Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Fringe Story vs. Fringe Story

The following essay, below, may be subject to revision. And, because I realize that I am picking apart Alexis Soloski's story, I'm probably further ensuring that I'll never, ever, ever, ever be selected for the Obie Awards committee, which I've heard would never happen anyway because, apparently, I'm a colossal failure at kissing the right asses. With nothing to lose, therefore, and because I feel Soloski's story in last week's Voice on the NYC Fringe leaves much to be desired, I'm plowing ahead with the following essay. OK, Village Voice, go ahead, hate my guts, which you do anyway. Nyah.

Anyway, this is what I wrote earlier today. A few paragraphs down is what wrote later on.

I know I'm a little behind the curve commenting on the twin Fringe stories that came out in the Voice and the Times last week (kudos to my buddy Mark Blankenship for once again smothering the august pages of the Grey Lady with his literary finery), but I didn't want a lot more time to pass without weighing in on the subject, and most especially on Soloski's article, with which I am having some very profound problems, concerns and thoughts.

Soloski writes,

The New York Fringe Festival—which starts it 11th year on Friday—doesn't exude that kind of excitement or buzz. It has largely failed to attract the range and quality of shows at other fringe festivals— Edinburgh, Dublin, Adelaide, even nearby Philadelphia. And with its venues so scattered across the East Village, West Village, and Lower East Side, it's possible to wander those neighborhoods and remain unaware that a Fringe is happening at all, a phenomenon difficult to imagine at any other festival. Even Clancy, a man who risked lockjaw starting it, would rather take his shows elsewhere. What, if anything, can the New York Fringe do to sex itself up, to attract innovative artists, to convince more experienced artists to return? A few weeks before the start of this year's festival, I spoke with Clancy, Philadelphia Fringe artistic director Nick Stuccio, and P.S.122's Vallejo Gantner, former artistic director of the Dublin Fringe, to see how they'd improve our Fringe. Clancy argues for expanding it, Stuccio for tying it to another festival, Gantner for limiting its scope.
In truth, though, the above paragraph, in my view, reeks of wild agenda-setting; it’s more of an injection of pure, unapologetic subjectivity into the debate over what's wrong with the Fringe (if you agree there's something wrong with the Fringe) than a cogent analysis of the Fringe at this moment in its history. To state that the Fringe doesn't "exude that kind of excitement or buzz" associated with other festivals, that it has "largely failed to attract the range and quality of shows at other fringe festivals," is to marginalize (some might say vaporize) the work of the many thousands of its local, national and international artists and participants since its inception. With the blithe, broad, Marie Antoinette-esque flick and smack of her dainty editorial hand, Soloski simply dismisses their combined product. How facile, how flimsy, how forlorn. If the product is so poor, if the buzz is so lacking, if the whole is so much less than the sum of its rusty parts, why are tens of thousands of people schlepping all over town in the muggy August heat to see theatre? Are they all just idiots?

For purposes of this not-quite-dialectic, however, let's assume Soloski's thesis -- skewed and unproven as it is; patronizing as it seems; founded on little more than that aforementioned flick and smack of her aforementioned hand -- is valid. Let's agree, too, for purposes of this analysis, that the Fringe is simply a limp dramaturgical dishrag smearing the American theatre, denuding it of all of its brio, sweep and sass. In that case, sure, ok, I think it's quite fine to talk to John Clancy about what the Fringe might do to "sex itself up, to attract innovative artists, to convince more experienced artists to return" -- clearly as one of the Fringe's co-founders, he's the perfect "get." (I also consider John a friendly colleague and a man for whom I have tremendous respect even when I disagree with him.) But, in my view, if one is going to suggest that something must be done "to convince more experienced artists to return" to the Fringe, surely actually naming two or three such individuals would be instructive, either by Soloski herself, or, ideally, by one or more of her sources, starting with Clancy. Three times in her piece Soloski cites Urinetown, which has become the well-dinged hockey puck in the debate over whether the Fringe has become simply a supermarket for commercialism, a victim of its own perceived or proven successes. How lame.

