Fringe veteran attacks silence
Exhausted, but exhilarated, Jem Rolls – the self-proclaimed “tribal elder” of the Fringe circuit – is on track to celebrate his 100th Fringe tomorrow night, as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival.
A towering figure on the scene, Rolls will perform his 60-minute raucous rollercoaster routine, Jem Rolls Attacks the Silence.
“It’s the most fun I have had in my life,” Rolls told me in a recent interview.
Talking in his usual manner — intensely, candidly and poetically – his rapid-fire delivery and razor-sharp wit held me captive, fearful of missing an integral beat. It is this inimitable style that has characterized Rolls’ magnetic brand of high-energy performance poetry since he first landed on the Edinburgh Fringe circuit 18 years ago.
“I never really got on stage until I was 31. When I started it was an open mic back in Hackney [a district of London, England] in ’93 and everyone was terrible. There were virtually no redeeming features in the situation whatsoever, which was quite a good place to start as I wasn’t more terrible than everyone else,” he admitted before hurrying on. “The first time I did a Canadian Fringe was in Toronto in 2001 – that was also the first time I did the hour show - and it was a total mind-blower. I just had so much fun on stage.”
Growing up in Camberley, “a fairly culture-less part of England,” Rolls’ love of performance poetry was ignited by a succession of things - the musicality and phrasing of rock-and-roll lyrics, upbeat American literature – think Thomas Wolfe, and, in particular, the English punk poet John Cooper Clarke.
“I am absolutely untrained – though I do have a degree in philosophy,” he acknowledged. “For me, things come out of punk rock. Punk rock was made to blow up your mind and fire energy and hope that out there, somewhere, there is life and energy and hope and fire – because there wasn’t any [in Camberley].”
He paused briefly, as if to reflect on the borough he left behind. “That is the world I come from. Unexciting conformity.”
A professed lover of language, Rolls describes his ingenious brand of spoken pyrotechnics as “a mixture of dumb comedy, smart comedy, beautiful poetry and chunky politics.”
This year’s Fringe fare, Jem Rolls Attacks the Silence, is comprised of seven distinct pieces ranging from “the soppiest love poem you will ever hear” to “commentary on how our lives are constantly speeding up” to observations on the conservative world where Rolls grew up, and then dissolving into a “host of stinging insults to the British and the Canadians.”
“This is my most comedic show, so I want audiences to laugh a lot,” Rolls explained when asked what he hopes Fringe-goers will takeaway from his marathon performance. “I hope they get a sense of the possibilities of language – it’s the vehicle of our mind, it’s a way to understand and change our own lives. For me, language is the fun. Rich in wordplay.”
For complete performance details, visit vancouverfringe.com.
Laura Murray trained in classical ballet for more than 18 years and is the principal of Laura Murray PR, an arts and culture marketing agency in Vancouver.