On September 30th, the producers of the New York International Fringe Festival made the surprise announcement that they would be taking next summer off, and that there would be no Fringe in 2017. The reasons are still somewhat nebulous (see the announcement here), although given the small and overworked staff which oversees the Festival, it’s amazing it hasn’t happened before now. Considering the size of the Fringe, and the prominent role it’s carved out for itself, this should be shocking news. Due to skyrocketing rents and other economic factors, the number of Off-Off Broadway companies and venues has been steadily declining over the past twenty years – and as that’s happened, the Fringe has been taking up the slack. At this point, the Fringe practically is Off-Off Broadway, the last place where theatrical newcomers and iconoclasts have a place to make their voices heard, and its loss would seem to be a catastrophic blow.
But I’ve noticed something striking as I’ve read the ongoing coverage, and spoken to fellow actors and writers most directly affected by this. Rather than fear or sorrow, the overall mood in the theater community seems to be one of acceptance. And not the final-stage-of-grief sort of acceptance, but the acceptance that comes when a long-expected outcome has finally arrived. Not only does there not seem to be much a surprise, there’s almost a sense of welcome to it, that this is something of an intervention whose coming was inevitable.
A lot of this has to do with the sheer size of the Fringe. My play Dragon’s Breath appeared as part of FringeNYC in 2014, and it was one of two hundred shows appearing. 2015 and 2016 each had comparable lineups. Two hundred productions per summer, each with a minimum of five performances. That’s a thousand shows, spread over sixteen or seventeen venues, over the course of two and half weeks. Everything from solo shows to large-scale musicals, new straight plays to dance pieces to avant garde clown shows, local works to productions from around the globe. I remember, at the end-of-Fringe party in 2014, the organizers proudly announcing how they’d made a point of seeing 25% of the shows that had gone up. And this is a huge achievement – but it meant that three quarters of the productions had gone unseen by the organizers of the very festival meant to celebrate their work. No matter how well meaning they are – and the team behind the Fringe is as well-meaning as it gets – you can’t develop a show when you’re spread that thin.
Development is something of a sticking point with the Fringe, actually - they seem to be of two minds on the subject. On the one hand, they’re justly proud of shows like Urinetown and Matt and Ben, which debuted at the Fringe and moved on to commercial productions. However, during my year, we were routinely admonished that focusing on commercial productions was antithetical to the independent spirit of the Festival. This is certainly true, in terms of maintaining a spirit of mutual cooperation and a spirit of camaraderie throughout the festival. It’s nevertheless a mixed message to send to writers and independent producers who know that the Fringe represents their best opportunity to break through and reach an audience. And this isn’t the only aspect of the Fringe where I encountered mixed messages – I often felt like I was caught in crossfire between the Festival and Actor’s Equity Association, as they were negotiating and re-negotiating their agreement with the Fringe while production work on all of our shows was already underway. Nobody’s to blame for this – it’s inevitable when dealing with institutions and bureaucracies. But it is another sign that institutional fatigue had begun to set in as the Fringe ballooned in size, to the detriment of its mission.
I want to be clear – I truly love the Fringe, I loved my time being part of it, and most of us who have ever been a part of it feel the same way. We all hope this hiatus proves temporary. We all want the Fringe to continue, but at the same time we know that it’s grown too big to function properly. And as we’ve been discussing the upcoming hiatus, many of us have come to the same conclusion – the Fringe should scale down, focus on a smaller group of curated shows, and being more actively involved in their production and promotion – making the best possible case for them.
This may seem unfair to the shows left out – and for all I know, mine could have been among them had this been the model last time around. But I don’t think that has to be a problem. There are other, less high-profile theater festivals here in New York, and over the past few years they’ve been growing in size and prestige as well. There’s no reason why they can’t share space in the cultural landscape, each perhaps with its own well-defined aesthetic, each presenting their own strong line-up of productions, each helping to keep the idea of Off-Off Broadway theater alive.
And really, that’s the best solution – figuring out how to keep Off-Off Broadway alive in the first place. Addressing the economic issues that are plaguing it, figuring out production models that will allow it to remain vital. So long as the Fringe isn’t trying to take the place of the entirety of the Off-Off Broadway landscape, it can focus on being itself.
And if you’ve ever done the Fringe, you know that being yourself is the entire point.
Posted on October 10, 2016
by Michael C. O'Day