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August 24, 2010


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You left out a fourth type of Fringe performer: the touring company.

In any case, look: I like the Under the Radar Festival better, because it's tightly curated and focused; the same for PS122's COIL. However, I'll see just as many misses there as I will at the Fringe, because people just have different tastes. The nice thing about the Fringe is that it's a great pupu platter of pure theater--you'll taste a dozen things, some of which will be bad, and some of which will introduce you to new things, things you never would have attended on their own, but which you'll take a risk on here and discover that you actually like.

Here's what I'll say in defense of the Fringe (or Frigid, or the current festival at Theater for a New City). There is nothing *BAD* about seeing bad theater. You'll learn more about what you like and what you don't like. And you can always wait until the Fringe ends to just take in the Fringe Encore series, you know, if you're really looking for what the industry considers "gems." Or, with all the new coverage out there, you can go it a little less blind.

As for the argument that the Fringe is "too soon" for some people to get reviewed: I agree. But that's not endemic to the Fringe, as you point out with your own example--sometimes a too-fresh director or writer is covered because a critic is following an actor who happens to be in that show. If anything, you'd hope that the widening press coverage would encourage participants to step up their game, with there actually being some consequences for a bad performance, other than people storming out of a theater into a city that has no idea a festival is even going on.

Finally, I disagree about the sprawl of the festival. The majority of the venues are on Second Avenue, between Avenue B and Bowery, which is a .6 mile strip. As for the others, they're easily reachable by foot or by bus, and they encourage people to be more cognizant of the city *AND* of how many great theaters there are that downtown newbies might never have known about. But maybe that's just me.

Gary Kline

But Aaron, you're being incredibly generous. I would be much more supportive of the Fringe if it was in fact a mix of bad shows and true gems. The trouble is, most everything in the Fringe is MEDIOCRE crap. Or maybe I just have really bad luck choosing shows.

And do you really think there's nothing bad about seeing BAD theater? I'm all for learning from other people's mistakes, but how many ill-conceived, poorly executed, amateurish productions do I have to sit through before I get to officially give up on the Fringe? Five? Ten? Twenty? I've been going to the Fringe for years, and am inevitably disappointed by 99% of what I see. I've lost precious time and money in the hope of finding something truly special. So yes, I think seeing bad theater CAN be bad.

And sure, there IS the occasional wonderful show, but most years it's like trying to find a freaking unicorn. I'm not sure that one gem is worth sitting through hours of dross.

But what about the people who AREN'T game and stalwart downtown theater goers? How terrific when those folks get brave and decide to do something a bit edgier and challenging, and venture to the Lower East Side to see what the folks in the know call "Fringe." If THOSE poor people have to sit through even a couple of the half-assed craptastic shows that make up MOST of the Fringe's roster, they ain't coming back. And worse than that, they now think that that's what FRINGE or DOWNTOWN theater IS, and they write it off as something that just isn't for them. The Fringe is a wonderful opportunity to EXPAND an audience. Sadly I think it's doing a far better job at alienating it. Seeing bad theater CAN be bad.

How much better it would be if instead of 200 shitty, slapped-together shows, there was a properly curated and focused collection of pieces that were truly Fringe, and ready to be seen by the public. Everyone wins. Except for the hacks who don't deserve to have a show produced anyway. This whole "everyone in the pool!" philosophy serves no one.


Gary; I wrote over at Matt Freeman's blog a little more in agreement about the dangers of the fringe for those who mistake it for "downtown theater" and get alienated by seeing some of the more immature work. But I don't know that even a curated festival--like the two I mentioned above--would insulate them against seeing stuff they're just not ready for. The Fringe ENCORE series might help, since at least then the "uptown" audience is seeing the stuff that most audiences have found safe . . . but then again, it's not really a Fringe show by that point. It's just a show that was produced, for whatever reason, in the Fringe.

