The Playgoer: Does the Fringe work?

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Does the Fringe work?

From Variety:

Yet despite operating on an upstart's resources, the Fringe keeps growing. Even though it just got letterhead, the festival has seen ticket buyers increase at a rate of 10,000 per year since 2002. Season 10 should welcome almost 70,000 people.
Reader June has been speculating in Comments as to the appeal of the Fringe beyond diehard festival nuts. ("Nuts" being my word, not hers.) Perhaps the performance she went to suffered from underattendance because the nature of the event, where 200+ shows are spread very thin, and often at odd times of the day.

But if Variety is right (and of course they are) a lot of people are buying tickets to these shows. Many more than we expect at downtown theatre usually.

But my sense of the Fringe is that a big bulk of the crowd (the part that aren't regular theatre people) are personal friends of the performers, rangled into going. These audiences seem to have a nice time. But do they come back to these spaces during the year?

Fringe NYC has done a fantastic "brandnaming" themselves and becoming a "destination." (The Variety piece--worth reading--is a classic "success story.") For non-Broadway theatre they have extraordinary name recognition. Note how much easier it becomes to get someone to see your show in August when you say it's part of the Fringe. And all this with, frankly, a relatively low level of, shall we say, "quality control." (Fringe shows are selected by pitch, not on sight, remeber.)

So while I could lament that the Fringe hasn't "raised all boats," proving the audience is just fickle and fairweather--perhaps we should all focus on learning from the Fringe's success instead. Why not spread the perception of a "permanent Fringe." In London the term "fringe theatre" does not designate a month but, basically, their entire "Off-Off" scene. Imagine if the Times featured a regular section (just a banner, really) called "Fringe Theatre." I think young people might read that. They certainly help promote the August Fringe. Why limit it to a month when no one's in town?

(Answer: because it's such a slow month, the press will cover anything?)

Addendum: I should add that the most extensive Fringe NYC coverage remains Martin Denton's So if you want to check something out, there are more reviews there than anywhere else.


J. Kelly said...

I think it's unfortunate that the New York Fringe calls itself a "Fringe" even though it is a juried festival. The Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals trademarked the word to make sure that any festival in Canada called a Fringe follows what they (and I) consider to be true Fringe principles:

1. Participants will be selected on a non-juried basis, through a first-come, first served process, a lottery, or other method approved by the Association 
2. In order to ensure Criteria One (above), the audiences must have the option to pay a ticket price, 100% of which goes directly to the artists. 
3. Fringe Festival producers have no control over the artistic content of each performance. The artistic freedom of the participants is unrestrained. 
4. Festivals must provide an easily accessible opportunity for all audiences and all artists to participate in Fringe Festivals.

The New York Fringe doesn't follow these rules -- they are juried, take more than 40% of the ticket price AND earn 2% on any future production that is successful. True American Fringes like Minnesota, Orlando, etc. follow the CAFF rules.

NY's 70,000 attendance really isn't that impressive when you consider that this "Fringe" is taking place in New York. Winnipeg (a town of 600,000 people) gets twice that. Edmonton, the biggest on the continent, had an estimated attendance of 520,000 last year.

There's obviously an important place for juried theatre festivals, but Fringe theatre is something else, and something special and I think it's too bad the New York Fringe folks are riding on the concept's good name. Real Fringes attract young audiences and are a great, entrepreneurial starting point for emerging actors and playwrights and directors. There's a lot of crap, of course, but contrary to what you might expect the Fringe circuit has been the birthplace of some of Canada's most succesful plays -- most notably The Drowsy Chaperone, which has been our country's only successful Broadway show.

June said...

It's interesting to read Mark Shenton's slightly dyspeptic view of the Edinburgh Festival (1,500 shows, and going there is without doubt the hippest, coolest thing a smart young person can do) on the Stage Newsblog. For example, this and this.

Anonymous said...

NY Fringe is the worst of both worlds: It's juried AND a huge percentage of the work just sucks. Sorry. With unjuried festivals, you can have a bit of a thrill of feeling that anybody and her cousin is throwing work out there and you might catch something great or something awful, but at least the artists are getting paid. In NYC you're paying mostly for marketing and likely seeing something really juvenile. At least that has been my experience. I can't bear to go any more.