The powers that be at the New York International Fringe Festival are pretty hard-core about management of everybody’s schedule. Participants have a limit of 15 minutes in which to mount and strike their sets — so you’d figure that former La Jolla resident and Bishop’s High School product Dominique Salerno might have had an easy time of things at this year’s installment, held last August. The set for The Box Show, which Salerno wrote and performs, consists of a 3-by-2-by-3 plywood cupboard, encumbered only by the star and her clutch of props.
Piece of cake? Yeah.
Devil’s food, at least at first.
“The shop that we had,” Salerno said, “made the box at about 400 pounds. Moving the box and the steel frame was a nightmare, and I was very stressed about the load-in process. It was crazy. But my friends and I got it down to a science. It was a beautiful dance of moving things. And we never went over our time.”
Neither did the press lose sight of her piece. The New York Times called it “the most purely delicious production” of the festival; Time Out New York said it’s “even greater than the sum of its parts.” Zeal NYC, Variety, The Huffington Post: All weighed in very favorably on this stream-of-consciousness tour de force from inside a stuffy, infinitesimal enclosure.
And Salerno’s answer to the box’s unforgiving strictures?
“I just made more limitations for myself,” she explained. “There are all sorts of gifts that come from that.”
The festival, founded in 1997, takes place over two weeks every August on more than 20 stages in lower Manhattan, presenting more than 200 works. Notable shows that got their starts there include Urinetown and a musical adaptation of Debbie Does Dallas.
In 2015, the festival was the site of She-Rantulas from Outer Space — in 3-D!, written and directed by San Diego-based Phil Johnson and Ruff Yeager and premiering at University Heights’ Diversionary Theatre in 2013. The festival entry, whose costumer Jennifer Brawn Gittings won an overall excellence award, featured five actors playing 13 characters.
Salerno, a Princeton University theater undergraduate who took an acting MFA from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre in 2015, goes them one better. She plays 28 people by herself in The Box Show, contorting and wriggling around amid scenes that feature a Trojan army pep talk, a baby about to be born, a postage stamp, a persnickety Frida Kahlo and a dance-floor courtship. All in 90 minutes, and all without leaving the box.
“I’ve been doing improv for about 14 years,” Salerno explained. “I’ve learned that it’s that sort of thing where if somebody gives you a room with thousands of things to play with, you’re not content to [develop] a character from A to B. I go to like A to J, A to X, A to Z. Your mind will naturally do it. And if you push yourself to get really imaginative, that’s when the real fun comes in.”
‘[S]ometimes you feel like you’re just checking boxes for people, especially in the casting world… ‘
That’s what happened during her studies at ACT under the tutelage of movement instructor Stephen Buescher. Salerno impulsively decided to crawl into a cupboard and draw characters one day, wherein Buescher “encouraged me to do the things he didn’t quite understand, because it was clearly giving me joy.”
From there, director Sash Bischoff, light man Brandon Bagwell and scene designer Ann Beyersdorfer (whom Salerno calls “unbelievably fantastic”) got to work, with Salerno writing the first draft in 12 days.
But why a tidy little box? Why not a giant spare tire or a dilapidated chimney or a grimy fishbowl or some other shape whose geometry would speak to the same purpose?
“As an actor,” Salerno said, “sometimes you feel like you’re just checking boxes for people, especially in the casting world: Is she ethnic enough, is she old, is she young, is she tall enough, is she thin, is she fat. People are putting you into these boxes that you don’t have any control over. This was an attempt to defy that. On a thematic level, I wanted to make my own box and define for myself what I put into it. It’s proof that I don’t need to ask permission from someone when I feel the need to do it.”
Salerno also mounted The Box Show in September at New York’s United Solo Theatre Festival and in October at the SoHo Playhouse and for the by-invitation-only Fringe Encore Series. From there, her theater training will somehow figure in to life’s next calling — social justice.
“I’m into a new phase,” Salerno said, “where I feel the need to address the issues that are shaping the world’s direction. Theater is a great [illustrator] for people of different political persuasions.”
All the world’s a stage, after all, and all its social ills are the scripts. Salerno’s got a 400-pound set and a crack crew to show for her take on them, and she’s already written in 28 characters. What’s a few billion more?