In any case, this *isn't* an "everyone in the pool!" philosophy. That's Frigid. And a "properly curated" festival doesn't always work--look at UndergroundZero. The point I'd really like to make is that it's really easy to level charges at the Fringe as a "failing" institution, now that it's been around for a while. But I'd look at the stats for attendance first and see whether or not the Fringe is losing or gaining audiences, because if it keeps getting people to come out, and it generates income for theaters that might otherwise be closed during a slower summer (I mean, even HERE is leasing itself out, and that's a place that serves as a mini-curated Fringe), then I don't think it's that bad.

Andy Horwitz

NYC definitely does NOT need a Fringe - at least not this kind. The current fringe set-up is like the worst parts of Edinburgh without any of the interesting, challenging or thoughtful bits. There's no center. Edinburgh Fringe grew up around the Edinburgh Festival and, as Isaac points out, has venues like Aurora Nova (RIP) and The Traverse that present professional work.

Its helpful to remember, also, that Edinburgh Fringe is an arts market like APAP. The professional venues are attended by professional curators and producers from around the world looking for good work - be it theater, comedy, music, whatever.

The January festivals in NYC - COIL, UTR, American Realness - are also presented as part of an arts market, which means the quality is going to be better. They're curated by professionals for other professionals. The general audience benefits from the curatorial acumen of the producers.

I'm not sure that NYC needs even half the festivals it has, but as Zinoman points out August is kind of a dead month. There are many ways that NYC theaters could take advantage of this time. It might be interesting for some of the legitimate downtown producing organizations and individuals to re-mount shows we might have missed during the year, a kind of "best of the past season" festival.

There is definitely room for some sort of cooperative producing and marketing effort that would allow NYC theater artists to take advantage of August, but FringeNYC ain't it.

Jason Zinoman

I love the finding a unicorn image, but even if i didn't, i would find this point more persuasive than the response. Aaron, big Broadway crap makes money, gets people to come out and generates income for producers who put on more crap. But i assume you don't consider Broadway crap the goal? So why hold the Fringe to the same standard?

Stats for attendance is one metric for "success," but there are others. And crowds aren't only great, if that is, they are looking for unicorns. The fact is that the Fringe makes a profit, a small one, but still, from a business standpoint, it's a success. But how about we hold it to a higher standard? And if it doesn't live up to it, let's move some of our reporting and critical resources to shows and artists that do.


Jason, if it's a choice between covering the standard off- and off-off-Broadway venues that I normally attend and covering the Fringe, I will gladly choose the latter. I'm all for exploring ways to IMPROVE the Fringe, or to transform it: what I'm against is the thought that it just be shut down entirely. But hey, I'm not old enough to remember summer theater in the city before the Fringe, so it could just be that I lack something to compare the scene to.

In any case, I don't really think "reporting and critical resources" are getting shortchanged by the Fringe--it's not like "Wife for James Whelan" and "Trust" were forgotten. And audiences aren't being turned away: I'd say quite a people down at the Fringe stopped by NYTW for $20 tickets to "The Little Foxes" and many of them probably grabbed $.99 seats to "Orange, Hat & Grace" at Soho Rep.

As for my point about audiences at the Fringe, it had nothing to do with profits or the commercialism; it was regarding whether or not the Fringe was destructive to downtown theater: did it chase people off? Or were people gluttons for "punishment"? (If so, why?) Andy's the one who brought up the collusion between festivals and the "arts market." (Not that there's anything wrong with that, and, as he said, it does tend to bring a higher quality--at least in aesthetics--to the table.)

"Is the Fringe bad for off-off-Broadway?" is still the question. I don't yet believe that it is.

Jason Zinoman

I'm not saying shut it down at all. Nor stop covering it. I think it (and the coverage) should be improved. In my experience, real press attention is limited. There is only one Time Out opener a week, a few stories in Arts and Leisure, so many reviews in the Voice, etc. There are trade-offs to giving the Fringe such blanket coverage.

