The New York Intl. Fringe Festival cannot be contained by normal boundaries. It has been in parks and museums, bars and cars, and, oh yes, theaters. In its first two years, the festival has taken over virtually the entire Lower East Side for two weeks in August while becoming an annual high point for the downtown theater community.
While New York’s isn’t the first fringe festival, they’ve flourished everywhere from Edinburgh to Edmonton, Canada, it has the advantage of being in the world’s theater capital. And New York’s is unique — because New York is such a theater magnet, the festival’s organizers decided, unlike other festivals, that they’d select participants from applications.
But the festival, which this year offered 144 shows at two dozen spots, is hardly elitist or exclusionary: Productions included an all-male version of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Clowning the Bard,” which had a clown troupe performing Shakespeare, and a show from Switzerland called “Synchronized Swimming — The Dry Version.” Other similarly titled fare such as “Once Vaudeville” by Kevin Augstine and “Americana Absurdum” by Brian Parks, lets you know which side of the fence you’re watching theater.
The festival is a collaboration between the Lower East Side’s leading theatrical entrepreneur Aaron Beall, who runs four no-budget theaters there, and the Present Company’s artistic director John Clancy and producing director Elena Holy.
Clancy’s troupe burst on the scene in 1995 with its sold-out run of “Vomit and Roses” at Beall’s Nada theater. After Clancy rejected an invite to Edinburgh because of the cost, he realized many American artists were in the same boat. Meanwhile, Beall was discussing the concept with Jonathan Harris from Seattle’s Fringe Festival. So Beall and Clancy teamed up, ultimately holding a town meeting in which 300 theater folks showed up brimming with ideas and energy.
Performances have been held everywhere from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to Seward Park to the nightclub Den of Thieves. (There’s also a FringeJR program for kids.) Overall, the festival has been an overwhelming success. “We were packed from day one,” Beall says.
Because it runs in August, the festival has been able to siphon off the uptown crowd from places like Playwrights Horizons as well as Broadway tourists, Clancy says. Foreign visitors caught on first, but by the second year, which Beall and Clancy say was much more organized, this downtown festival was even diverting Broadway-bound tourists from the American heartland.
The sprawling festival is a boon for performers. “Everybody dreams of performing in New York,” says Gary Ruderman, whose company, the Annoyance Theater, staged “So, I Killed a Few People” this year. The dark satire garnered such enthusiastic response that the show will return in November for a run at the Piano Store, one of Beall’s theaters. “The festival is definitely a stepping stone,” Ruderman says.
It is also “great advertising for the neighborhood,” says Matt Bauer, executive director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. Bauer adds that the stream of audiences and press attention will help encourage new businesses to come to the Lower East Side.
Additionally, Clancy says the festival symbolizes the community spirit of the Lower East Side’s theaters: His 6-year-old company with a five-figure budget worked closely with the Henry Street Settlement, a century-old organization with major funding; meanwhile Lower East Side residents received $4 off the festival’s daily $11 tickets.
“I’m so proud of it,” Beall says. “It is secure now for many years.”