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Risky Business at the Fringe

A preview of some of the shows in the eighth annual New York International Fringe Festival logo
Pater Maris and Flotilla DeBarge in High Cotton
(Photo © Meredith Lucio)
It's difficult to get rich at the New York International Fringe Festival. Although FringeNYC has grown considerably in the eight years of its existence, with nearly 200 shows being presented this year from nine different countries and at least 30 different U.S. cities, most entries are lucky if they break even financially. While some shows may go on to commercial runs, many more do not -- and even highly successful transfers such as the Tony Award-winning Urinetown only benefit a few of the people involved while leaving others behind.

Just ask that show's original Fringe director, Joe McDonnell. "I didn't have any kind of contract," he states. "I couldn't even protect my choreography and blocking. They just kind of took it." McDonnell returns to FringeNYC this year with two new directing projects. The first is High Cotton, a spoof of Tennessee Williams plays mixed with King Lear, featuring drag diva Flotilla DeBarge and written by Lance Werth. "This is a person who is cut from the cloth of the great tradition of comedy writing," gushes McDonnell about the playwright. "He understands style, tone, tempo; you only stop laughing long enough to sigh and get ready for the next joke."

Werth also co-wrote Reddy or Not!, McDonnell's other Fringe project. A satirical Helen Reddy tribute, the show stars Werth and co-author Joanna Parson. "It's about two very sad, self-obsessed lonely people who have just been dumped by their respective boyfriends," describes McDonnell. "They're both huge Helen Reddy fans and they realize that the only way they can feel better is to do a fantasy cabaret tribute to her." The director has enjoyed working on both shows -- but, this time around, he had his collaborators sign a contract to protect his investment in the projects.

Jeff Haslam, Davina Stewart, and
Leona Brausen in Pith!
(Photo © Peter Edwards)
Other companies need to raise money just to get their shows to New York. "We've been fund-raising like crazy," says Stewart Lemoine, writer-director of Pith! -- "everything from a donation campaign to pie socials at our theater." Lemoine's play, which comes to the festival via Canada, revolves around a widow whose husband disappeared years ago. An itinerant sailor leads the widow and her housekeeper on an imaginative journey to the jungles of Ecuador without the trio ever leaving her living room. "It's a lot like something kids would do, making a train out of chairs and such," says Lemoine. "It's very spare. We've done a lot of larger cast plays at fringe festivals and that would be a lot of fun, but nobody would make any money. So we got to this one; we think of it as the ideal touring show!"

Not all of the risk-taking in the Fringe is financial: Cleveland-based writer-performer David Hansen presents one of the most intriguing and potentially off-putting items, I Hate This -- a solo show that chronicles Hansen's experience of the stillbirth of his son. "It's a segment of human experience that people don't talk about," says Hansen, who insists that the piece is not depressing. "A lot of the text comes directly out of my journals, so it has a very immediate feel although I'm talking about events that happened years ago. It was terrible to live through those events but the show is actually a joy to perform. I get to share all the things I learned."

Atlanta's Sensurround Stagings has a different kind of challenge in that the company has set out to adapt Katherine Dunn's cult classic novel Geek Love for stage presentation. "It was hard to get my mind around it," says director and co-adapter Aileen Loy. "The material is so dense and Dunn's language so vibrant, it was difficult to encapsulate that without losing any of the magic." The play tells the story of the Binewski family, genetically engineered by patriarch Al to be the freaks and star attractions of a traveling circus. A crack design team has worked to make the unique physiologies of some of the characters convincing; Arturo the Aqua Boy, for example, is supposed to have flippers in place of arms and legs. "It's part puppetry and part physicality," says Loy. "The actor's strapped into a special suit and tucked away in a wheelchair. It's really constricting. We call it the 'hate suit' because, after two and a half hours in it, you hate everybody."

"The Fringe seems to take on really bold shows and gives them a chance," says Sam Younis, author of Browntown. Younis claims that his play has no relation to the similarly titled FringeNYC success: "I've never even seen Urinetown," he says with a laugh. "The title is a complete coincidence -- although I will confess that, after the fact, I wondered if I should try to capitalize on that." Browntown is a satire of the casting process that targets brown-skinned actors for terrorist roles; Younis, who also acts in the play, says that it was partly inspired by his own experiences. "I'm Lebanese-American," he says, "and the vilification of Middle Eastern people in movies is something our community has dealt with for a long time. It's hard to laugh about terrorism, but there's something irreverent that happens where it's possible to laugh about the fear that we all have and how it's translated into Hollywood movies."

David Pratt in Branca de Neve
(Photo © Steven Mays)
Since FringeNYC is billed as international, it's to be expected that not all of its productions will be performed in English. Branca de Neve, written by David Pratt and Rogerio Pinto, is done entirely in Portuguese. Yet Pratt, a New York-based artist who also narrates the tale, insists that all audiences will be able to understand the show. "You can get away with stuff in another language that you can't in English," he remarks. "There's also this little time delay that actually makes it funnier." The show tells the familiar story of Snow White -- but this version is not for children. Brazilian drag diva Mary Anne de Anne MacLane-Paris makes her New York debut in the production and, according to Pratt, "Mary Anne is known for departing from the script. So we sort of feel it's safest to not have kids attend. This is part play, part circus, part party, and total chaos." Pratt claims that a woman from a conservative watchdog association named the "National Endowment for Nice Entertainment" plans to interrupt the show if Mary Anne misbehaves -- which, of course, she will.

Despite the risks, more and more artists apply to FringeNYC each year, and the event attracts more media coverage, industry scouting, and audience interest. Performance venues this summer include such established theaters as the Lucille Lortel and the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. It's quite possible that the next Urinetown will be found in the 2004 festival but, needless to say, there are no guarantees. "You don't know who's going to come and you don't know if there'll be any money made," says Joe McDonnell, "but you do get that scrappy experience of a bunch of people on a desert island trying to create something out of nothing."

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