Welcome to the Fringe! Now Where the Hell Is It?

Scattered venues, weak plays, Urinetown wannabes: How can we improve the New York Fringe?

These days, a skyscraper towers over Ludlow Street, a Whole Foods gleams on the corner of Bowery, a Starbucks dispenses lattes on Delancey. But the Parkside Lounge on Attorney and Houston remains unchanged. Glancing around the seedy barroom, theater director John Clancy muses, "Ten years ago, this was the only bar in the neighborhood." Having no other options, Clancy came to the Parkside in 1997 to celebrate the success of the first New York International Fringe Festival, which he co-founded. He smiled and talked for so many hours that night, so thrilled with the Fringe, that his jaw ached the next day.

A decade on, Clancy has a choice of L.E.S. bars, but still returns to the Parkside. And he's still smiling as he prepares for the 2007 Fringe. Not the New York Fringe—the Edinburgh one. Though Clancy co-created the New York Fringe and speaks warmly of its director, Elena K. Holy, he declines to participate in it. He's eager, however, for Edinburgh, describing how their Fringe dominates the entire city. He loves "this great excitement, this incredible fucking buzz of all these shows, all these artists, all these people."

The New York Fringe Festival—which starts it 11th year on Friday—doesn't exude that kind of excitement or buzz. It has largely failed to attract the range and quality of shows at other fringe festivals— Edinburgh, Dublin, Adelaide, even nearby Philadelphia. And with its venues so scattered across the East Village, West Village, and Lower East Side, it's possible to wander those neighborhoods and remain unaware that a Fringe is happening at all, a phenomenon difficult to imagine at any other festival. Even Clancy, a man who risked lockjaw starting it, would rather take his shows elsewhere. What, if anything, can the New York Fringe do to sex itself up, to attract innovative artists, to convince more experienced artists to return? A few weeks before the start of this year's festival, I spoke with Clancy, Philadelphia Fringe artistic director Nick Stuccio, and P.S.122's Vallejo Gantner, former artistic director of the Dublin Fringe, to see how they'd improve our Fringe. Clancy argues for expanding it, Stuccio for tying it to another festival, Gantner for limiting its scope.

Guess what's coming to dinner: 2007 Fringe rock opera The Rat King, via Toronto
photo: Lee Tondrow
Guess what's coming to dinner: 2007 Fringe rock opera The Rat King, via Toronto

It should be said that the Fringe is not in desperate straits. It has enjoyed successes—most notably Urinetown, which debuted at the 1999 Fringe and later enjoyed a Broadway run. Other shows have earned Off-Broadway engagements and fine reviews, like Matt and Ben. (Though many such transfers, like Debbie Does Dallas and Dog Sees God, have flopped.) Financially, the Fringe is shockingly stable. It presents nearly 200 shows at 20-odd venues; nearly 800 applicants pay a $30 fee to vie for those slots. An adjudicating board selects the shows and assigns each a venue and times. For the $550 participation fee, the Fringe office also provides box-office managers, equipment, program-guide listings, volunteer staff, etc. (though productions are heavily encouraged to "tip" their venue directors). Of every $15 ticket sold, $8.75 goes to the company performing and $6.25 to the Fringe. Those tickets and fees, plus a very small number of grants and donations (around $30,000), produce revenues of roughly $700,000, which neatly cancels out the $700,000 in costs. The balanced budget owes in part to Holy and her assistant's positively abstemious salaries. As Clancy notes, with this current business model the Fringe "can run forever right now."

But should it? These days, very little in the New York Fringe Festival appears, well, fringe. Admittedly, "Fringe" doesn't necessarily indicate the innovative or the outré; rather, it refers to the sort of work that crops up on the fringes of a curated arts festival—that's how Edinburgh's began in 1947. Yet, ideally, a Fringe offers weirder, more outlandish work. Having attended eight of the 10 previous New York Fringes and seen well over 100 shows, I can claim with some confidence that since the mainstream success of Urinetown, the offerings have become distinctly less eccentric. (A quick glance at this year's program reveals 18 musical comedies, nine with exclamation points in their titles.) Not since 2000, when I saw Charlie Victor Romeo and Tiny Ninja Macbeth, has a Fringe show really surprised me.

In order to recapture some of the excitement and oddity of the Fringe's first few years, Clancy suggests moving to a model similar to Edinburgh's, in which the New York Fringe abandons adjudication and makes the festival open to all comers—all comers who can find a venue to house them. Clancy, who tends to swear when excited, effuses: "Any fucking show, anything—fine. You find your space and you're in the festival. It's a radical rethinking." In this model, venues decide which shows they want to host, make deals with the artists, and report the details to the Fringe Office. The Fringe Office would produce the Fringe guide and oversee the festival's PR. (The Fringe would also have to abandon the aspect of its artist agreement that requires authors, for seven years after the festival, to pay the Fringe 2 percent of all royalties over $20,000 for a play mounted at the festival. It's a clause that probably contributes to the amateurishness of much Fringe playwriting, as established playwrights are unlikely to consent to having their plays tithed by an organization that's presenting, not producing the work.)

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