Meanwhile, I happen to have another problem with Soloski's story. Her definition of Fringe (not "the innovative or the outré" but "the sort of work that crops up on the fringes of a curated arts festival") is blitheringly reductive; her demand for "weirder, more outlandish work" goes, in essence, strictly undefined. Soloski suggests that, having seen "well over 100 shows," she can "claim with some confidence that since the mainstream success of Urinetown, the offerings have become distinctly less eccentric." This is not only highly subjective but ignorant, pedantic and wrongheaded. If Soloski has been unable since 2000 "when I saw Charlie Victor Romeo and Tiny Ninja Macbeth" to see work that "really surprised me," could it be that perhaps there's something seriously defective with her aesthetic? I mean, sure, Soloski really must espouse this view or else the raison d'etre of her story crumbles like so much jerrybuilt 19th century melodrama. But really, eight years and nothing at all, at all, at all, of value? Truly? Not a shred of anything remotely surprising in 100 shows? I never thought of the Fringe as perfect, but I never thought of it as so, well, grindingly vanilla, either.

Having declared the Fringe DOA, Soloski then begins to explore her source's ideas for remaking it. Clancy's idea is, as one might expect, the loopiest and most thoroughly audacious of them all. He suggests that the Fringe completely abandon its adjudication model (while I don't favor this, I do think the adjudication process, having been an adjudicator on and off since the beginning, is fatally flawed) in favor of an Anything Goes scheme that would have absolutely no checks on quality whatsoever. (As an interesting side note, the Community Dish recently asked me to speak at a meeting, and while I was there to talk about the insufficiency of press coverage of OOB, the one topic that kept coming up was the complete lack of OOB quality control, which struck me as a bizarre concept in the first place.) Clancy's view is "Any fucking show, anything—fine. You find your space and you're in the festival. It's a radical rethinking." Well, yes, that's all rather radical, but by opening up the entirety of New York City to the Fringe, its offerings would be become even more diffuse than they are now, which is one of Soloski's criticisms. After all, we don't live in a small city like Minneapolis or Philadelphia, where a Fringe festival could in effect dominate the urban zeitgeist, even if briefly, but in a hyper-warp-speed cesspool of media. And in any event, does the Morrisania section of the Bronx want or need a nude, self-immolating Kabuki Hamlet?

Clancy is also advocating for the abandonment of the Fringe's artist agreement, which, as Soloski writes, "requires authors, for seven years after the festival, to pay the Fringe 2 percent of all royalties over $20,000 for a play mounted at the festival." She further suggests this clause "probably contributes to the amateurishness of much Fringe playwriting," implying that world-recognized authors such as Terrence McNally or Horton Foote or Theresa Rebeck or Sarah Ruhl or Chuck Mee are currently tiptoeing around the idea of submitting their work to the Fringe due to their steadfast opposition to forking over 2% of whatever they might make on their product after earning $20,000 on it. Currently, I'm reading Rebeck's Free Fire Zone, a new (about to be published) memoir about writing for stage, film and TV. When you see what the numbers are for a play mounted Off-Broadway at a nonprofit house or even commercially, you'll quickly realize that, no, it’s hardly a matter of clutching onto everything she might make over $20,000 -- Christ, Rebeck would be thrilled just to make $20,000 on a play. Soloski knows perfectly well that the tax returns of the Present Company, which produces the Fringe, are a matter of public record. Surely she could pay a visit to the Foundation Center and discover just how many shows from the festival have achieved earnings above $20,000, at which point 2% of everything after that heads the Fringe's way.

Think about it this way: suppose I write a play, produce it in the Fringe, get orgasm-inducing reviews and make $20,000 on it in future productions. The Fringe gets nothing. Now let's say I make $1,000 more than that -- $21,000. The Fringe gets 2% of that $1,000, or $20. Now let's go crazy. Let's say I write the next Urinetown and I make $10,000,000 on it. The Fringe would be entitled to 2% of $9,950,000, or $199,000. Please tell me the last playwright to earn that much money on a play. Please, anyone?

