The Playgoer: So, What is the Real Purpose of a Festival?

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Monday, October 06, 2008

So, What is the Real Purpose of a Festival?

by Abigail Katz

I ask because it seems in the last few years that the answer to that question is a bit muddled.  Of course a festival should showcase the participating artists and hopefully advance their work in some way.  But there seems to be a growing expectation that festivals should be a stepping stone toward a larger production for a particular piece of work, aiming ultimately for a commercial run, perhaps even on Broadway.  This has been particularly true with the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which has grown impressively in its five year existence with many shows going on to have lives beyond the festival.  The two best known successes have of course been ALTAR BOYZ and [title of show], which recently posted its closing notice for Broadway.

While it's encouraging and satisfying to see shows have success beyond a festival, has it created an inflated sense for the participants of what the festival is for in the first place?  Is the bigger, better production the goal, or is the artistic development of the piece the goal? Or perhaps both?  NYMF's Executive Director Isaac Robert Hurwitz even said in a recent Variety article that the expectation of a direct transfer to Off-Broadway is unrealistic, and that four years is the more likely scenario.  There is nothing wrong with using the festival to draw the attention of industry who may be potential producing partners in a future production of the show.  But that should not result in an attempt at a pre-Broadway tryout.  The festival conditions simply don't allow for it.  The Equity contract (if one follows it to the letter) limits the budget, the rehearsal, tech and performance period is rather short, and by the time applicants know they've been accepted to the festival there's very little time for significant fundraising if they haven't been doing it all along.  

I guess what I'm really saying is that artists can get the most mileage out of a festival if they really focus on their productions as workshops rather than a backers audition.  Yes, of course get industry folks in there so they can see the potential of the piece.  But that should not pressure the artists to "razzle dazzle 'em" or to feel that it's now or never for their show. Festivals can actually be an essential part of artistic development, because it puts the production in front of an audience in a way that a reading can't.  It's a production, not the production, and it should be allowed to be just that.  This is merely my observation from my experience.  Feel free to disagree with me, I'm very interested to know how artists and industry folks feel about this issue.  

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