By Isaac Butler
That's the question raised at the end of this excellent (if grouchy) Jason Zinoman piece in the Times about his recent Fringe fest experiences. I feel like the two places where I differ from my theatrospheric colleagues are on the Fringe (I'm lukewarm to negative) and showcase code reform (I'm against it, for the most part) and this provides me a good opportunity to talk about the first of these two.
Jason's piece lays out some audience-member focused frustrations about the Fringe. The productions on offer are frequently not only bad, but lame. They're not spectacularly daring failures, they're instead tepid, safe in their own way. The venues are diffuse, the programming done in a way that lacks vision. He contrasts the NYC Fringe with the Edinburgh fringe where each venue curates its own offering and thus has its own kind of aesthetic. If you went to Aurura Nova (back when it existed) you knew you were going to get a piece of physical company created work. All Wear Bowlers, for example, played there.
Anyway, you should RTWT. Jason's seen a lot more fringe than I or probably most of my readers ever have, so I'm going to trust him on this one.
I'm interested in the point he makes at the end:
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.
The raises the question... do we really need a Fringe Festival anymore in NYC? And I'm prepared to tentatively answer that question in the negative. It's a problem of success. The Fringe Festival has helped create a kind of Off-Off 2.0, the Off-Off I entered when I graduated from college and that grew significantly from there. Now there are festivals all year round all over town that do Fringe-ish work. There's the Brick, which is like a year-round Fringe festival in one tiny, awesome venue. There are the Horse Trade Theaters, which offer a better deal to producers than the Fringe. And there's already more low/no budget theatre in New York City than anyone could hope to take in. Minneapolis, where I now live, has a Fringe festival that works as its Off-Off crammed into one month. Portland, Oregon, which has 110 low budget companies producing off-off type theatre, doesn't have a fringe festival because it doesn't need one.
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.
Before you set Phasers to Flame, let me back up and qualify this. There are three types of shows, roughly, that produce at the Fringe. The first are ones put on by folks like Gideon Productions or Nosedive. People who regularly produce in New York, who know what they're doing, who have an existing company and following and know how to make the Fringe's good-art-unfriendly producing and staffing policies work for them. That's not who I'm talking about.
Nor am I really talking about the commercial producers who are using the Fringe to try to launch the next Urinetown. I don't like that phenomenon very much, but that's not what I'm talking about either.
I'm talking about the third group. The unseasoned artists and producers who think the Fringe is a pretty good ticket to getting some attention. They're right about that, they just don't deserve the attention yet. I've been them very recently, so let me just talk about myself now.
When I first moved to NYC from Vassar, I thought my shit smelled like roses. I was at the time of graduating one of the stars of my department. I was one of the few directors in my class, had a good rep, people came to me for advice the whole bit. So I took one of the shows I directed while at Vassar and remounted it in a double billing with another director's show. And here's the thing. It wasn't good. Oh, I thought it was good at the time. I was upset no critics came to see it based on my hastily typed and unproofed press release. But it wasn't.
The next show I directed, Clay McLeod Chapman's redbird was a huge learning experience, and it got a respectful but not enthusiastic review from Time Out, which was more than I deserved at the time. I hadn't really been around long enough to earn a TONY review, but Clay had, so I rode his coattails like a ramora clinging to a shark. The show had its moments, but it was uneven, and there was some really boring directing on my part. I was learning how to be a director. And not in the "you learn with every show" way, no, I was learning about how to marshall and manage the resources behind a $15k show with little time to tech in a found space, how to make good work come out of that. Which isn't easy, t's something you have to learn.
The next show I directed was a disaster. I don't think a lot of people think of it that way, but for me it was a disaster. It was a show I waited years to get the rights for, and I had nearly $30K at my disposal and, thanks to a mixture of inadequate producing, an actor rebellion from the leads over interpretational differences on the show, and some tentative leadership on my part, we fucked it up. There are things about that show I'm proud of, but hoenstly, it still hurts to think about like a bad break up. Some of the performaces. SOme great design moments. There's one scene whose staging I think was really great.
After this, I realized I didn't know how to work at that level. It had been thrust upon me too early. So I went to work on much smaller piece. I directed a show that cost $900 to do and slowly worked my way up, refining my management skills and my staging craft by having fewer toys to play with. Not everything was a triumph, but I got much, much better. I could go on about this process, and I will some other time, but the point is, by the time bigger reviewers started coming to my work, i had enough experience good and bad (and had been through the Lincoln Center Director's Lab) that I had swiftly become a much better director.
When Terry Teachout came to see the workshop of In Public, and Helen Shaw came to The Amulet, I was operating at a level that deserved that attention. This is regardless of the quality of the actual shows themselves (although I'm proud of both). The job I did was good enough. Or to put it another way, in each case I was guiding productions so that in the end they were the productions we intended to put up.
I've never been reviewed by The Times. I was supposed to be once, but the review was spiked for reasons not getting into right now (although that lead inadvertently to StageGrade, so I'm okay with it). And I'll say this, regardless of the quality of other work I did, the full production of In Public (which is when the Times was supposed to come) was the first time I was actually ready for it.
If I had done one of those first few shows at the Fringe, there's a good chance I would have gotten the Times and the Voice to see it. But here's the thing: I wasn't ready yet. Which would've meant one of two things. They would have trashed it, or they would have gone soft on it because who wants to shit on the new kid's dream? Neither or those would have been particularly helpful.
As frustrating as I found it when I was twenty four, I think it is okay to make people wait and work some shit out before they get the kind of attention the Fringe can end up giving them.