The Fringe Festival Shuts Down
A Theater Essay
by Scott Klavan
What happens when the “fringe” becomes the mainstream? Apparently, it goes out of business. Because Elena K. Holy, the Artistic Director of New York’s famed New York International Fringe Festival since its inception twenty years ago, says she is shutting the festival down for next summer. Hiatus or closure? Whether it returns with Ms. Holy in charge, or at all, is up in the air.
The New York Fringe festival (FringeNYC) was established in 1997, and was at the time the 7th such festival in the country; today, there are Fringe fests in over 25 US cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, and Hollywood (CA). The New York fest is now the largest American Fringe. It based its practices on those of the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland, which began in 1947, when several theater companies, uninvited, set up productions on the outer grounds of the mainstream Edinburgh International Festival. Edinburgh then made the Fringe a permanent part of their Festival, providing a showcase for works that were offbeat, iconoclastic, sometimes outrageous, took chances, rough-hewn; pieces that, on their own, would have a hard time gaining attention and funding from corporate, establishment venues and producers. Edinburgh, which requires that productions rent their own performance spaces, did not and does not curate their festival, meaning anyone bringing a show can participate. In the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe alone, there were an incredible 50,266 performances of 3,269 shows in 294 venues.
FringeNYC, occurring for two weeks in August, is a curated fest, choosing approximately 200 shows from (this year) about 800 U.S. and international submissions; it charges an admission fee to participants, now over $700. FringeNYC rents all the performance spaces for the productions, a group of (this year) 16 small, funky downtown venues, and spends money on promotion and other assists for the shows; it also supplies volunteer theater staff. In New York, as in most Fringes here and abroad, the majority of artists are young and relatively inexperienced; they bring their original theater pieces and usually get five performances. Productions do have to pay theater insurance, union actors a $400 fee, find their own/rent rehearsal space, hire and perhaps pay any tech crew, and can buy services such as extra promotion, programs, photographs, from discounted vendors associated with the fest. FringeNYC returns about 50% of box office receipts to participants. It has a clause in its Playwright’s Contract that the Fringe receive 2% of royalties from any play making over $20,000 in subsequent productions for the next seven years. While this clause has been criticized by the Dramatists Guild, Holy says it has been utilized only three times in the festival’s history.
With tickets topping out at $18, few if any participants make money on the Fringe; many are lucky to break even. That includes the festival itself. The Fringe draws an annual crowd of about 75,000 people, and in 2014, took in roughly $1 million in revenue, with expenses of $918,000. Ms. Holy is one of only two paid full-time employees of the festival, the other being General Manager Christian de Gré. In 2014, New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs eliminated its funding of $50,000, placing more pressure on the festival to raise its money from ticket sales and private donors.
The New York Fringe’s greatest success has been Urinetown, which started at the fest in a barebones production in 1999, and went on to a lucrative Broadway run of over 1,000 performances, and a Tony Award for Best Musical. Several other Fringe shows have moved Off-Broadway; performers and directors such as Bradley Cooper, Mindy Kaling, and Diane Paulus, began their careers at the festival.
Ms. Holy has not given a definitive reason for closing the festival in 2017. In an interview with the New York Times, she said she wanted to reconsider all aspects of the Fringe and, “Everything is game.” The Present Company, the producers of the Fringe, has stated that the fest will continue.
In reflecting on the need for coming changes to the festival, or its possible demise, the question arises: is a Fringe festival necessary in the current culture? Critics have been mixed about the quality of the productions over the years, and in the summer of 2016, reviews were particularly lackluster or downbeat. The Times said: “you have to wonder about the selection process of the festival’s producing artistic director, Elena K. Holy. It might simply be first come first served.” And: “Of course, the week’s lineup also had to include the kind of unsalvageable amateurish flop the Fringe is known for.” But an indie festival is by nature going to present plays and performances that are less than slick and fully honed. That’s part of the adventure and fun: you never know what you are going to see; quality is up and down. It’s just as likely that next year, better shows might have been on the roster.
The deeper problem may be in the gradual acceptance of the once-risky and unconventional attitudes and points of view inherent in a Fringe fest by mainstream, corporate entertainments. After the success of Urinetown, moneyed producers, agents, and other show biz types began heavily scouting the Fringe for anything resembling a rerun of this huge hit. But no other play has come close to gaining a similar kind of attention. However, while no specific show has replicated the transfer and subsequent profits of Urinetown, a look at recent TV shows, movies, and on-line performances, provide telling evidence that the sensibility of this and other Fringe shows has already migrated uptown.
A typical Fringe festival show is irreverent, comically ironic, can feature “camp” spoofs of current show business personalities and projects, gay themes, multi-cultural issues, female empowerment, vulgarity and scatology, and again, have semi-professional production values and performances. In past years, these elements were rarely found in mainstream big-money entertainment, which more often than not, presented polished tales of heroism, heterosexual romance, and various forms of morality plays. But today, the “democratization” of cultural outlets, the advent of hundreds of cable stations, on-line presentations and networks, independent films, etc., has broken down the old priorities and standards.
On cable or the Internet, idiosyncratic programs such as Girls, Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Transparent, Portlandia, and American Horror Story could all be Fringe plays. (Years back, the animated The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park found cartoons a more acceptable way of expressing acerbically off-color jokes and situations.) Broadcast has tried hard to emulate this pattern, and, not as inventive, has merely added a near-constant stream of sex and potty jokes to almost every sit-com, a lame effort to keep up. Regardless, in all these areas, the limits/boundaries of subject matter, definitions of good taste and method of expression have been almost completely relaxed.
