Once, only a term heard in a few select cities, (mostly outside the United States), fringe festivals now seem to be popping up everywhere. Since when did places like Boulder, CO, Washington DC or even Asheville, NC become fringe destinations? With everyone wanting to get in on the fringe action, it's good to know what you may be getting yourself into before you pack up and head out into the great fringe yonder.
Separate and Not Equal
You'd think a fringe is a fringe is a fringe, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, a lot of theater festivals are using the word "fringe" in their name as a way to give some credibility to what, by all accounts, is just a regular ol' theater festival.
With the big race now beginning to see who can have the best festival, "fringe purists" have begun to surface to make sure the voice of the old guard is well heard. For instance, have you heard of the The New York Fringe Festival? It is a theater festival that uses the word "fringe" in it's name, but guess what? Fringe purists say it doesn't adhere to the fringe principals. The Berkshire fringe in Massachusetts? The same. They say the word fringe in the these ordinary theatre festivals can be misleading.... and it can!
So how do you know if you're really, truly, fringing? According to the old guard, there are tale-tell traditions set forth in the true fringe festivals damn it...like the ones that Edinburgh and San Francisco adhere to. In a nut shell, fringes with low entry fees, no curators, uncensored, a lottery system for show selection and fringes that give 100% of the door to the performers are ideals that make the fringe purists purr.
Doth that maketh all othereth festivals who call themselfeth fringe wrong?
It depends. The new kids on the block say that a fringe festival needs to take into account the city in which the festival is hosted. Different cities have different policies. Cincinnati splits ticket sales 50/50. DC splits at 70/30. I think they're both great festivals and worthy of the fringe stamp of approval.A little Fringe History
The Fringe started in 1947 when eight theatre companies turned up uninvited to the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival. They wanted to take advantage of the large theatre crowds and showcase their own, more alternative, theatre.
For the next four years, alternative theater companies continued to drop in on the scene and as you can imagine, as more fringe performers came, more animosity grew from the traditional theater people who felt the fringers were "jumping their train."
In 1951, students at the University of Edinburgh set up a "fringe central" at the festival where the fringe performers could get cheap food and a bed for the night. It grew from their into the international phenomena that it is today. Flash forward to 2006, when over over 1.5 million tickets were sold for fringe performances in Edinburgh alone.
What the Traditional Fringe means to you as a performer?
1) After you find a fringe festival in a city where you'd like to perform, you'll apply either on-line, and send in a very meager application fee - somewhere in the $35 range.
2) Your application is put into the great big fringe hat and you and your production are selected by a lottery system. (No one asks you to submit a script or a resume)
3) Applications are usually taken during a 1-2 month period about 9 months before the festival, so it takes some per-planning to apply.
4) Once you receive notice of your acceptance, you usually have to pay a fee in the $400-$800 range. This covers what the fringe will provide you with. When you consider the price for a theater rental for one night, fringe costs are a total steal!
5) What do you get for your fee? The Fringe provides a venue for you to perform your show 5-10 times over a two week period. Time slots are divided up equally. For instance you may get a Monday at 2:00 in the afternoon which totally bites and you may get a coveted Friday at 8:00 pm slot. It's typically random, so no one plays favorites. If anything, if you're an out of towner you'll get a better opportunity by the festival coordinators, to do special sneak-preview performances to promote your show.3
6) You'll most likely get at least one 3 hour rehearsal in the space. The fringe will also provide a tech person that will read a basic tech plot-line and simple lighting cues, a ticket taker, a house manager and ushers. You usually provide your own stage manager.
7) Fringe shows need to run under 60-minutes, although some venues provide a few 90-minute slots. Run over 60-minutes and you'll find yourself in the dark as the house manager is authorized to stick to the schedule. I've seen the stage go dark many a time towards the end of a show.
8) Also, you get 15 minutes before and after each show. With that in mind, story is key...props, not so much.
9) What else do you get?
- The traditional fringes will give you a pass to see as many of the other shows as you wish between your performances.
- You get 100% of your box office ticket sales, except for tickets included in fringe passes. Usually, you get to settle up after each show (besides credit card sales and checks). This money is divided up and sent to you within 30 days.
- You get to be a part of an elite group of artists doing exactly what you love to do.... creating edgy, beautiful and wild-ass theater. With that said, it's a lot like summer camp and the friendships you make during fringe time will last a lifetime.
10) Other things to consider?
Some fringes allow you to bring your own venue. For example, one popular show at the San Francisco fringe was done on a bus that stopped at various bars. Audience members bought tickets and boarded the bus and went on an hour ride in which the actors were on board as well.
Basically, for 2-4 weeks, performance artists, one-man and one-women shows, chainsaw jugglers, street performers, dancers, sword swallowers, theater companies and anyone with an act willing to perform descends upon the city.
Most acts don't necessarily have to be "polished" per say or even finished during the time of application and many performers use the fringe to showcase new work. With some marketing savvy, the potential to have your act be seen, make important networking connections, and make some money is all there. How much can you make? See my blog on "Fringe for Beginners."