and the U.K. during her first year, Knowles and Morin-Robert say they still think it's the life best suited for their little family.

Of course, having a child has changed the way these artists experience the Fringe, especially the social aspect. On the one hand, as Knowles says, "We party waaaaaay less, and unfortunately see few shows, which is tough because so many of our dear friends are staging their new shows, and we love being a part of that excitement." Quesnelle and Dockery say that they're blessed with a pretty easygoing little girl, but that "you can't predict exhaustion, or the feeding and sleeping needs of a newborn. A big part of the process of having a newborn is accepting that you are no longer in control of your own time."

On the other hand, having babies has helped both couples connect with fellow Fringers in fresh ways, making them excited to bring their offspring to Orlando. Olive's parents say she loves people, "and there's so many people – staff, patrons, volunteers, and artists – that are following her Fringe journey." And Elliadora's mom and dad say they're "looking forward to her interacting with the general Fringe community, who are our extended family, in many ways."

On stage, parenthood has also had an impact on these performers' art. Knowles began conceptualizing Ink, his first-ever solo show, long before Olive's arrival, but he says her birth helped sharpen its message: "Don't take the things you depend on for granted." Dockery's monologue You Belong Here is about his child's birth, and was composed during sleep-deprived walks with a newborn strapped to his torso: "If the show seems a little unhinged, now you know why. If you see me perform it, please imagine four extra limbs coming out of my chest."

Even more than either father, Morin-Robert says parenthood has "shifted my work in a huge way." She and Olive star in her new one-and-a-half-woman comedy, Eye Candy, which is about Morin-Robert's transition into motherhood and how it changed her artistic priorities. The show recounts the 56 hours she spent in labor, and focuses on "normalizing conversations about body image, postpartum depression and trauma caused by sexual abuse," Morin-Robert says. "I push these subjects in hopes that my baby girl will one day feel empowered to also openly talk about these things."

Bringing a baby to the Fringe isn't for everyone, but according to Dockery and Quesnelle, "because of the community that is the Fringe, it is not as difficult as it otherwise would be." And for anyone considering following in their footsteps, Morin-Robert and Knowles have this crucial piece of parting advice: "Conserve your energy! Focus on your family and the shows you have to perform."

arts@orlandoweekly.com

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