On film, superheroes in Guardians of The Galaxy, Suicide Squad, and Deadpool spoof the notion of courage and chivalry and in the latter case, do it with blatantly sexual references; these films were hugely popular, each making between $500 million to $1 billion worldwide, out-grossing many straightforward action flicks, such as In The Heart of The Sea, The Finest Hours, and even Spiderman. Traditional love stories are almost extinct on film (or television, stage, or anywhere else, with the exception of novels, maybe.) The recent release of romantic The Light Between Oceans, based on a bestseller, with talented, attractive leads Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, bombed; Judd Apatow comedies with Seth Rogen, Amy Schumer, and others, featuring narcissistic, homely, feckless, and foul-mouthed men and women bumbling their way in and out of beds and relationships, clean up. The most popular book and film in recent years that featured heterosexual connection was Fifty Shades of Grey, where passion and lovemaking was expressed through spanking and bondage. (A national network commercial playing in the background while I’m writing this piece features comic actor Neil Patrick Harris extolling the pleasures of drinking beer while “flipping another man’s meat.”) On Broadway, it might be said an Indie/Fringe mentality has been incorporated into Hand To God, The Book Of Mormon, and even Hamilton.
Online, Vines, very short, simple comic videos showcasing young performers such as Logan Paul, King Bach, and Lele Pons, in snide, crude, sometimes outlandish and obscene parodies of stars and stories of pop culture, are seen by tens of millions. These vids usually have little or no script, not much tech, costumes, sets, all of the complicated and difficult accouterments of a theater piece. They make Fringe plays look over-produced. Vine performers are now making fortunes doing mainstream commercials for consumer products; some were recently featured on 60 Minutes. These supposedly experimental projects are funded by giant corporate entities. Vine was bought for $30 million in 2012 by Twitter. But with its profits diminished by short video competition from SnapChat, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, Twitter announced this week that it is closing Vine.
It can’t be infallibly verified, but it has seemed that in the last few years, excitement surrounding the festival from audience and media has waned. Wealthy types, those that regularly frequent Broadway and sporadically, Off-Broadway, rarely traipse to the Fringe. Downtown folk may have grown jaded and used to it; unless they have a friend in a show, they probably forget or are themselves too occupied with other diversions to go anymore. It should be noted that Ms. Holy has always provided sincere, enthusiastic, competent leadership of the festival. During the “Town Meeting” information sessions she has presided over, she would often weep about the dedicated efforts of the small army of volunteers overseeing festival activities. In the Times article, it was mentioned that Ms. Holy may now be receiving other, better job offers. This is America, and as she is amazingly hard-working and seems to have been woefully underpaid through the years, no one can begrudge her a payday.
Since 2007, this writer has participated in several New York Fringes—as an actor (four times), playwright (twice), director (once), and producer (three times), including this past summer of 2016. Every time I was accepted into the New York Fringe festival, I was proud. Every time the Fringe ended, the cessation of the sheer amount of work and stress involved caused me relief. “I will never do it again,” I vowed. But as months went by, the urge to try out new material, truly express something without concentrating on commercialism and profit, began to show itself. I wanted to experiment again, to grow, learn, and, most importantly, to improve.
What’s missing with the suspension/demise of the Fringe, are openings for theater people, particularly (unlike me) young ones—a chance, in a harsh, supremely competitive world, to work your craft, to get something out there. To take a risk, to test and push yourself. To get support and validation from an established entity in putting on a laborious thing like a play; to not have to do everything yourself. What’s lost, then, is something that is sorely needed in 2016 America: opportunity.
But if that can now be found with a SmartPhone, online, what is the purpose of the New York, or any Fringe theater festival? To toil without recognition or remuneration in an obscure, stressful environment, when the audience at large would rather stay home, already used to and enjoying a “fringey” experience from the mid/big-budget shows and videos on virtually every channel at their fingertips?
If the counter-culture is now the Culture, what is a “fringe” show, idea, or point or view?
Maybe the fringe now, something new, unusual, and avant-garde, would be: a sober, challenging, ambitious play about, say, the cover up of the poisoning of a city water system. A play with serious, universal themes revolving around integrity, corruption, betrayal, and redemption. Today, Ibsen’s An Enemy of The People might only be able to be presented at a venue like The Connelly Theatre on East 4th St. in New York City. Here’s a description from the website:
The historic Connelly Theater is a beautiful 99-150-seat miniature opera house in the heart of NYC’s East Village that now serves as a home for adventurous independent theater productions. Past productions include Mac Wellman’s The Offending Gesture (as part of The Tank’s Flint & Tinder series), Daniel Kitson’s A Show for Christmas, Soho Rep. & Ars Nova’s Futurity, Lyspinka! The Trilogy, Mission Drift (The TEAM), The New York International Fringe Festival, Lucy Thurber’s Monstrosity (13p), Anne Washburn’s Apparition, and many others.
At the Connelly, Hank “I-Boy” Ibsen might be a hip, underappreciated, broke, downtown theater guy, with tattoos, and a chip on his shoulder. He’ll be sending you a GoFundMe message soon, translated from the Norwegian. All contributions help! Plus, you’ll get a t-shirt!
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival.
Scott Klavan’s list of sources: NY Times; FringeNYC website; Edinburgh Fringe website; Our Town newspaper; Newsday; American Theatre Magazine; Wikipedia; USAFF- United States Association of Fringe Festivals; Connelly Theatre website