Stage Struck

From Fringe to Pop— Welcome to the Big Boom in Summer Theater Festivals

On those muggy, oppressive days that routinely assault New Yorkers in summertime, residents have few options. Those who can, flee. The rest crank the AC or sit in the cool dark of the neighborhood multiplex. Or so goes the conventional wisdom.

Actually, tens of thousands of Gotham denizens head downtown to cramped, crowded, and airless rooms. No, they haven't been called to jury duty. They've got theater-festival fever. As do producers. This year sees yet another new extravaganza: the citywide Pure Pop Theater, which joins a summer calendar crammed with events like the New York International Fringe Festival, the Ohio Theater's Ice Factory '99, the Ontological's Blueprint series, and multi- discipline festivals like HERE's American Living Room. "In 1994, it seemed like we were filling a niche with Ice Factory," says Robert Lyons, who runs the Ohio. "Now that niche seems quite full."

Festivals began as "an economic imperative," Lyons explains, filling the dead time between seasons. Fringe cofounder John Clancy argues that festivals are smart marketing, because an array of artists reels in more newcomers than a single vision, and that for younger audiences, to whom theater might seem boring, "a festival sounds like a celebration." Surf Reality's artistic director Robert Pritchard, whose Surf Comedy Festival runs in May to beat the big-budget Toyota Comedy Festival out of the gate, notes that festivals enable small theaters to capture press attention during summer's lull. And, adds HERE's executive director Kristin Marting, a festival's cheap prices and diverse styles encourage return visits.

While economics is the main motivation for the festivals, the artists involved are ideally benefiting, too. "Cross-pollination of ideas" is a much bandied-about phrase. Damon Kiely, producing director of the Blueprint, has all the directors in his series attend one another's rehearsals. He explains that a festival gives artists "a sense of collaboration and community. It isn't just about slapping your own work up." Notes Clancy, "It's the hanging out in the lobby with other people who're creating something new."

Backstage, though, the spirit of festus— Latin for joyful or merry— has been known to dissipate in the heat of debates about structure and direction. In fact, Pure Pop Theater was born out of a feud that divided the Fringe Festival's cofounders. The battle between structure and spontaneity split Fringe cofounders Clancy and Aaron Beall and led to Beall's six-week-long Pure Pop festival— which debuts August 18, not so coincidentally the opening day of the Fringe.

Beall says he wanted more "dynamic" growth for the Fringe, to take it citywide, as he will with Pure Pop's 150-member acting troupe. But he acknowledges that he chafed at the Fringe's restrictions as it became more organized. "I'm not at my best where there's a firmly established structure," he says. Clancy saw a "culture clash," between Beall's "one-man band" approach and the everyone-pitch-in style of Clancy's Present Company troupe. Clancy says Beall is an unparalleled promoter and front man, but not detail-oriented enough as a producer. While tension remains, Beall remains "enormously proud of the Fringe," while Clancy says he "honors everything Aaron brought to the festival."

Dumbo's Arts Under the Bridge Festival also saw disputes. Cofounder Tyson Daugherty left after one year, saying that fellow cofounder Joy Glidden's fledgling Dumbo Arts Center imposed "a controlling environment." Glidden acknowledges that DAC played too central a role, but says that this year, with more community members pitching in, she expects the festival to return to its grassroots origins.

Evolution seems to be the norm. The SoHo Arts Festival metamorphosed into Downtown Arts three years ago, explains associate director Craig Hensula, because it had spread far beyond SoHo's art galleries. But expansion made the festival "harder to promote and harder to control." The focus has now been sharpened for both artists and audiences— there'll be three days of each discipline, including theater, and each one will center around one venue. "We're shifting away from working with just anyone," Hensala says, emphasizing quality over quantity.

Format, the producers agree, is vital to a huge festival. "Structure is not evil or limiting," explains Clancy. "It allows artists to focus on content rather than wasting energy on little things." Marting concurs, saying, "You quickly learn how many rules you actually need," and most artists overcome their initial resistance. Keeping a festival fresh and its identity distinct is a "tremendous challenge," says Daugherty. "It requires people who can balance the ideals of a grassroots effort with an organizational identity and professionalism in production."

While the numerous festivals might end up fighting it out for audiences, Clancy believes that this summer season is when New Yorkers should put aside their competitiveness. "The festivals," he says, "should be about common ground."

 
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