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August 18, 2009

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Ben TS

The fringe is what I might refer to as an "institutionally useful dinosaur." Yes, obviously there are gazillions of options year-round that compete with the fringe, and yes, these options theoretically render the Fringe somewhat obsolete. But here's the thing. The "industry" (casting directors, agents, institutional-theatre types) doesn't seem to know this. These folks are by-and-large under the impression that the Fringe is still the only game in town when it comes to emerging theatre. That and maybe PS122. So even though there are far more limitations to the fringe than one would have under normal circumstances, the festival is paradoxically one of the only venues where shows can be truly showcased to the industry at large. I mean, I realize this perception is pretty illusory, but shows at least do 0.0001% of the time transfer to more prestigious venues, which is about 0.0001% more than the rest of the year.

This points to a larger generaliztion, which is that the "industry" usually thinks the talent is exactly where it was fifteen years ago. Sometimes I think a lot of problems artists have with theatre institutions simply boil down to a lack of up-do-date information.

Joshua James

This is just my opinion, and seeing that it may cause a shitstorm I will apologize in advance for not having the time to expand more upon it, but my view (as someone involving in indie theatre before and after the Fringe) is that The NYC Fringe Festival is one of the worst things that has happened to independent theatre in New York City.

Just my opinion, and understandably I expect people to disagree, and on a side note I'm very happy for friends who used the Fringe bring attention to their work, I am.

Gotta run.

isaac

Hey JJ,

Can you explain why you feel that way? I'm certainly not angry about you thinking it's a terrible thing to have happened to Indie Theatre, I'm not like a huge booster. I'm more interested in what you think the fringe has done!

Joshua James

Okay, but it's gonna be spare and brief, I'm on a deadline on another project ... but it coincides with what you note in your post... Indie theatre doesn't just happen for a few weeks in August in NYC, it happens year round.

However, now that the Fringe is happening, much of the mindset seems to be that, if it's important, it will happen in the Fringe, if not, it won't.

Before there were small indie theatres (like for example, Surf Realty, just to grab a name) who would produce a play that someone wrote. They didn't charge you for producing it, you wouldn't get paid, either ... they were simply interested in doing work that was cool.

I was produced by many such places. It was good, you got relationships with people, you didn't share in the profits, per se, but you didn't put in any of the risk ... there was a business that produces plays on the fringe and if it got noticed, it moved up.

Most important, the artists didn't have to PAY for the privilege of being produced, they simply had to do work that merited it.

After the Fringe, however, the mindset settled in that, if your work was any good, YOU should produce it, and PAY us to produce it. Not just during the Fringe, but after as well.

Nothing against producing one's own work, I did so and enjoyed it (The Defiant Ones, yo) but I also think there's a need for theatre that's not solely self-produced ... had it been that way when I started as a playwright (94-95) I would have never had any work done, because when I began because I was a stone-broke writer ... I just wrote plays, people produced 'em, audiences liked them.

Leaving indi-theatre just for those who can afford to produce themselves cuts off a large segment of our theatre population who may have talent but not the resources.

Also, after that I noticed quite a few bigger houses (this was when I worked for a non-profit for awhile, name redacted) before the Fringe would take a risk on a new work and produce or workshop it. After the fringe, the mindset of several of them were ... well, if it goes to Fringe, then we'll see how it's received. If not, then pass.

After that, now, it doesn't seem to matter how good a play is ... it's about whether or not you can afford to put it up yourself.

Add to that, the deal one signs (if it has not been changed by now) is truly a bad one. You have to put up five hundred bucks (in the beginning it was three, I think) you produce it yourself (pay for rehearsal, props, anything) and you don't get to choose your venue, your performance time or date, and often you get a bare hour or less to tech (according to friends who've been in) ... and on top of that, you give away 2% of the subsidiary rights to your work ... you PAY for them to take a chunk of your works future earnings. That's a bad deal.

Bad deal for the artist. Good deal for the Fringe, they risk ... NOTHING. They stand to gain much.