Moreover, I'd wager $20,000 that the number of Fringe-produced plays that have ever cracked $20,000 in earnings is likely in the single digits -- and Soloski could have gotten a bead on that by investigating the Fringe's records. And more than any of this mathematical meandering, I've always felt Elena has a point: If the Fringe is going to provide any kind of platform, any platform whatsoever, for the presentation of new work (regardless of whatever you think of its quality), the Fringe surely is entitled to something in the way of modest compensation for having done so. Read the article: notice how Soloski leaves out the money New York Theatre Workshop has derived over the last ten years of Rent?

Stuccio, of the Philadelphia Fringe, has an interesting idea: split the difference, leave some elements of the NYC Fringe adjudicated, hand over the rest to the gods of populism. This idea intrigues the heck out of me, and you can already see it in action by taking a look at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which has grown by leaps and bounds in three short years. However, Stuccio's suggestion to invite "companies like the Wooster Group or Pig Iron" is not only problematic because of the "Fringe's tight budget," but because the Wooster Group and/or Pig Iron haven't the need for the Fringe to help display its wares. Maybe Soloski thinks Fringe work is crap, and maybe she even thinks its crap because the Fringe's greedy goblins salivate over the prospect of incalculable riches resulting from that glorious 2% over $20,000, but the Fringe does provide more first-, second, and third-time opportunities for new work and new theatre artists than anywhere or anything else. Surely that alone has some value.

You have to read a bit further down in the story to come across two interesting points, both the handiwork of Vallejo Gantner of P.S. 122. (I know a lot of people think he's the second coming of Jesus Christ, but frankly, I've yet to understand just what he's doing programmatically so as to affirm his status as the dramaturgical savior with savior faire.) The list of questions he thinks should be asked of Fringe programming ("Is this innovative? Is it exciting? Why is it different? Why does it need to be presented during Fringe time and not a different time?"), though, seems fair, if not particularly insightful. Then he goes to something more germane -- to what I think the real upset with the Fringe really is.

"There's an aspect of interacting with the artists and making them feel supported that doesn't have to be expensive," Gantner says. "There are many companies I know that won't go back to the Fringe because they didn't feel supported. They'll go back to the Dublin Fringe, but not the New York Fringe."
Bingo. And I can speak from personal experience, having produced and directed The Leni Show in the Fringe in 2004 (winning several awards and plaudits, thank you). Much as I personally love Elena and share certain aspects of her vision with her, I'd wager $20,000 that most Fringe artists do not feel especially supported by the adminstrative infrastructure of the festival. I do understand that financially and otherwise that is something vaguely impossible (indeed, what does "supported" mean, anyway?), but when you're dealing with artists, particularly artists creating new work in the public sphere, that support, however you define it, is a crucial element of the process. So Gantner's suggestion of scaling back the Fringe to about 100 shows is smart, even if it would probably put the Fringe's break-even fiscal methodology in danger.

The second thing Gantner said addresses Soloski's greater point, which is unfortunately buried about 12,000 words into the 2,000-word story: "...each of these models evades the question of whether or not New York actually needs a Fringe." Most succinct. In fact, I think Soloski's best argument has to do with the proliferation of festivals, not that "New York doesn't lack for Off-Off-Broadway venues, some of them quite cheap": if she wasn't so busy blithely dismissing the work of Fringe artists, she might know that OOB spaces are hardly cheap, and that while venues like are doing a superlative job, it is unrealistic and healthy for an entire strate of the New York theatre to depend on a single source of criticism. (Perhaps that's why Soloski isn't lobbying Voice theatre editor Brian Parks to increase the OOB coverage in the paper even more than what he's already done.)

