The Seven Secret Ingredients of The New York International Fringe Festival

The man in the penguin suit hands me the postcard advertising his fringe show and makes exactly the right pitch—I’m sold. His is one of those I have decided to see out of the more than two-hundred shows in the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival, which runs from August 8-24.

There are more than fifty explicitly-named “fringe festivals” around the world, all inspired by the largest and oldest one in Edinburgh, Scotland, which has been around since 1947. New York’s, now in its eighteenth year, is the seventh oldest in the United States, and deliberately remains about one-tenth the size of Edinburgh.

Unlike Edinburgh, the New York Fringe is “curated”—which means there’s a selection process. Those of us who attend regularly are sometimes shocked that this is so; what could possibly have been rejected?

But still I go every year. I may be seeking the same feeling that I had (I realize now) when I was a teenager discovering Off-Off Broadway—the coolness of being able to say “I saw this before anybody” or, more frequently, “I endured this weirdo show.” 

To be fair, there is deeply satisfying theater to be seen in the Fringe festival. It helps to understand what the festival has to offer. One can divide the shows into seven genres.

1.) Urinetown-Inspired (Campy Parodies)
In the third year of the festival, the New York Fringe presented a satirical musical about a world where a severe water shortage has led to the control of all toilets by a malevolent corporation, which forces people to pay to pee. Those who can’t afford to, and thus break the tyrannical laws on urinating, are sent to a penal colony called Urinetown.

Urinetown quickly transferred from the festival to Off-Broadway, and then ran on Broadway for nearly 1,000 performances. Its success had several effects on the New York Fringe Festival. The Present Company, which runs the festival, struggled mightily to resist turning the entire enterprise into a series of  “cheap backers auditions,” as producing artistic director Elena Holy puts it; established theater artists attempted to use the festival as a test-run for their (mainstream) professional shows.

More visibly, the New York Fringe has gained a reputation for campy parodies, with or without music. Camp has evolved (if that’s not too optimistic a word) since Susan Sontag described it fifty years ago. At the Fringe it comes in many varieties, but is generally characterized by silly and/or extremely long titles, unflattering celebrity impersonations often in drag, and a primary performance style characterized by extreme mugging.

The list of campy parodies that have emerged from the Fringe could take up this entire article, few as polished or as pointed as Urinetown. Popular ones have included Devil Boys From Beyond and Dixie’s Tupperware Party.

Festival organizers go to some pains to point out that no more than a third of the shows at the New York Fringe in any year fit this category, but it’s no use. This is what most people think of when they think of the Fringe.

Six actors on stage
The cast of Urban Momfare.  Photo by Dixie Sheridan. 

This year’s examples: Seven Seductions of Taylor Swift wherein “seven female playwrights wildly speculate on Taylor Swift’s love life through the mouths of her exes. One actor plays all seven guys.” Another? Coming: A Rock Musical of Biblical Proportions, which the producers describe as "Jesus returns as Josh, a youth with a heart of gold, who spreads his message of love by competing on ‘American Icon’...The Glamageddon ensues.”

2.) Non-Traditional Venues
In the very first festival, I had the pleasure of attending Louis and David, which was performed every twenty minutes in its entirety in an Oldsmobile parked on the Lower East Side, with an audience of four in the back seat and the cast of two in the front. Also that first year, the now celebrated director Diane Paulus (Hair, Pippin) got her start at the Fringe with The Community Show, a theater piece conducted on the fire escapes and streets of the Lower East Side.

There is always at least one site-specific experiment like these in the festival, and the organizers would like to have more. But, ironically, the Fringe’s very success makes this more difficult, because the efficiency required for the festival to run smoothly makes the process less attractive to wacky innovators, and because (despite any claims to the contrary) the audiences have come to expect a certain level of predictable comfort. This was partially illustrated in the HowlRound Twitter chat on fringe theaters last month, when one Tweeter memorably commented: “It's never air conditioned and I'm always either sitting on a repurposed church pew or the floor or Satan's folding chair.” But the truth is all eighteen venues of this year’s festival are air-conditioned, and this has been the story for nearly a decade. (One’s memory of discomfort can be very long; the Tweeter admitted she was talking about years ago.) Most venues are traditional theaters and one, the Sheen Center, is a brand new venue on Bleecker Street that hasn’t even officially opened yet, and has unusually comfortable seats.

A man in a penguin suit
The aforementioned man in the penguin suit. Photo by Jonathan Mandell. 

I always try to find the site-specific show, which this year is: 2014 - When We Were Idiots (A comedy walking tour). Australian Xavier Toby, dressed as a penguin and carrying a megaphone, offers a walking tour of random landmarks in New York City as if we are visiting the city, newly excavated from under a mound of rubbish, one-hundred years later.

