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Fringe Benefits

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From FringeNYC's
Fred Anderson Prop Comic!
"Let 1,000 festivals bloom," said John Clancy, artistic director of the Present Company and its annual New York International Fringe Festival (FringNYC). Two years later, the booming is well underway as a record number of Off-Off Broadway summer theater festivals look to share in FringeNYC's success.

"The Fringe is more of a concept than a type of show," explains Ron Lasko, FringeNYC's publicist. "The spotlight is on Off-Off Broadway and what it means."

Over the past three summers, for the Present Company (under the leadership of Clancy and producing director Elena K. Holy), this has meant the ambitious staging of a large number of submitted plays at diverse venues centered around the Lower East Side, always during the last two weeks in August. Each, year the Fringe has grown by 10 to 20 percent. Fifty-thousand people are expected to attend this year's 180 productions, which represent 17 U.S. States and 12 countries. The shows will be performed in nearly two-dozen venues, some of which the Fringe has never before used (such as the Paradise Theater). Also new this year: financial aid from corporate sponsors and fellow thespians, including the Blue Man Group.

"There is nothing exactly like the Fringe," explains Lasko, noting the all-day schedule of performances (3pm to midnight) required to squeeze almost 200 plays--as well as the festival's panel discussions, workshops, kids activities, reading series, and art exhibits--into 12 days, August 16 through 27.

Tiny Ninja Theatre's Macbeth
The production of the festival, intended to "unite the next generation of theater artists" and "increase the public's awareness of live performance," requires an enormous effort. Surprisingly, this, in addition to FringeNYC's established popularity (one of this year's plays, the Tiny Ninja Theatre's Macbeth, is already sold-out), hasn't intimidated but has enticed other theater companies to follow their lead.

Opening the same day as FringeNYC is the Nada Pure Pop Festival, a six-week extravaganza produced by Aaron Beall. A co-founder of FringeNYC, Beall last year created his own festival--which he says "complements" the Fringe--after a falling out with the other co-founders. "It's the fringe of the Fringe," he laughs. "We're the first festival to comment on the Fringe, to be the outsider of it."

The Pure Pop Festival runs both downtown at the below-storefront Nada Classic, where Ian W. Hill directs the Natural Born Pop festival (20 productions from the 20th century, including a staging of Ed Wood's films), and midtown at the former porn-show site Nada Show World, where Beall oversees the series 33 Swoons: A Portrait of Anton Chekhov.

Beall, known for his high-concept theater, explains that the 33 Swoons illustrate "how Anton became a great writer from a backwater town" using Beall's newly invented form of "super theater," in which the cast will "DJ, or sample, as many different acting and directing techniques as possible. It's sort of a post-Stanislavski take."

The Chekhov part of the festival, in a previous incarnation, has actually been running since May. Even Beall admits that "Nada itself is a festival format, running festival after festival throughout the year." This has caused some critics to claim that the Pure Pop Festival is merely the work Nada would be doing anyway, labeled as a summer festival to compete with the Fringe. But, Beall maintains, "We are completely different from the Fringe. We have two art directors who direct a near-impossible amount of work and curate a semantic festival."

From Icons and Outcasts
at the Midtown Festival
Another significant newcomer to the summer festival scene, also markedly different from the Fringe, is the first Midtown International Theater Festival, running August 8 to September 3. Produced by the Off-Off Broadway Review, a journal started by playwright/producer John Chatterton to give exposure to the Off-Off Broadway scene, the festival is an attempt to "produce works which were done in a hole-in-the-wall somewhere that no one has ever heard of before, and which you never hear about until long after they're closed," according to OOBR's press agent Judd Hollander.

An OOBR committee selected 19 plays from a pile of 70 submissions solicited by its website. "We invited people we knew, and were more inclined to accept people we already knew," explains Chatterton, who masterminded the project. The diverse line-up includes works by Shaw, Shakespeare, Beckett, and Durang, in addition to musicals and original works. Most of the pieces have been produced before in New York or elsewhere; however, with the festival's constraints of a shared stage, lights, and actors, the remounts are sure to be different than their original productions.

Each show will have at least seven performances in one of four midtown theaters and, during the last week of the month-long festival, the "best of the fest" will pick the most popular shows to run an extra week.

Although, like the Fringe, the Midtown Festival offers a number of shows in the same price range, Chatterton points out, "we have the luxury of having 19 instead of 175 shows, and a month instead of ten days to give each show more attention. We also have air conditioning and are more conveniently located." In fact, Chatterton notes that the Midtown Festival, which features a more "middle-of-the-road program" than the Fringe, hopes to attract people from midtown and the area's mid-priced hotels--those who are used to more mainstream productions but are willing to take a look at Broadway's lower budget, less-traditional second cousins.

Still, Hollander admits, the Midtown Festival is no competition for the Fringe, which is "much more established than we are. They know what they're doing. This is our trial-and-error, baptism-by-fire season. But there is enough space in New York for all these festivals," he adds. "It's good to give people as much of a choice as possible. They're usually not stupid and, if they find something that interests them, it's great."

Although Chatterton points out that the actual Fringe Festival has the advantageous claim to the name, most of the new festival producers say they welcome the competition. "The more the better," says Beall. "I don't believe more dilutes the audience. Broadway is running at 110 percent. Downtown is under-attended, but it's just because of less effective marketing."

Finally, Lasko reminds us that this summer's plethora of simultaneously running productions at small venues around town isn't that far from the Off-Off Broadway standard. "New York is a fringe festival--24/7," he says.

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