Gantner laments the Fringe's lack of a "central post-show hangout," but I don't think that's the primary issue. Unlike, say, Dublin, where Gantner ran that city's Fringe, we're too sprawled out to suggest that only one hub should exist. In a way, I think Clancy's point is most connected to the New York spirit -- that audiences should be talking about Fringe everywhere they can, that Fringe should be like a haze over this vast, uncontrollably creative city, not restricted like some summertime ghetto. "There's a truth to the fact that festivals work best in small cities" is how Gantner concludes; perhaps he's right. All I know is that fostering a real debate about the Fringe requires more selectively using quotes, positing unproven theses and demonstrating an open mind about what does and does not constitute the theatre of the Fringe.

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Jen Ryan's Brain said...

the TIMES article read like a puff piece spewed from the typewriter of an overzealous publicist. Plus the airbrushed photo of Elena :).... whereas the VOICE actually brought up some interesting arguments. I know we discussed some of that in private but perhaps we'll get to debate it in the bloggo world....

Mark said...

This is a really great, thought-provoking post, Leonard. I'm going to mull on this, but also try to send some traffic over here to chat. Thanks for doing all the number-crunching, which is really edifying.

parabasis said...

Hey Leonard,

Good post! On my own post on the subject, I should've made it clear that I didn't buy SOloski's assertion that getting rid of the royalties thing would improve the writing of Fringe shows.

I have to say, though... even though I can't articulate exactly why I feel this way, regardless of whether or not the royalties thing affects a lot of writers, I still find that in principle it really bugs the crap out of me. Maybe this has to do with many of my friends absolutely terrible experiences doing fringe shows and dealing with a general lack of support for their work within the festival.

It seems kinda like... let me get this straight... for $500, I get a maybe good, maybe not-good venue, a totally untrained volunteer staf member, little to know technical resources and a small bit of Ron Lasko's time and you take a percentage of my royalties should it become successful?

Does that make any sense?
This is probably more a sign that I just shouldn't do a fringe show than anything else....

Leonard Jacobs said...

Totally makes sense, Isaac. Also, I really do get the resentment, the concern, the feeling of "What right does anyone have to 2% of anything that I've created?" if -- and this is a big if -- that's an issue for someone. All I'm saying is that the numbers we are talking about are ultimately so low, so ludicrously low, that for Soloski to attribute the "amateurishness" of the Fringe to it is just, well, amateurish and ill-considered. No, I guess you probably shouldn't do a show in the Fringe (I don't know that I ever will, either). And I also think all of your points with regard to the process ("for $500, I get a maybe good, maybe not-good venue, a totally untrained volunteer staf member, little to know technical resources and a small bit of Ron Lasko's time) are on the money, as it were. That's why, in my post, I said "Bingo" -- I agree with Gantner that the way Fringe participants are treated, or feel they are treated, is in the final analysis a much bigger issue and far more worthy of some ink, than the Voice taking some insipid, subjective approach to a jerrybuilt nonissue.

MK Piatkowski said...

I find this fascinating. Here in Toronto, our fringe has gone the completely unjuried route and we've had tremendous success with innovative work. (I'm sure everyone's heard the Drowsy Chaperone story by now.) We too have a problem in that the city is so large that it doesn't become adopted the way it is in Winnipeg or Edmonton (the gold standard for the fringe touring companies). We've dealt with this by having a venue designated as the fringe club, which has the advance ticket box office, an outdoor patio with an information booth and computers for patrons to check or post reviews. The event is also strongly supported by the press - the two alternative weeklies have complete coverage, including blogs, and the dailies do review and preview some of the shows as well.

I know some people who have gone on to do the NY Fringe and they had the same complaints about support. In Toronto for your admission fee, you get a venue that comes with an in-house technician and a house manager - paid staff of the Fringe. The Fringe machine is incredibly efficient and they handle issues promptly and throughly. They do seminars for the companies in advance of the fringe to help with marketing and production issues. There is also no requirement to take a percentage of the royalties. The Fringe just uses the successful shows as a way to showcase and grow the festival. Drowsy is just the most successful of many shows that have gone on to national and international success.

