Artem Yatsunov and Bay Bryan: The duo behind Fringe’s coming-out show

Artem Yatsunov and Bay Bryan: The duo behind Fringe’s coming-out show

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fringe/frinj/

noun

1. an ornamental border of threads left loose or formed into tassels or twists, used to edge clothing or material.

2. chiefly British term for bangs.

3. the outer, marginal or extreme part of an area, group or sphere of activity.

Oh yes, I love Fringe — well, not the kind that makes you look like Annie Oakley. More specifically, the Fringe Festival. The 17-day event that takes place all around the city at various venues and covers almost every discipline of the arts: music, dance, poetry, theater, spoken word and much more. I have had the pleasure of interviewing some of the festival favorites in the past, several of whom will be performing again this year. In case you missed them before, JUNK, led by the incomparable Brian Sanders (http://www.epgn.com/arts-culture/portraits/2604-9283635-family-portraits-brian-sanders) will be doing another groundbreaking performance, “American Standard.” This time you can add a super supper to the super-sexy performance as executive chef Alex Garfinkel teams with JUNK for a unique culinary experience at select shows. For additional thrills and chills, check out last year’s profile, the oh-so-flexible Lauren Rile Smith (http://www.epgn.com/arts-culture/portraits/8620-lauren-rile-smith-climbing-to-new-heights-of-feminism), who, with Tangle Movement Arts, mixes traditional circus-like trapeze and acrobatics with dance, theater and live music to tell a multi-dimensional story. “Twisted” beauty Gunnar Montana (http://www.epgn.com/arts-culture/portraits/6344-23536501-gunnar-montana-dancing-in-the-dark) once again brings his macabre and thought-provoking work to the stage in “Purgatory.”

As usual, the Fringe/Live Arts show features a number of LGBT performers and performances — from “Zanna Don’t,” a campy pop-rock musical that “dares to ask what Cinderella would look like when seen through a ‘RuPaul’ lens,” to “Me First: An Autobiographical Comedy About Dying.” I took the time to phone director Artem Yatsunov and author/actor Bay Bryan about their show, “Growing Into My Beard.” Described as a “liberating love cabaret,” the show is a blend of storytelling, music and performance art with a dash of drag.

PGN: Two boys at once, this will be fun. I hope I can distinguish one voice from the other.

AY: I can do a Russian accent!

PGN: That will help! Tell me a little about you.

AY: [Mock accent] Vell, I vas born in de Ukraine [drops accent] but I live in Brooklyn now. I’ve been directing for almost 10 years. I like creating theatrical events that have a live-music component. I used to do a lot of short, dark comedies followed by live local bands.

PGN: It seems like there are a lot of tennis players from the Ukraine. No game for you?

AY: Not for lack of trying! But my hand-eye coordination is not impressive. There are a number of sports I’ve failed at over the years. Even casual athletic events like, say, riding bikes, have ended up pretty catastrophically. I’d love to play a sport but the Ukrainian government has asked me not to embarrass them.

PGN: How old were you when you left?

AY: I was 11. This month I turned 30 and my family and I just celebrated our 19th year of living here. But I have a large chunk of memories from growing up there.

PGN: Share one of them.

AY: Both of my parents are computer engineers, super smart, but they worked for a government company that did not pay them, sometimes for months at a time, once for a year. What they did instead was give us a piece of land outside of Kiev, the capital. So we had to go harvest crops to eat! They gave us one of those metal cargo containers, which was like our steel tent while we harvested. It was crazy.

PGN: Wow, there should be a whole show on you and your life too!

AY: [Laughs] Oh stop it! You’ll make me blush.

PGN: Do you act as well?

AY: I do, yes! I went to Montclair State University and got myself a fancy piece of paper that proclaims me as a bachelor of fine arts. I’ve used that acting training to have a first-person approach to directing. Knowing where the actors are coming from helps make the whole process more organic.