I personally wish we took the opportunity in the Summer to think more creatively about what to cover. That's what inspired me in the past to go to Edinburgh which was an eye-opening experience. We could also do more, say, to cover institutions in NY, and not just follow show openings. If you think Fringe audiences are going to NYTW, that would be news to me. If i saw real evidence, that might alter my thinking a little, but as is, it seems to me that the Fringe doesn't have to be bad for Off-Off for us to conclude that we can't use resources more smartly.


I would think more of the Fringe is the selections (or at least those I seem to hear about) didn't always seem to be slapdash, amateurish parodies of some piece of pop culture, or some other kind of disposable campy skit. I'm not against this type of theater--can be lots of fun, of course--but I wonder why a platform like this doesn't showcase more...I don't know...substantial work? Pieces with at least some heft, which try to say something? Are any of these Fringe shows meant to be remembered, intended to last, expected to enter the canon? They seem to be just a more risque version of SNL. Again, I'm basing this on reading the press about them more than seeing them for myself, so I could be dead wrong. If so, these shows should get better press agents, because they are sure looking like ephemeral fluff form over here.
And with the great stash of undiscovered writers/directors/actors that exists here in the city, this seems like a waste.

Gary Kline

I guess to me, there's already a vibrant and exciting "fringe" community that does consistently exciting, edgy and satisfying work. I can go to PS 122, Brick, St. Ann's Warehouse, Ontological, Dixon Place, The Kitchen, DTW, The Chocolate Factory, Soho Rep, et al. pretty much any time I want and always get better work than what's done on the Fringe Festival. And sure, not EVERYTHING these places produce is brilliant, but the batting average is MUCH higher.

And it's not as if what gets produced on the FRINGE FESTIVAL is so much fringier and out-of-the-box than what gets produced at these downtown/Brooklyn spaces. It feels instead like what gets produced on the Fringe are (mostly) shows that couldn't get a real production slot at the spaces I listed above. I acknowledge that that may not be accurate, but that's what it FEELS like to me. And if you can't get a couple late-night slots at PS 122 then, I'm sorry, there's a good chance you may not deserve to be seen yet.

Is it great that 200 shows that wouldn't normally get a production get produced at the Fringe? Hmmm. I guess it's noble and all, but I'm not sure it IS a great thing if most of those people have no idea what they're doing, and have even less business putting their show in front of a paying audience. Do it in your living room instead and invite your friend, but leave me out of it.

Not that it's feasible, or that anyone asked me, but if I had a magic wand, here's what I would do. I would take each of the producing spaces listed above and ask them to hold off on whatever it is they're producing the last two weeks of May, and move it to mid-August instead. Slap a FRINGE label on all of it - everyone shares costs for a flyer and advertising. In addition to these shows, you take whatever the BEST 20 pieces from the 200 you were going to present are, and produce those (and only those) in the various East Village spaces you normally use. And there you have it a New York Fringe Festival, featuring the 20 best shows submitted, in addition to work produced by PS 122, Brick, St. Ann's Warehouse, Ontological, Dixon Place, The Kitchen, DTW, The Chocolate Factory, and Soho Rep.

You'd have a great umbrella and marketing hook that would benefit the more established spaces who are always in need of whatever attention they can get, and you have a higher level of quality work that would only benefit The Fringe. Sure, it means BELLYBUTTON GAZING - THE ONE MAN show is out of luck, as is UNTALENTED UNDERGRADS SPENDING DADDY'S MONEY and ZOMBIE POOP - THE MUSICAL, but would that be so bad? I think not.


I respond over at my blog.


"...I'm not old enough to remember summer theater in the city before the Fringe..."

wow, that made me feel really old. I guess if I remember when most of these spaces did not have air conditioning, and that's why we didn't produce in August, that would make me really, really old.


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i have never been since i live so far , but from the comments , it is interesting , hope to attend.

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