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.

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.)

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."

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 Bullwill 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."

But is an amazing deal enough? Clancy, among others, dreams of a New York Fringe that would "compete with the Macy's Day parade, the New York Marathon. It should be something that every single New Yorker—not just theatrical people, not just downtown people, but every fucking New Yorker—goes, 'That's our Fringe.' "

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