Volume 81, Number 11 | August 11 - 17, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo courtesy of FringeNYC

This Way to the Egress: Trav S.D. knows there’s one born every minute.

FringeNYC, at 15, delivers 17-day smorgasbord
Zombies, Romeo, Poe among offerings

BY MARTIN DENTON (of nytheatre.com)

On Friday, August 12, the New York International Fringe Festival will open its doors — 19 of them, counting the one at FringeCENTRAL. For the 15th consecutive year, tens of thousands of audience members will see nearly 200 productions from all over the world during a 17-day overstuffed smorgasbord featuring performances of every stripe.

I’ve been attending FringeNYC for all 15 years, and I guess I’ve seen somewhere around 300 shows by now. I’ve hosted the Opening Ceremonies for the festival more times, I think, than anyone else (three times in Washington Square Park, several times at various FringeCENTRAL locations, last year outdoors on Spring Street in SoHo and even, long ago, at The Present Company Theatorium). In 2002, I hatched the zany idea to review all of the festival’s productions on nytheatre.com (the website for which I am editor and chief reviewer). With the help of several dozen amazing volunteer reviewers — most of whom were current or former FringeNYC participants — we did it…and we have done it every year since. (We’re gearing up for our 10th consecutive crack at it right now.)

So I’ve been around this festival a lot. I’m excited to share some thoughts about why it’s so valuable to theatergoers, and how theatergoers can get the most out of it.

Did you know that FringeNYC is New York City’s fifth largest cultural event (just behind the New York International Auto Show, the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York City Marathon, and New York Comic Con)? Even though the theater calendar in New York is crowded with festivals nowadays –– and even though the level of energy and effort in our city’s indie theater scene keeps on accelerating, seemingly unchecked, every month of every year –– FringeNYC dwarfs everything else that happens, theater-wise, here in New York. The number of participating artists runs well into the thousands. The variety and diversity of offerings is staggering.

What I like best about FringeNYC is that it’s a living, breathing epitomization of all that’s great and all that’s goofy about democracy. It’s an adjudicated festival, but you don’t need a lot of money or fancy credentials or even much of a track record to get in. One of the shows in the festival this year, “Cow Play,” is from a company that debuted in 2010 with a punk musical version of “Richard III;” all of its creators were college students aged about 19 or 20. At the other end of the spectrum, Greg Kotis, author of the show that is arguably the most successful and famous FringeNYC alumnus (“Urinetown”) is back this year with two shows (“The Unhappiness Plays” and “Yeast Nation”). There are shows this year whose titles appear to be made-to-order attention-grabbers (“Flaccid Penis Seeks Vaginal Dryness” and “Em O’Loughlin was a BIG FATTY BOOMBAH!”). There are serious shows about historical figures (“Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies,” “Call Mr. Robeson,” “Hard Traveling with Woody”). There’s a “Zombie Wedding” and a “Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending” and two pieces inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Two of my all-time favorite playwrights (each a FringeNYC veteran many times over) will be part of the 2011 fest: Trav S.D. is presenting American Vaudeville Theatre’s “15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza” –– and Kirk Wood Bromley is bringing us a “chamber punk” work called “Smoke The New Cigarette” that explores, among other things, how to dance to atonal, arrhythmic music.

The point is, there’s a little of everything at FringeNYC every year. Some of it you will love and some of it you will hate. Remember, though, that the one you love is going to be the one someone else hates (and vice versa). Like I said, it’s democracy in microcosm.

So how does one manage a festival this massive? There are 190 shows this year at 19 venues. It might be possible to see all of them, but I doubt it. So the savvy FringeNYC-goer wants some kind of game plan before embarking. At Opening Ceremonies over the years, I’ve honed and shared tips on “How to FringeNYC.” Here are some of my favorite suggestions.

Look for familiar names. There are lots of folks you know, from the worlds of Broadway and indie theater, who are part of this year’s shows. Check the program guide, check Facebook and then check out your favorite actors and playwrights and directors at FringeNYC.

Listen to your friends (including the ones you just met). The best part of FringeNYC is the buzz. Talk to everybody you know and chat with the strangers standing on line with you to find out what’s captivating and exciting at the festival.

Don’t listen to your friends. True story: Just before FringeNYC ’99, I asked my friend John Clancy (who was then the artistic director of the festival) for some insider info. He walked me through the program guide, and when we got to the “U’s” he said, “Now this show here, well, it’s three hours long. It could be good, but it could be terrible. You probably don’t need to spend your time seeing it.” That show, of course, was “Urinetown.”

Don’t get hung up on having to see any particular show. FringeNYC is your chance to experience theater that’s different, unusual and unexpected. The hits will come back; the ephemeral treasures won’t. So pick a show that you want to see and then stay for the next show –– whatever it happens to be. Or miss the show you had your heart set on and see the show that’s playing next door (or upstairs, or a block away). That’s easy to do this year, because most of the venues are just a short walk from one another. Or see something you think you’ll detest. (I’ve done this more than once…and I am a better and happier man for it. Honest.)

Immerse yourself in theater for a few days. Soak up new cultures and ideas. See work from another region (or another country), or work that’s about or created by people who are very different from you –– push yourself outside your comfort zone. See several shows in one day. But be careful not to overload, and don’t crowd them too tightly together. Leave yourself room to think about (and reflect upon) what you’ve seen. There’s no prize for seeing the most shows. But the rewards you’ll get from a rich and hearty blend of surprising and varied work over a few-day period will last a lifetime. Again, I do this every year. Honest.

FringeNYC broadens me and it reminds me why I do what I do. It really is about community; I can’t remember the last FringeNYC show I went to where I didn’t bump into to someone I know, completely unexpectedly.

It’s also the most intense place to sample the latest in contemporary theater that I know of. There are well over a hundred brand new plays every year. I’ll be scouring the festival this year for the best of them, because we just launched a new website (on August 7) called Indie Theater Now (indietheaternow.com) that will, I hope, revolutionize the way people experience new American drama. We kick off with The FringeNYC Collection –– bringing back about a hundred of the best plays from all 15 years of the New York International Fringe Festival, from “Americana Absurdum” (from the first festival in 1997) to “Candide Americana” (from 2009). The work holds up remarkably well. And there will be dozens of gems to unearth this year, too.

So, happy Fringe-ing. Go with an open mind and an open heart. All of the artists behind these shows are eager to share something with you that matters to them. No matter how lousy you think a show is, remember that they didn’t produce it just to annoy you. Partake and enjoy.

FringeNYC shows run August 12-28, 2pm-midnight weekdays and noon-midnight on weekends. Tickets are $15 in advance (at FringeNYC.org or by calling 866-468-7619); $18 at the door, subject to availability. Discount passes for multiple shows: $70 for a Fiver Pass; $120 for a Flex Pass, good for 10 shows; $500 for an all-you-can-see Lunatic Pass. For more info, visit FringeNYC.org.

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