I understand that some writers and directors used the Fringe to vault into the public eye, and I'm happy for them ... it's hard to do that, true. But it could (and used to) happen in indie theatre outside of the Fringe as well.

I know that the Fringe was supposed to empower indie theatre artists, but to my own (and again, this is strictly only my observations and experiences) it seems to have done the opposite ... it only empowers The Fringe, and only for those four weeks a year when the Fringe happens ... and it empowers just those pieces that the Fringe (or the Times) decides it likes.

Okay, that wasn't nearly as spare as I thought it would be. Sorry!

For the record, I've never submitted any of my work to the Fringe, myself ... a producer once submitted a piece of mine he wanted to produce, his plan was to start with the Fringe, and so with my permission he paid the fifty dollar application fee and tried to get in ... I had told him I wasn't going to give up my subsidiary rights for nothing, though, up front. He knew that when he applied.

The piece didn't get in. I know not why, and don't care, I guess. I never thought it was a great deal.

I remember before the Fringe, when there were many theatres producing people's work and one didn't have to pay, it was strictly merit ... perhaps it would have changed anyway (when the rents went up) but I'm still of the mind that the Fringe affected how everyone thought of indie theatre after it began, and changed it in a way less than beneficial for the artists.

Just my opinion, of course.

Back to work.

RLewis

Just my $.02:
Ben's idea seems too easy, because it doesn't take into account all the work it takes to get "industry" to a show whether it's in the Fringe or not.

Josh's points strike me as more correct, but he did take the time to explain; even though I think it's unvoidable for nyc not to have one of these festivals. Ours could be a lot worse.

But what I really disagree with is this:

"It seems to me that the Fringe is this weird hyper-encapsulation of what already happens in New York all year round."

Okay, I do agree with the sentiment, but these Fringe shows are not what happens all year long in nyc, and I would hate to give visitors that impression.

Fringe shows are a rush for quick, if not cheap, attention. Often the title is the most important thing about the show - It's gotta be hyper-catchy. The shows have to be out-there weird, or racey, or colorful in some way that someone thought would stand out in a crowd. It has to get on and off stage in 15 minutes or so and there's lil' tech' time, so it's not a designer's venue. Great for one-person shows or two-handers, but not ideal for work that utilizes all of theater's great assets.

During the year in nyc, I can catch a nice Shakespeare, Greek, or other classic by really good and growing actors. Every now and then there's a Sheppard or Stoppard or Shaw in some unique nyc space, but if those happen in the Fringe, I'm not getting invited. Not that I don't love new work, but the new Fringe works seem a bit more needy than our year-round indie work.

Ben TS

RLewis,

Note my choice of the word "illusory." I'm not saying that it's particularly easier to get noticed by the industry at the fringe than at any other time of year, just that the chances of this happening move from the near-impossible to the merely improbable. And if you were to really examine the track record of the Fringe vs. self-produced indie theatre, there'd probably be decent evidence to back this up. So yes, maybe the shows that "make it" are still the ones with the fanciest press agents, but that doesn't really change the perception that your show can be the next "Urinetown" or "Dog Sees God" or whatever. And while I admittedly have no way of really backing this up with evidence, I've read enough interviews with casting directors/producers/agents to sense that the Fringe has garnered an "industry-approved" distinction that sets it apart from most of the world of off-off.

Joshua,

I'm still unclear as to why the Fringe is responsible for the problems you're addressing. I'd agree that indie theatre has moved from a curatorial model to one of self-production, but to me that seems more endemic of the mid-2000s real estate orgy than some sort of culture engendered by the Fringe. Surf Reality is homeless now because it got pushed out by a greedy landlord. I get that there are aspects of the festival that are unfair, but I can't say the Fringe would even make my top 10 list of things that have negatively impacted the off-off community.