3.) Solo Ventures
Mike Daisey first made it big as a monologist at the Fringe with his 21 Dog Years, about his experience working for Amazon, and solo shows are normally a larger bloc at the Fringe than campy parodies (though there is some overlap). Many of these solo ventures are autobiographical, and it is in this genre that the Fringe has demonstrated the most geographic and ethnic diversity. There is a subgenre here of historical theater. About forty percent of the 1,000 applications the festival receives each year are for solo show, more than any other category. With more competition comes more selection, so the solo shows tend to be the most polished.

 

Many of these solo ventures are autobiographical, and it is in this genre that the Fringe has demonstrated the most geographic and ethnic diversity.

 

There are several solo shows that sound promising among the three dozen or so offered this year:

  • Manish Boy, by Ralph Harris, in which he embodies characters in telling the autobiographical tale of a ladies man who suddenly discovers he might be a father.
  • Rising Australian comic Joel Creasey in Rock God.
  • The Mushroom Cure, in which Adam Strauss tells of his efforts to cure obsessive-compulsive behavior by a varied diet of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
  • Confessions of an Old Lady #2, Joan Shepard's account of seventy-four years on Broadway and on TV.
  • Murder, Margaret and Me, in which Janet Prince plays Margaret Rutherford, the stellar British actress who portrayed the Agatha Christie detective Miss Marple.
  • One solo show I’m going to skip is Gary Busey’s One Man Hamlet (as Performed by David Carl), even though it includes puppets.

4.) Serious Drama
It is in this general category, in my experience, that as a theatergoer you are most likely to feel burned. But there have been some compelling pieces, such as Last Train to Nibroc by Arlene Hutton. And one with promising buzz this year is Magic Kingdom. An interesting phenomenon has occurred in the past few years, which is something of a subgenre of serious drama, but deserves its own category:

5.) Fresh Out Of College
One of the most memorable Fringe productions last year was Theater Plastique’s Gertrude Stein’s Saints, which managed to turn that gibberish from an undisputed genius into something fresh, rhythmic, and appealing. The creative team and all the performers were from Carnegie Mellon University, where the show debuted. The word has gone out that the Fringe is open to good original college productions, even from undergraduates.

five actors on stage
The cast of Dust Can’t Kill Me. Photo by Dixie Sheridan. 

This year’s example: Dust Can’t Kill Me, an earnest looking, folk-tinged musical created and directed by undergraduates at Yale, about a “ragtag group of wanderers gripped by Dust Bowl desperation.”

6.) New Takes on Classics
There is usually an intriguing interpretation of Shakespeare. This year’s examples: Human, “the untold story of the changeling boy from A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Juliet and Her Romeo.

7.) Performance Art and the International Avant-Garde
Despite the “international” in its name, and the boast of shows coming from (this year) thirteen countries, the truth is the Fringe is far less-known for the kind of experimental theater pieces from abroad that are the staple of such festivals as the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. Only seven shows label themselves primarily “performance art” in this year’s Fringe.

But each year there are one or two to look out for. Last year, it was The Spider, from Bulgaria, a beautiful haunting piece about conjoined twins. This year, from Japan, comes Dancing Monk Ippen, a theater piece with music based on the real-life Samurai warrior from the thirteenth century who became a Buddhist monk.

Not Revivals
In the reverse theatrical universe that is the Fringe, revivals are a rarity—which is why it is worth mentioning this year’s I’ll Say She Is, “the first revival ever of the Marx Brothers’ ninety year old first Broadway Show, the only one of the team’s stage vehicles never to have been filmed.”

Xavier Toby, the Australian penguin tour guide, has performed at six different Fringe festivals, including Edinburgh (“The Edinburgh Fringe is out of control. The city becomes overrun with performers and not necessarily audience.”) New York’s Fringe seems to have less comedy and more musicals than the others, Toby observes. It is most similar, he says, to Melbourne’s, “as it's happening in a year-round culturally vibrant city where the problem isn't audience size, but competition from other festivals and performances.”

The main differences in the New York Fringe are that there seem to be a greater proportion of professional performers, Toby says, and fewer performances per production. This leaves more time for promotion—and for viewing. Toby  “will be seeing as many other shows as possible!”

To watch video previews of a half dozen of the Fringe shows this year, click here.

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From your #1, there is an error. it is not Everett Quinton's DEVIL BOYS FROM BEYOND. Quinton just starred in it. The author is Buddy Thomas.

Mike Daisey reacted to this post with a series of tweets that he has given me permission to reprint here:

It's New York Fringe time again, so it's time for people mentioning my "big break" was the NYFringe. It wasn't.

21 DOG YEARS had garnered crazy national publicity from a garage theater in Seattle. That was my break. NYFringe was more a backers audition

FWIW, the Fringe wasn't the loveliest. I remember sullen curtain speeches to my sold out shows, exhorting them to see other things.

And it was necessary to threaten the NYFF to get a check months and months later.

But it's easy history to say I was "made" there. Except it gives false hope to so many. No Fringe can "make" an artist, not in this age.

I resent the narrative bc it helps sucker people in to what is usually a losers game. In that respect I wish they wouldn't use my name.

But it's nothing I lose sleep over. And every year hundreds strain and strive and die in the fringe grinder. And a few rise out of it.