Mary Stuart
Mary Stuart
Every August for the last five years, hundreds of theater artists have descended upon Lower Manhattan for the New York International Fringe Festival. Many participants travel from locations all across the U.S., taking vacation time to put up their shows--often at their own expense. Still others hail from countries as distant as Australia and South Africa. This year promises the largest turnout ever, with nearly 200 shows participating over a 17-day period.

"We are crazy for coming," remarks Tanya Denny, director of Mary Stuart. "It is costing a small fortune." This adaptation of Schiller's classic play has only a two-person cast, but it's coming all the way up from Australia, where it played to sold-out houses at the Sydney Fringe Festival. In order to raise money to bring the show to New York, 10 contemporary Australian artists donated their work for an auction fundraiser. The company, QueenSize Productions, is also offering a gala performance before leaving. "The rest we do on my credit card," notes Denny.

Gary San Angel's Philadelphia-based ensemble Something to Say has a shorter distance to travel in order to present Asians Misbehavin', a collection of short sketches by Asian American writer/performers. The company is using profits from performances this past spring in order to partially subsidize its trip. However, San Angel also notes: "When we go over budget, it's pretty much coming out of our own pockets. Most of us are thinking we aren't going to make any money off of this."

Luckily, the members of Something to Say have friends or relatives in the city with whom they can stay during their visit. In fact, contacts in the city seems to be a prime factor in several companies' decision to perform. Ben Schneider, from Chicago's Theater Oobleck, recently relocated to NYC. "I'm trying to set up a camp for Oobleck in New York," says the actor, who worked with the company during the 10 years that he lived in Chicago. Oobleck's entry in FringeNYC wins the award for longest fringe title: An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening. At last year's festival, Oobleck scored a hit with its show, The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (partially burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled: "Never To Be Performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!! Nevertheless, Schneider asserts that the length of the titles is "totally coincidental. Not all of the plays Oobleck does have long titles. I just want to go on the record as saying that."

Faustus is written by Chicago playwright Mickle Maher, who originally played the title role that now belongs to Schneider. In the play, Doctor Faustus makes a final demand of his servant, Mephistopheles: to summon up an audience for which Faustus will explain himself. Along the way, Faustus aims to debunk all the other stories about him told by Christopher Marlowe and other chroniclers of his life. Joining Schneider in the play is actor Colm O'Reilly, who is coming in from Chicago to reprise his role as Mephistopheles. In that sense, this production is part New York-based, part not.

Similarly, it's difficult to say whether or not Mike Daisey's 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com should be considered a New York production. "I moved here to do the show," says the actor/playwright. This is a slight exaggeration, but basically true: 21 Dog Years was a huge hit in Seattle, where it premiered, leading to a book deal with The Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Daisey decided to use the fact that he'd be performing at FringeNYC as an excuse to move to New York where he'd be closer to the people he works with--now including a publicist, a literary agent, a manager, and an editor.

Mike Daisey in 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com(Photo:  John Tynes)
Mike Daisey in 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com
(Photo: John Tynes)
His one-man show deals with his experiences as an employee during the early days of Amazon.com. "It's punctuated by letters I wrote to Jeff Bezos [founder and CEO of the on-line bookstore]. I would save them in my drafts folder; I didn't send them out because I didn't want to get fired." This is no longer a concern for Daisey. In fact, since his non-disclosure agreement expired the day before he began performances, he doesn't even fear legal repercussions from Amazon. "I have no doubt that, if they'd been able to, they would have shut down the show," he says, "even though there are no trade secrets. I don't come out and explain how book shipping works."

Despite the modest success that has allowed Daisey to move to New York with his show, he notes: "I certainly feel more affinity with fringe than I do with any kind of show biz. I'm very fond of small theaters and discovered performances where you find something that's so cool, you really want to tell other people."

This is, of course, what brings a lot of companies to FringeNYC--not just to create theater, but to see theater. "We are interested in dialoguing with other artists and looking at collaborative, international works," says Denny. Her own show can be considered an interesting international collaboration in and of itself: Italian playwright and novelist Dacia Maraini freely adapted German playwright Friedrich von Schiller's text back in the 1970s, and Brits Christopher Pearcy and Nicolette Kay then translated the work into English. "The translation is deliberately non-Elizabethan," says Denny. "There is an absence of period drama clichés and blind reverence to royalty."

Denny defines fringe as "groups of artists that challenge form, content, style, and push the limits of contemporary theater. Usually unfunded." It's a great working definition but, even among festival participants, the word "fringe" is subject to other interpretations. San Angel, for instance, sees it less in terms of aesthetics and more in terms of racial identification. "Asian Americans are constantly on the outside," he says. "Even though we're here in the United States doing work, we're not acknowledged. We're sort of an underground that's been going on for years. I think that being on the fringe is like being on the outside and, in some ways, being forced to be different. In a good way, we're able to see and really define who we are--we can create our own standards and aesthetic. And I think that, too, is about being on the fringe."