It took the year off last year, after producing theater for twenty years, and given that this business requires continuous production and continuous activity it was easy to fear that the New York Fringe Festival would never return. But return it did; the 2018 Fringe, at a smaller scale and newly restructured, concluded its performances this weekend. And, being a theater artist in New York City, I once again had friends performing in the festival, and had occasion to check out this new, and hopefully improved, Fringe.
So, how was it?
At a certain level, the Fringe is the Fringe. It’s a glimpse at what off-off Broadway theater used to be, when it was still possible to produce theater (comparatively) cheaply and take risks. Indeed, with the proliferation of other festivals during the Fringe’s hiatus, this seems to be the only viable model left for these sorts of productions. And they’re…mixed. They always will be. Some are sloppy scripts redeemed by powerful performances, some are issues pieces without much artistry, some are just bad, some are genuinely good. This year’s shows, while their topics were very much of the moment, seemed like they were of a piece with other Fringe festivals.
But as to the festival itself?
When I went to purchase the ticket to the first show I saw this year, at the little lot which had been set up as the “Fringe hub,” I learned that what in previous years was the central box office was no longer selling anything. (Except beer. Always sell beer.) They had been moving towards a cashless Fringe when my own show Dragon’s Breath was a part of it a few years ago, and now the process seems to be complete. You had to purchase online, and had to download a ticket so it could be scanned from your smartphone. I remember this causing consternation when I was a part of the Fringe, among artists my own age. What about people without smart phones? What about students who only had cash? Were they being shut out?
Apparently not; this procedure seemed to work out fine for everybody, and though the changes may feel strange to me, that doesn’t make them wrong.
The most notable change about this year’s Fringe was that audiences no longer went directly to the performance venues; we didn’t even know in advance what a show’s performance venue would be. At the Fringe hub I mentioned earlier, there was a row of multicolored flags flapping in the wind; we all gathered by each show’s designated color flag, like bannermen at Kings Landing, to be escorted to the venue en masse. The rationale for this was that, since many of the shows were taking place in found spaces and other unconventional venues, this was the best way of getting the audiences to those shows. Of course, it turned out that every show I went to see was taking place at HB studios, and I’ve been there enough times to be able to find it on my own. Moreover, while I’m still ambulatory these days (knock wood), I couldn’t help but worry about older audience members, people with compromised mobility, etc. Do they have to brave a field trip in order to see a show? Aren’t we excluding them?
And yet – it didn’t seem like there were any complaints. Furthermore, the idea behind having the audiences for every show gather at a single, central location was to encourage a sense of community. To facilitate cross-pollination and communication between the different shows. To provide the Fringe with a cohesive identity, rather than just have it being a loose collection of separate theater pieces. So again, this change may feel strange to me, but it isn’t wrong.
No, the main issue that I have with this revamped Fringe, the main problem that must be addressed going forward, has nothing to do with value judgments on my part. It’s a simple statement of fact.
Namely, that it gets chilly in the fall.
Festivals, specifically of the outdoor variety (even if you’re only outdoors in the time needed to get your tickets and make your way to the venue), tend to happen when it’s warm outside. In the balm of late spring, in the heat of summer. It makes it easier to establish that community the Fringe organizers value so highly, simply because we’re all outside talking to each other. Strolling leisurely from venue to venue. Sitting outside and talking after the show. Once it gets chilly outside? That’s all gone. We put our jackets on and lean into the air, solitary figures going about our business. Standing outside in a common “hub” area, shifting our feet around as we wait in the cold to know where we’re going? That’s a long way from being a festival.
So, I’m sure the Fringe will find a way to keep being the Fringe, but it needs to go back to being a summertime event. Were it consistently warm enough in October for the festival to function as it should, the city itself would likely be underwater – which would, among other things, make it rather hard to find suitable venues.