Fringe season is upon us. Once again this year thousands of artists and companies around the country and the world will be producing unique theater and performance in what has become a mainstay of the theater world. As the Facebook invites and Village Voice show guides pour in, it is useful think about what Fringe Festivals really are and what we want them to be. In a literal sense, Fringe, is exactly what it sounds like, the performances that exist around the edge of the large body of mainstream theater. We like to think of them as experimental and challenging works that simply can’t find a place in the cookie cutter world of “big theater.” Perhaps at some point in time this was true, perhaps the Fringe was once the only place where non traditional theater forms could be played with, but it is clear that that time has passed, at least in terms of content. It is difficult to imagine a Fringe show that would shock the Williamstown Festival, or even the stages of New York’s venerable Public Theater. So is there still a place for Fringe, or lessons to be learned from it? I think there are.
While there is very little in terms of content that separates Fringe performances from more mainstream theater, the same cannot be said for the production models. Indeed, production models are where Fringe Festivals have the most to teach producers and artists about the potential future of the art form. Fringe shows are typically cheap to produce, cheap to attend and contain a social element that is so often lacking in the bigger houses. While puppetry and video elements have become mainstream, the scaled down, low overhead, methods of creating work featured in Fringe have not. To a great extent the broader acceptance of Fringe content on major stages has turned Fringe Festivals into giant backers auditions. Often, we describe the most successful Fringe shows as those most likely to transfer, “such and such is a great show, I really think it could move.” While this may be a useful role for such festivals, perhaps a replacement for old time out of town tryouts, there are broader horizons to be reached from the Fringe model.
The transfer of a Fringe show to a larger more traditional venue brings with it many changes to the show that is transferring. Typically technical elements become more complex, often “name” actors are brought in, and almost always the overall cost of production rises dramatically. But the most important changes involve audience experience and expectation. Seeing a Fringe show feels like getting in at the ground floor. It reminds me of my dad, who grew up in Asbury Park, and talks about seeing Springsteen at the Stone Pony, there is something special about that memory, that is very different from my wife’s memory of seeing the “Born in the USA” tour at the Meadowlands. Theater as a quirky and fun night out, rather than theater as cultural treasure. These lessons are being learned to some extent and even co-opted by big corporate theaters, as in the case of the Public’s “Under the Radar Festival”. What is most exciting about these developments, is not the door it potentially opens to bigger, better productions, but the opportunity it creates to make theater a broader and more intimate part of people’s lives.
At a time when the top down appointment viewing of major TV networks is being replaced by on demand options from thousands of content creators, theater needs to mirror these democratic changes in form. We need to let people know that theater is no longer what they think it is. While lumbering dinosaurs like TCG and the NEA continue to focus on giving more money to less artists, those of us who eschew their hoops must take advantage of the open source revolution sweeping almost every other aspect of American’s lives. Fringe can help us find the way. This year, as you check out your friend’s shows try not to jump immediately to the question “what has a chance to move”. Instead focus in on the experience you have, and think about the possibilities of small scale shows opening the world of theater to audiences that are too often ignored.
The first Fringe Festival was started in Edinburgh in the 1940s. According to the US Association of Fringe Festivals, the name Fringe was coined by playwright and journalist Robert Kemp in the following quote “Round the fringe of official festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before...” Followers of this blog will understand how happy this statement makes me. 60 years ago Kemp was tapping into the same sentiment that drives my thoughts about theater, that the corporate and government powers that be are not the keepers of our flame, private enterprise is. It is a legacy worth embracing.