15 Anniversary Artist Interviews: Pinky Swear Productions

If you had to choose just one company that represented the growing influence and opportunity that the Capital Fringe Festival offered DMV theatre companies in the early 2010s, you’d likely Pinky Swear Productions.

Their ebullient series of Cabaret XXX performances in the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent –  Les Femmes Fatales (2011); Love the One You’re With (2012); Who Do You Think You Are? (2013); Everyone Fucking Dies (2014) – provided a soundtrack for a tent (and a bar) that had become the summer hub of the region’s theatre community.

And if you didn’t have a sassy Pinky Swear company member apply a temporary tattoo to a part of the body you specified on a sultry summer night? Well, you missed out.

But the Pinky Swear story had to start somewhere. And it started at Fringe in 2009 – not with a musical, but with a production of Carson Kreitzer’s play, Freakshow.

“We were like: ‘We need to put on a Fringe show. Oh, cool, okay,’” recalls Pink Swear co-founder Allyson Harkey.

Karen Lange, Pinky Swear co-founder, and current artistic director adds that the company selected Freakshow because “we had to find something that had roles for all of us because we had met in acting class. And we wanted to work. Freakshow seemed to fit our sensibilities. It was kind of dark, but there were some comic moments – and it had some really great parts that were well-rounded, and had real arcs to the characters.”

That Freakshow centered on the experience of women was also essential. “Honestly, we were looking for something that had a lot of women in it,” says Harkey. “We were watching our friends have a paucity of shows to audition for – and the ones they could audition for were not shows you really wanted to do. Or shows that I wanted to do or go see. So that was the point.”

Harkey and Lange recruited Lise Bruneau (company member at Taffety Punk and a renowned actor and director in DC) to pilot Freakshow. The new company had a lot to learn – including how to prepare a straight drama for the bumptious outdoor atmosphere of the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent.

“When we were put in there,” Lange recalls, “we were like, ‘This is completely appropriate for the show because it’s set in a sideshow.’ We thought that was cool. But, then, we’re like, ‘Okay. Some of us are wearing long-sleeved wool. Period costumes for the late 19th century. I don’t think that we were entirely prepared for how hot it would be.”

Harkey concurs: “I think Fringe put us in the tent because we had a show named Freakshow that took place at like a turn-of-the-century carnival freak show. But the script is much more of kind of a quiet heartfelt drama…. We were doing these quiet moments and long monologues.”

It was fair to say that Pinky Swear wasn’t ready to take full advantage of the unique atmosphere. “We bitched and moaned about the fact that you know, everything was so loud at the bar,” says Lange, “and could they keep quiet? It was a losing battle.”

The 2009 Freakshow experience in the tent did help Harkey and Lange and their Cabaret XXX collaborators shape the shows to that atmosphere in 2011 and beyond,

“The tent was perfect for Cabaret XXX,” says Harkey. “because you wanted to do that show in a hot, sweaty environment that felt like a rock club. We really had to form our show around how uncomfortable our audience was. “We had to be quicker. And we had to be more on the ball. We couldn’t have extreme dips in energy, because then we would lose people.”

Lange remembers “the fantastic rush every time we went out on stage [for Cabaret XXX]. The crowd response was tremendous…. What the Cabarets were for me was oxygen. You come out and you suddenly can breathe in a way that you haven’t before.”

That ride to Fringe success began with Freakshow – and both Harkey and Lange point to one specific memory from 2009 that seemed to encapsulate the experience of reckless abandon and artistic power that the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent could provide.

It was a night when one of those powerful and much-dreaded summer thunderstorms blew into town just as Pinky Swear was performing.

“One of the things about the tent was that you’re at the mercy of the elements,” says Lange. “In that thunderstorm, all this water was sluicing over like the electric cables. We had to basically say: ‘Time out.”

It wasn’t as easy as merely taking a break.

The tent flooded with water,” Harkey recalls, “and I remember so clearly that I’m sitting on stage, and I’m playing Amalia – a character with no arms and no legs. So I can’t improvise getting up and leaving.  I’m watching like small rivers of water come through the audience. The venue manager came in and started lifting up electrical boxes off of the floor and putting them on bricks so they wouldn’t be in the water. And I remember thinking we’re all going to die.

But Pinky Swear made it work in their own inimitable way. A cast member carried Harkey offstage until the storm passed.

“What happened next was such a wonderful moment,” continues Harkey, “that I think for me encapsulates the invigoration that comes out of being in a situation like that year after year. My co-actor carried my character back on stage and set me down and we started again. The audience just erupted in applause that we were all back – and we were going to carry on.”