Ken

From my limited first-hand knowledge of shows in the Fringe, it seems that RLewis is right when he says the Fringe seems to be offering a skewed vision of what NY theater is or should be. The shows in the Fringe year after year seem to be novelty acts--musicals based on sitcoms, parodies of parodies, etc., with wild, outrageous titles meant to cut through the din of all the other shows yammering for attention. I can't imagine this is the kind of work these artists are trying to push the other 11 months of the year. Maybe it is, but it seems to me that the Fringe has by now created an expectation of a certain kind of show, jokey and self-referential, so those are what people are submitting. The Fringe is a proven way to get attention, so why not slap together a musical based on the third season of "Diff'rent Strokes"? Then, that gets broadcast to the world as what NY Indie theater is all about. I suppose it's a great ride if you're willing or able to put together something like that. For me, the Fringe seems to be a detour from what is, or what could be, happening in NY theater.

Sean

It probably goes without saying that if you don't have first hand knowledge of something, it becomes difficult to assess your critique of it. If you've never been involved in the Fringe Festival, then I'm not sure where you're getting your information from.

It is, like all other theater, and like all things in life, a vastly variable thing that can become whatever you need it to be. I don't find the design elements any more limiting in the Fringe than I do for almost all the other off-off Theater I produce. You get twice the length of your play to tech your show, which is probably about as much as I usually get when I'm renting a theater.

There are catchy stupid titles and utterly bottom feeding producers and sheer shlock in the Fringe... exactly like the rest of the year all over New York.

If you want to argue its redundancy, I'm right there with you. And there are huge problems with it and with the deal you sign with them. But anyone who thinks the Fringe is making New York theater worse, who thinks it's even in the top 25 things making New York theater worse... I guess I'd ask that you work within the system at least once before making that judgment.

Joshua James

"I guess I'd ask that you work within the system at least once before making that judgment."

Well, to do so I'd have to give up two percent of the subsidiary rights to a property of mine, which is not what I'm willing to do.

That being said, you make some good points but I'm not coming to this conclusion from Iowa, Sean, I'm coming to it from the position of a guy who was deeply, deeply involved in indie theatre right before fringe and for a long time after, and as a person like that, I've known many a person who DID work in the system, who shared their experiences with me honestly, and some of those people did use the fringe to jumpstart their careers ... but they were honest about what it was about.

It's reasonable to presume a person can come to an informed conclusion about something without actually participating in the system itself ... we do it all the time. YOu just go talk to the participants themselves ... in a way, it's an even more objective stance, because when you're in, you're primarily concerned with what you're doing.

As an observer, it's different.

Regardless, my point about the Fringe being the worst thing that has happened to indie theatre still stands and you didn't really respond to those reasons ... but primary among them was that it fostered the idea that indie-theatre must be produced by the creators, rather than having indie theatres act as producers for artists ... leading to this comment:

"Leaving indi-theatre just for those who can afford to produce themselves cuts off a large segment of our theatre population who may have talent but not the resources. "

And I still believe that. Having been witness to the birth of the Fringe (I went to a couple shows at the very first one, though not, of course, Urinetown) I observed a shift immediately ...

And I think it's true that the economy and rents also played a part, but it seems a bit disingenuis not to think the Fringe has / had NO influence on indie theatre the rest of the year.

Again, it's just my opinion.

Sean

HEY! How did you know I grew up in Iowa!

I respect your opinion, and I get where you're coming from. I didn't mean to insinuate ignorance on your part, but I gotta say, we've made more out of it than what you've described.

The thing is, I feel like theater production is maybe even too cheap, sometimes. There are terrible shows going up because people who'd rather write for TV or films realize that for 1% of the cost, they can just write a play.

I understand that a change may have occurred right after the Fringe started, but I'm not sure I understand the cause and effect. I will, however, admit that you know way more about it than I do. I do think The Fringe is redundant, but I just don't believe that the idea of self-production began with the Fringe.

Joshua James

I grew up in Iowa, too, remember? I'm a former Hawkeye ...

I didn't say the idea that self-production began with the Fringe, just that the Fringe changed the perception of indie theatre in that if it's important, it will be produced in the Fringe. If it's not, it's not.

It's an important distinction, it's not slamming the work done in the Fringe, but rather the idea of a Fringe in new york as a whole.

As I mentioned before, I started as a playwright before the Fringe, and witnessed the changes after, so I'm actually talking as a direct participant in indie-theatre as a whole.

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