I have a bit of a different perspective in that I've also done the Adelaide Fringe, which runs off the Edinburgh model. And honestly, it was a horrible experience I don't wish to repeat. Having come from the welcoming arms of the Canadian fringe circuit, the lack of support was jarring. I know the NY fringe was developed to be closer to that model.

I think the NY Fringe would do well to look at what we do here in Toronto. We have a model that works.

Anonymous said...

Great job with this Leonard.

Mark said...

Just of point of clarification: I haven't done the Fringe in five years, but I think you have to pay extra for Ron Lasko.

Mary Hilton said...

Nice discussion on the Fringe. This is my first year participating, and first and foremost I'm just enjoying a low cost, wide variety of theatrical offerings that otherwise would be missed. Always good to discuss finer points though. Check out a volunteer/viewers commentary at Newbie NYC (

George Hunka said...

For me, the most significant comment about the current Fringe is this, also from Elena Holy, buried at the end of the Times piece:

"One of Ms. Holy's concerns is that those who love the Fringe's madness may not be developing a habit. 'A lot of our audience — particularly the young ones, the 18- to 25-year-olds — see 20 shows during the festival, and then they don’t see a show the whole rest of the year,' she said."

This would seem to call into question the role of the Fringe as a means of exposing non-theatregoers to downtown artists, rather than exposing them to the institution of the Fringe. Even Holy suggests that it doesn't seem to be working. Instead, the Fringe is in danger of becoming a self-perpetuating behemoth, serving more its continued existence than any work that it "produces," if that's the word that can be used here. Instead of the work speaking for itself, it just becomes fuel for this year's festival.

Anonymous said...

Leaving the idealogy of what the NYC Fringe could or should be aside for a moment, I'd like to contribute my experience as a participant. The Fringe is quite simply a practical way for Indie theatre artists to find a wider audience for their work, and for the money, it's a good deal.
The last time we did our play Riding the Bull we struggled to fill the house and recieved only two reviews. Now we're selling briskly and have been reviewed seven times. That increase in audience and exposure is worth $550 easy. The process of staging our play within the Fringe rules was indeed difficult, but our Venue Director and Box Office Manager have been more than professional- they have been passionate advocates for our show in particular and the Fringe in general.

Last night I had the chance to see Mac Rogers' play Hail Satan, and had not only a great time, but also an interesting discussion with a man sitting in front of me. He'd already been to twelve Fringe shows and was eager for more. He wasn't a theatre person. He said simply the Fringe was a chance for him to recharge and refresh himself.

The night before I saw Richard Watson give a beautifully present and human performance in Shadow People. Tomorrow I'll check out one of my favorite new playwright's shows, Adam Szymkowicz's Susan Gets Some Play. The Fringe has afforded us a chance to develop and deepen our relationships with these and other interesting artists.

Any Fringe will only be as good as the artists who participate. There is no way to fix that from the top down. And as much as grand solutions appeal to me, I feel like the real change will happen on the ground. It will happen when artists use the Fringe to challenge and support each other. It will happen when the opportunity and exposure the Fringe can help provide allows these artists to grow, both in ability and resources. I think that growth will be incremental, messy and difficult.

Yes, I wish the $20,000 wasn't there, more on principle than on the lottery practicality Leonard points out. Yes, the infrastructure could be better. And yes, we should find a way to keep the audiences created by the Fringe more engaged with Indie Theater. Yes every fucking New Yorkers Fringe! Yes I say yes we should yes.

I just think it's going to happen one slow step at a time. Trial and error. Little successes, interesting failures. And there's a lot of critics and bloggers out there logging long hours at shows good, bad and ugly trying to make sure those steps see a little light. Thank you for doing that.

But that's just my experience down here, trying to make this shot at our play into something beautiful. So far, for me, the Fringe is worth doing.