 – Richard Byrne

If you had to choose just one company that represented the growing influence and opportunity that the Capital Fringe Festival offered DMV theatre companies in the early 2010s, you’d likely Pinky Swear Productions.

Their ebullient series of Cabaret XXX performances in the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent –  Les Femmes Fatales (2011); Love the One You’re With (2012); Who Do You Think You Are? (2013); Everyone Fucking Dies (2014) – provided a soundtrack for a tent (and a bar) that had become the summer hub of the region’s theatre community.

And if you didn’t have a sassy Pinky Swear company member apply a temporary tattoo to a part of the body you specified on a sultry summer night? Well, you missed out.

But the Pinky Swear story had to start somewhere. And it started at Fringe in 2009 – not with a musical, but with a production of Carson Kreitzer’s play, Freakshow.

“We were like: ‘We need to put on a Fringe show. Oh, cool, okay,’” recalls Pink Swear co-founder Allyson Harkey.

Karen Lange, Pinky Swear co-founder, and current artistic director adds that the company selected Freakshow because “we had to find something that had roles for all of us because we had met in acting class. And we wanted to work. Freakshow seemed to fit our sensibilities. It was kind of dark, but there were some comic moments – and it had some really great parts that were well-rounded, and had real arcs to the characters.”

That Freakshow centered on the experience of women was also essential. “Honestly, we were looking for something that had a lot of women in it,” says Harkey. “We were watching our friends have a paucity of shows to audition for – and the ones they could audition for were not shows you really wanted to do. Or shows that I wanted to do or go see. So that was the point.”

Harkey and Lange recruited Lise Bruneau (company member at Taffety Punk and a renowned actor and director in DC) to pilot Freakshow. The new company had a lot to learn – including how to prepare a straight drama for the bumptious outdoor atmosphere of the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent.

“When we were put in there,” Lange recalls, “we were like, ‘This is completely appropriate for the show because it’s set in a sideshow.’ We thought that was cool. But, then, we’re like, ‘Okay. Some of us are wearing long-sleeved wool. Period costumes for the late 19th century. I don’t think that we were entirely prepared for how hot it would be.”

Harkey concurs: “I think Fringe put us in the tent because we had a show named Freakshow that took place at like a turn-of-the-century carnival freak show. But the script is much more of kind of a quiet heartfelt drama…. We were doing these quiet moments and long monologues.”

It was fair to say that Pinky Swear wasn’t ready to take full advantage of the unique atmosphere. “We bitched and moaned about the fact that you know, everything was so loud at the bar,” says Lange, “and could they keep quiet? It was a losing battle.”

The 2009 Freakshow experience in the tent did help Harkey and Lange and their Cabaret XXX collaborators shape the shows to that atmosphere in 2011 and beyond,

“The tent was perfect for Cabaret XXX,” says Harkey. “because you wanted to do that show in a hot, sweaty environment that felt like a rock club. We really had to form our show around how uncomfortable our audience was. “We had to be quicker. And we had to be more on the ball. We couldn’t have extreme dips in energy, because then we would lose people.”

Lange remembers “the fantastic rush every time we went out on stage [for Cabaret XXX]. The crowd response was tremendous…. What the Cabarets were for me was oxygen. You come out and you suddenly can breathe in a way that you haven’t before.”

That ride to Fringe success began with Freakshow – and both Harkey and Lange point to one specific memory from 2009 that seemed to encapsulate the experience of reckless abandon and artistic power that the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent could provide.

It was a night when one of those powerful and much-dreaded summer thunderstorms blew into town just as Pinky Swear was performing.

“One of the things about the tent was that you’re at the mercy of the elements,” says Lange. “In that thunderstorm, all this water was sluicing over like the electric cables. We had to basically say: ‘Time out.”

It wasn’t as easy as merely taking a break.

The tent flooded with water,” Harkey recalls, “and I remember so clearly that I’m sitting on stage, and I’m playing Amalia – a character with no arms and no legs. So I can’t improvise getting up and leaving.  I’m watching like small rivers of water come through the audience. The venue manager came in and started lifting up electrical boxes off of the floor and putting them on bricks so they wouldn’t be in the water. And I remember thinking we’re all going to die.

But Pinky Swear made it work in their own inimitable way. A cast member carried Harkey offstage until the storm passed.

“What happened next was such a wonderful moment,” continues Harkey, “that I think for me encapsulates the invigoration that comes out of being in a situation like that year after year. My co-actor carried my character back on stage and set me down and we started again. The audience just erupted in applause that we were all back – and we were going to carry on.”

 – Richard Byrne

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