Friday, August 26, 2016

IndyFringe16: Loren Niemi: Bad Brother...Good Human

Loren Niemi, a storyteller based out of Minneapolis, is perhaps best known in these parts as one-half of the duo that has brought Indy 55 Minutes of Sex, Drugs, and Audience Participation for several years. Niemi is back this year with his brand new solo autobiographical piece Bad Brother. A performer around North America for decades, IndyFringe marks the debut of this show, which Niemi has been writing--or trying to write--for over twenty years:

I was in a religious order - you know, poverty, celibacy, obedience - I was good at one of them. It was the 60s and revolution was in the air. This is the story of how I entered a Catholic and left a Buddhist anti-war peacenik with a FBI file. (from the IndyFringe program guide)


Niemi has been receiving a lot of well deserved attention for this particular show, so I thought I would add to that conversation some of Niemi's thoughts on developing and refining the show: 

"My show has been in development for 20 years, which is how long it's taken to burn away any residue of guilt, shame, anger, or grief about who I was when it takes place. What I want the audience to see is that the challenges to peace and justice in the era of 'Nam and Flower Power are still with us though perhaps not as starkly generational. 

"I've spent most of life balancing art and politics as work and as necessity. I've alternated between being highly nomadic and being rooted in specific communities and arts organizations. It is all good. It is (almost) all a story worth the telling." 

IndyFringe has proven itself an incubator once again, and Niemi has been grateful for the opportunity not only to present a show so close to his heart, but also to get feedback from audiences after the performances. Niemi says he is getting a wide range of responses to the show, including people of his generation eager to share with him some of the experiences of the era that still haunt them. 

The Larry half of this duo offered that the play conjured a painful memory about losing a good friend from high school to the war. "I hadn't even known he had been sent to Vietnam when I read his obituary in the Detroit Free Press while I was away at college. The draft dictated that any kid who couldn't afford college was sent to the war. It was discrimination, plain and simple. The government decided that certain members of our society were valued more than others." Talking with Niemi after the show about his lost friend offered him the chance to relieve some of the guilt and agony, as Niemi understood all too well how deeply that pain is rooted. 

On the flip side, Niemi also notes that he is surprised by a younger generation's response to his show. Evidently, perhaps due to pop culture and bad film, there is a misnomer that this generation produced nothing but peaceful, love-making flower children, and that everything was harmonious. He shared that he is at least happy that younger people are showing an interest in the show--or as he humorously puts it, "politely suffering through my spiel about why they should attend."  

Explaining the show to say, millennials, who seem to have a rather shallow understanding of what was actually happening at the time, has proved to be flummoxing for Niemi. "They're looking at you kind of wide-eyed and speechless when you offer a more realistic picture of how things were, and you get the feeling that maybe they prefer the myth over the truth, " Niemi offered. 

The other half of this duo, who was not yet born during the riots of 67, felt especially connected to his story about being refused service in a barbecue joint on account of being white. As someone who was born and raised in a place where the stronghold of segregation is only now begining to deteriorate, I was eager to hear of first-hand experiences.  As he walked the audience through his emotions of what discrimination feels like on the receiving end, I could feel his reticence to explain to the proprietor that he wasn't "one of those kinds of white people." Incidentally, his avid descriptions of the joint also made me really hungry for barbecue, so a prospective attendee might do well to eat before the show. 

As a professional storyteller Niemi is no stranger to sending his stories out into the world and letting the chips fall as they may. An artist is never at liberty to instruct an audience how to receive a message. Clearly, his stories from Bad Brother have a been an important touchstone for many at IndyFringe. As he says in his book, The New Book of Plots, "Storytelling always has been the primary means of articulating our fundamental core values, of describing who we are as individuals and peoples, and of confirming our peceptions of what it means to be human. It shapes the chaos of the ever-changing world and speaks to what is 'right' and 'true.'"

Niemi's Bad Brother concludes its run this weekend at the Phoenix Underground:

Fri 8/29 9 pm
Sat 8/27 4:30 pm
Sun 8/28 1:30 pm

On the off chance that this your first exposure to Niemi's work, you might be of the misconception that he is a very serious man.

Well, here he is photobombing like a boss with our friends in Act a Foo Improv Crew! I believe his words were, "I'll show you how it's done."

Loren Niemi proving that "Gentlemen of a Certain Age" are not afraid to steal anyone's thunder.

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