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

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

Clancy thinks his plan would draw in venues in Brooklyn and Queens and make the festival again appeal to artists of his standing. Says Clancy: "If Ars Nova and Galapagos and P.S.122 and the Brick—all the spaces that have that sex appeal and that buzz—were now running Fringe festivals and had their own beer gardens, that might be very interesting. If St. Ann's Warehouse said, 'John, we're a Fringe venue, we're very interested in doing your show in the Fringe,' I'd say, 'Yeah, I'd love to play St. Ann's—sign me up, you got it.' He does acknowledge that his idea might diffuse an already scattered festival. "My plan could very well result in the complete destruction of the festival within two years," he says. "It could blow up, it could be a mess and be over, and that's the risk—that's the excitement."

Holy doesn't favor Clancy's idea. She writes: "Some people (that I love dearly) have suggested that we should get a lot bigger and that we should use venues in other boroughs. . . . I think it makes FringeNYC much less special. Frankly, with all of the Off-Broadway venues in Manhattan disappearing . . . we're increasingly becoming a rare opportunity to get to perform in this borough." Also, Holy may not wish to surrender the more hands-on and service-oriented position she currently occupies. "The beauty of the Fringe," says Clancy, "—what Elena does so well and what she gets so much pleasure out of—is taking care of that artist, that kid, who's just come to New York, and making sure they have the best possible deal. It's still the best deal."

Nick Stuccio of the Philadelphia Fringe proposes an alternative model. Philadelphia began its Fringe in the same year as New York, but a few years later it altered its structure, continuing to run the Fringe but also offering the fully curated and produced Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, which runs alongside it. This encourages more established artists to present work, and shows the Philly Fringe applicants the edgy stuff that Stuccio likes best. "I created the current festival in the ways that I like to go to festivals," he says. "I like to see the big names and these big international superstars making incredible experimental work, but I also love to see the garage theater—in the garage or in the basement or on the street."

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

Stuccio thinks the two festivals "work synergistically, they work in tandem." And invited companies like the Wooster Group or Pig Iron provide a model of accomplishment different from the Fringe-to-Broadway trajectory of Urinetown. It doesn't seem likely that the New York Fringe's tight budget could run toward hiring the Wooster Group (or anyone, really), but now that it has established itself, perhaps it could garner more city and state funding for such a project, or partner with an extant festival—like Under the Radar or the Lincoln Center Festival.

In Dublin, Gantner split the difference between Clancy's and Stuccio's models. Gantner says he chose the 100 or so shows included each year on the basis of "Is this innovative? Is it exciting? Why is it different? Why does it need to be presented during Fringe time and not a different time? We had a clear identity: to be experimental." Gantner thinks that the Fringe could join with some independent venues, like P.S.122, but also reduce its scope, presenting fewer shows but giving those shows more individual attention.

This model wouldn't strain the Fringe's budget and could allow for more hands-on relationships with the artists. "There's an aspect of interacting with the artists and making them feel supported that doesn't have to be expensive," Gantner says. "There are many companies I know that won't go back to the Fringe because they didn't feel supported. They'll go back to the Dublin Fringe, but not the New York Fringe."

Of course, each of these models evades the question of whether or not New York actually needs a Fringe. Though many of the Fringe's original L.E.S. theaters have succumbed to gentrification, New York doesn't lack for Off-Off Broadway venues, some of them quite cheap. And the boom in Internet review sites like nytheatre.com assure that nearly every show receives some sort of press attention. While summer was once a sluggish time in the New York theater season, that's no longer true, and the Fringe must compete with the Ice Factory, the Lincoln Center Festival, the American Living Room Festival, the Dixon Place Hot! Festival, the Midtown Theater Festival, and the Summer Play Festival, to say nothing of the city's other myriad distractions. The central post-show hangout, a staple of the Fringe in nearly ever other city, has never really caught on here. Gantner wonders, "Why take two subways and a 10-minute walk to a festival bar? Why not go to the bar down the block? It's a festival every day in New York City—that is the problem. There's a truth to the fact that festivals work best in small cities."

But many of the Fringe's current crop of participants actively disagree. Playwright William August Schulenberg, whose Riding the Bull will play at CSV Cultural Center, loves the Fringe for the sense of community it offers. "It's not just getting my work seen," he says. "There are eight other shows [where] I know someone who's in them, and I'm so excited to go from one show to the next." As for the monetary arrangements, he says: "Having done some producing on my own, I know how expensive things are. It seems more than fair to me. If we were to do this play without the Fringe's help, it would cost much more." Jody Person, who will stage To Be Loved at the Theaters at 45 Bleecker, agrees. "Self-producing is simply becoming unaffordable in NYC," she says. "Even in Brooklyn and Long Island City! While Fringe isn't free, it's the only framework I know of in New York where a performance can be created for under $2,000 and be slated to run only five or six times and still find an audience." Even Gantner expresses awe at the financial arrangements, particularly the participation fee of $550. "That," he says, "is an amazing deal."

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