PGN: I too studied acting and the first time I directed a play, it was gratifying, but I was afraid that, when it came time for curtain call, I’d miss being on stage to take the bows. Didn’t miss it at all. How about you?

AY: Nope, I think the best directing is when they almost don’t notice you were there. Ya know? As if, what happened onstage was just meant to be. You don’t want anyone applauding you, you want to be selfless in a strange way. Helping your audience and the actors have an amazing experience is what’s gratifying.

PGN: What are the benefits and difficulties of directing a one-man show?

AY: The benefits come directly from working with Bay. He’s a very generous performer and likes to share the creative process. So that to me was a very exciting thing. We were able to mold the story together and we were both very in tune with what we wanted to say with the story. Of course, it was a story about his life so it was interesting saying, “Well, you know this real thing that happened in your life? What about if we skip it and pay more attention to this other thing that happened?” Bay was very courageous and willing to hear my criticism that some parts of his life were less exciting than others.

PGN: So what is it that you’re trying to say with the show?

AY: We want it to be an absolute celebration of total acceptance. People will see Bay come into his own through his personal stories, and he has such a great time on stage that people will walk away from the show feeling empowered, whatever their identity is.

PGN: How did you two meet?

AY: I used to bartend at a basement open mic in the East Village and between my shifts I’d go up and tell really weird stories or sing songs a cappella and then he would get up on stage doing improv and crush it! I enjoyed his performances because he’s awesome and I think he enjoyed mine because I was weird. We connected on that and Bay invited me to get together with him and some other artists and do physical improv. This is the first time we’ve worked together in this capacity. And, with this show, it’s cool because we’re sort of doing a mini tour. We are the only group this year who is doing our show in different locations within Philly during Fringe. We have 11 shows that will play at four venues in three different neighborhoods. It’s kind of like we’re bringing our tale of the triumph of love and celebrating of all things queer, all over beautiful Philadelphia!

PGN: I’m looking forward to seeing it. Now to some random questions. The feature I get the most compliments on is …

AY: Let’s go with my dimples.

PGN: The worst pick-up line tried on me …

AY: This guy was trying to pick me up at a bar in Jersey by telling me he owned a club in New York. I looked at him and thought there was no way he owned a bar. He barely looked old enough to get into one. I was half-tempted to take him up just to see what he’d do to pull it off, but I was afraid it was past his bedtime.

PGN: What’s your go-to karaoke song?

AY: Last few times I’ve gone I’ve done “What’s Up?” by the Four Non Blondes, a little homage to my ’90s days.

PGN: TV show that would be fun to see done in the nude?

AY: My first thought was “House of Cards.” I thought how terribly unwatchable that would be, except for Robin Wright. She’s glorious.

PGN: Speaking of glorious, let’s hear from Mr. Bryan. Tell me how you got from Colorado to Scotland to New York?

BB: OK, so I’m from Golden, Colo. It’s a small, historic town with salt mines and the home of Coors Brewery. It was a beautiful place to grow up — surrounded by mesas and all that, absolutely stunning. I ended up going to UC Boulder and I had planned to study aerospace or chemical engineering but then I did a summer camp at Interlochen, right after my senior year, and I fell in love with the arts. So I transferred to the musical-theater program at Boulder, but it wasn’t a very strong program there so I went to the Unified auditions in Chicago. Those are where schools from all over come to one location and you can audition for as many schools as you want. But stupidly, I had my heart set on Carnegie Mellon, and they were the only ones I auditioned for. It went terribly! But I ended up talking to some girl who was with Royal Scottish Academy of Musical Drama. On a whim, I did a walk-in audition for them that went amazingly well. They accepted me on the spot! It was an other-worldly experience. Six months later, my dad was helping me move to Glasglow. I stayed there for three years and, just before graduating, they changed the international laws for students and I had to leave. One of my sisters lived in New York, so after a few months home, I moved to New York City. It’s a challenging city for any newcomer, so I was lucky to have her there.

PGN: Were your folks in the arts?

