August 25, 2010

FringeNYC vs. the world (teehee - get it?)

There's a lot of good discussion going on in these here internets about the New York International Fringe Festival and what good it's doing for Off-Off Broadway Theatre.

Jason Zinoman made like the Black-Eyed Peas and got it started when he wrote:
Does it matter that New York has a drearily mediocre Fringe Festival?

I have long thought not, since the annual August assembly line of toothless political parodies, dumb musicals, navel-gazing solo shows and occasional gems always seemed harmless. It gave hundreds of young artists a chance to shine and filled a niche for the press during the dead quiet of summer. As I have visited much more audience-friendly Fringes in Edinburgh and Philadelphia, however, the New York International Fringe Festival now appears needlessly bland and poorly organized. It also does no favors for the reputation of downtown theater. We deserve better.
. . . . . . . . . .
Waiting in lines, I would often overhear conversations between audience members who were excited to finally see a show away from the bright lights of Broadway. Reaching those people is important. What I worry is that while Off-Off Broadway throbs with energy, ambition and the finest low-budget experimental theater scene in the world, you would likely never know that from attending the New York International Fringe Festival. ("A Fringe Festival Too Tame? Too Bad")

Following this, quite a few folks on the theatrosphere are asking whether FringeNYC does any good for OOB theatre anymore. Isaac Butler flat-out wonders if the Fringe is bad for Off-Off Broadway theatre.
What the Fringe offers are low cost space (which is still hard to come by, I know) and a lot of press/audience attention for many of the shows on offer, particularly if they have exciting titles like Ratfucker Rapeface or whatever. But here's the thing... there's more off-off Broadway coverage than ever before. Not only are their tons of websites that do a lot of Off-Off coverage, but the Times covers a lot of off-off offerings now, and of course there's Time Out New York. 

So this raises the question... Is it a good thing that shows that wouldn't normally be getting Times and TONY and Voice (etc.) coverage get it?  And my answer is, probably not. Many of the shows at the Fringe that couldn't get that coverage normally probably don't deserve it, and they're put on by artists who haven't earned it and may not be ready for it.

The Playgoer asks:
Let's think not just whether the Fringe is worth it from the audience's perspective, but how about the performers'? The thinking used to be that doing a show at the Fringe was always tough conditions, but at least you got built-in marketing and space. But do you think that still makes it worth it, or are you better off doing a regular Off-Off B'way showcase on your own? ("Is the Fringe a Fraud?")

And Matthew Freeman says:
I'm wondering if the web has had a one step forward two steps back approach for the Fringe. Now, more shows are reviewed than ever. But does that reduce the incentive to just wander around trying shows and meeting people?
Before I get into what I see going on here, I should be upfront about my particular biases.

To a degree, I'll always be sentimental about FringeNYC. I uprooted myself from Richmond and moved here to New York while the Fringe was in full swing, and I celebrated by volunteering to see some pieces on the cheap. Since then, I'd promised myself that if time and finances permit, I would do the Fringe every year to celebrate the anniversary of my move. The idea, at least for me, was that FringeNYC would give me a good sampling of what the OOB scene had to offer - which was probably naive on my part, especially since seeing some interesting work such as Alice in Slasherland, Jacob's House, The Little One, and Black Girl Ugly.

Nevertheless, if the opportunity presented itself, I'd probably go to at least a few of the shows going on at FringeNYC. Although a lot of it is hit or miss, I still think there's a lot worth seeing.

But that's not what's going on right now.

There are at least two prongs to the FringeNYC discussion going on right now. First, is FringeNYC good for Off-Off Broadway audiences? Second, is FringeNYC good for Off-Off Broadway artists?

Of course, being me, I don't think things are that simple. For me, the questions beneath these questions are:
  • Who is best served by FringeNYC?
  • How should artists and audiences approach FringeNYC?
  • What can FringeNYC do better for artists and audiences?
One of the most consistent complaints is that FringeNYC is pretty audience-unfriendly when it comes to how they curate the shows, and I am inclined to agree. I tend to take more risks than most people when it comes to seeing theatre, but this has as much to do with comp tickets as it does with any particular adventurousness on my part. If I have to pay for tickets, I'm looking for something more substantial. Besides an interesting premise and competent execution, I'm looking for artists who have something to say. I get enough of bubblegum entertainment in film and TV. I come to theatre to witness something more meaningful. Otherwise, what's the point? A lot of times, the shows at FringeNYC are more interesting to read about in the little blurb than to see in performance. And that's just . . . hrm :-/

Does this mean that some of the shows at FringeNYC aren't ready for the exposure it brings? It depends. I believe there should always be a place for people who are just starting out, and FringeNYC can be (not saying should) be that place. But I do think a little forewarning would be nice so I don't go to a show thinking it's other than what it is. There are few theatre experiences more disappointing than misguided expectations. If I walk into a show knowing that it's a new artist working on a shoestring budget, I'm going to be more forgiving than I would be if I didn't know that. But if I see that same new artist on a shoestring budget promoted right alongside something like Alice in Slasherland, I'm not going to be a happy camper.

As a new artist on the scene, if I participate in a festival, I want that to be an opportunity to find my audience. Although plenty of people are giving me support for Tulpa, or Anne&Me, that's not the same as building an audience for Crossroads Theatre Project. Is FringeNYC the best vehicle for that? Honestly, probably not. My energies are much better served by a situation where I can distinguish myself as a brand new artist creating work that doesn't happen very often on the OOB scene.

Should FringeNYC be that best vehicle? I'm not certain. What do you think?

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