BB: Well, my mom is a general physician at UC Boulder, but when she was young, she wanted to be a ballerina, so she went to New York for a summer intensive with one of the larger ballet companies and had an “aha” moment of life as an artist: She saw herself living in a dinky apartment with one hanging light bulb in a sketchy part of town and decided it wasn’t what she wanted. She’d gone on a date with a guy who was starting medical school. The date never went anywhere, but it sparked an idea and she shifted focus from the arts to medicine. My dad is a geostatistician. He’s a smart guy, you can ask him anything. Growing up, I used to call him Data because he has so much information stored in his head. They were both very adventurous and when they first got together after college, they used to ride bikes and backpack across Europe.

PGN: How did your show come about?

BB: When I came to New York, I studied musical theater, but I’ve always been a singer-songwriter. For the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve been looking for a way to combine them, to do my music but tell a story at the same time. “Growing Into My Beard” was born out of that. The show is my journey of coming out and searching for true love. It’s a universal story of first love and very much a conversation with the audience. We break the fourth wall to engage with the people who come to see the show and it becomes very improvisational and conversational. It’s a scripted show with an element of interaction. It’s been very challenging and exciting to be vulnerable and to share it so intimately with the audience.

PGN: What are some of the pivotal points in your life that are reflected in the show?

BB: Whenever you move to a new place, you get to peel back a layer of the onion and get closer to the core person that you are. When I went to UC, that helped me shed some layers. Definitely moving to Scotland. It was the moment when I finally came out to both of my parents. They were the last people of importance to me that I told. I wanted them to be a part of my whole life and not just the small part that I wanted them to see.

PGN: You are a man of many talents: You are an actor and I understand that you play the role of Sean in the upcoming cast recording of “Show Choir! The Musical.” You were the composer/live musician in “True Believer,” a play that premiered at Theaterlab in New York City, and you wrote the music for award-winning animated short “The Walker,” directed by Heather Collins and produced by Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons.” What was it like hearing your music up on the big screen?

BB: The whole process was wonderful. I composed the entire score and worked with an orchestrator. It was really cool. There’s such a narrative with music — it really can tell the story — so to see it up on the screen with an audience responding and laughing in the right spots was awesome. Music has such an ability to subconsciously help us with how we view things.

PGN: Who is Shanaenae?

BB: Ha. Shanaenae is a performer, born out of my move to Scotland and coming out to my parents. She was created at an open mic in Glasgow and she grew up in New York, where I did a cabaret with her. She’s a fashion diva with a heart of gold. She’s crass and sassy and kind of a clown. She likes when things go wrong so that she has something to fuel her torch songs. She lives for great dramatic moments and I can appreciate that!

PGN: Scotland seems like such a masculine culture. I think of thick brogues, kilts and throwing big rocks and trees at the Celtic games. What is the gay culture like there?

BB: It was pretty good. I don’t know if it was because of my overall excitement about coming out to my parents and having every one know, but I felt so free. I don’t know how people growing up there felt, but I had a great experience. It’s kind of the privilege of being a visitor. Someone who grew up there might be like, “Oh, I could never be that flamboyant here” and I was like, “But why? Glasgow is so great!” But there’s definitely a large gay culture there and I never had any problems.

PGN: Let’s wrap up with a random question. What would your porn name be?

BB: Isn’t that supposed to be your first pet and the street you were born on? I had a bunny named Pugdy and was born on Lookout Drive. So I’d be Pudgy Lookout.

AY: You’ve also been tagging yourself online as The Ginger Swan.

BB: Yes! That would work as a porn name too. Why not? The Ginger Swan. I could do an improvisational dance before the sex as a courtship dance.

AY: It’ll be porn set to Swan Lake.

PGN: [Laughs] That can be next year’s Fringe show!

“Growing Into My Beard” runs Sept. 3-18 at venues throughout the city. For more information or tickets, visit http://fringearts.com/event/growing-into-my-beard/

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