Gotham fest emerges as lively part of downtown theater scene

NEW YORK — The New York Intl. Fringe Festival, aka FringeNYC, has a newfound air of confidence that few would have predicted when the event launched six years ago.

While the rest of the theater scene in Lower Manhattan has had to creatively adapt to an economically harsh post-9/11 landscape, the Aug. 9-25 FringeNYC has added two desirable venues — PS 122 and the Culture Project’s new second stage, 45 Below — to showcase the whopping 195 productions culled from a record number of applications. Even advertising dollars, down nearly everywhere else, have increased festival revenue this year by $10,000.

A not-so-pretty word captures the reason for much of this prosperity: “Urinetown,” the festival’s 1999 pride-and-joy musical that became this season’s multiple Tony winner. Beyond providing a financial cushion (based on a 2% subsidiary rights clause), the Broadway transfer has stifled once and for all the nagging question, “Does New York really need a summer fringe festival?”

“The spirit of downtown theater is self-sufficiency and making things happen for ourselves,” says FringeNYC’s producing artistic director Elena K. Holy. “We are fortunate that we have built the festival in a way that is not dependent on significant funding from the city or large donations from wealthy individuals who may have gotten hit hard in the stock market. As a downtown theater, we knew that it was up to us to get anything done.”

Of course, there was fear after 9/11 that FringeNYC applications would be down. “We worried that people wouldn’t want to come to New York a year later,” Holy admits. But applications, though slow to arrive in the beginning, were up from 370 last year to 600 this year.

” ‘Urinetown’s’ opening on Broadway in September changed everything for us,” Holy says with a mixture of gratitude and disbelief. “Whenever journalists make reference to the show, there’s usually a parenthetical saying it was the hit of the 1999 New York Intl. Fringe Festival. We couldn’t ask for better advertising. Our visibility has soared.”

Not that the road to establishing a credible identity for the irreverent, shoestring fest has been easy. True, FringeNYC has had a few Off Broadway transfers, including Arlene Hutton’s Drama Desk-nominated “Last Train to Nibroc” and Daniel MacIvor’s “Never Swim Alone” — with last year’s sensation, “Debbie Does Dallas,” slated for an October run at the Jane Street Theater.

Yet, as Holy readily admits, “Persuading everyone that FringeNYC is the research-and-development wing of American culture, not to mention a buffet for commercial producers, took a Tony-winning musical.”

Not that she’s complaining. “Urinetown” has allowed the festival to maintain its commitment to a $12 ticket price and a $350 artist participation fee, which Holy proudly refers to as the “best bargain in the American theater.”

As difficult as the climate has been for the rest of the downtown theater community, FringeNYC is not alone in enjoying success. At the Flea Theater, artistic director Jim Simpson’s desire to respond directly to the 9/11 catastrophe, along with his ability to attract box office names, has landed his small theater with a bona fide hit — Anne Nelson’s “The Guys.”

The play about a female journalist who volunteers to help a fire captain write eulogies for the men he lost — half his crew — began its run with Simpson’s wife, Sigourney Weaver, and Bill Murray, and has served as a revolving door ever since for such stars as Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Amy Irving and Anthony LaPaglia.

” ‘The Guys’ has sustained us,” says Carol Ostrow, the Flea’s producing director. “It has brought audiences down to our theater — which, close as it is to Ground Zero, was no easy task in the beginning.”

The success of the production has allowed the Flea to compensate for the steep decline in rental income, which seems to be an enduring fact of the post-9/11 downtown producing scene.

Rather than seeing the Flea’s second stage space remain dark, Simpson and Ostrow have been offering what they call “space grants” to artists who otherwise couldn’t afford to present their work at the theater.

Theatrical hits, however, don’t always provide a financial miracle. Soho Rep artistic director Daniel Aukin says that although his small theater had “the most popular show in its 27-year-old history” last winter, he’s had to revamp an operation highly dependent on rental income.

The extension of Melissa James Gibson’s critically touted “[sic]” from a four- to a 10-week run ameliorated but couldn’t solve the looming crisis in revenue. Only a slash in summer artistic development programs, along with much-needed relief money from foundations and individual donors, has enabled his theater to ride out the storm.

Aukin’s mood, however, is one of cautious optimism. “An upshot for us post-9/11 has been that funders have become more concerned with institutional stability,” he says. “We’ve put together a long-term plan that includes new office space, a cash reserve and an increase in administrative staff. The support we’ve received has allowed us to realize many of these things. Though I’m slightly wary of saying this, we’re actually in a better institutional place than we were before.”

Jeff Cohen, artistic director of the Worth Street Theater Co., says for younger institutions like his own, it has been somewhat more difficult to rebound. “We were in the process of creating a stronger institutional apparatus when 9/11 hit,” he explains. “We were certainly moving toward a model of less reliance on rental income, which has now pretty much dried up. But it’s been hard to keep pace with the changes.”

“The next two or three years will be uncertain at best and very difficult at worst,” says Marc Rossier, director of development and marketing for Art-New York, a leading advocacy and service organization for Gotham’s not-for-profit theater community. “Because of the downward turn in the economy, the funding climate is increasingly difficult, so any kind of buttressing these companies can do, like establishing a cash reserve, is going to be vital.”

Still, for the next two weeks in August, the downtown theater scene belongs to FringeNYC — which, thanks to “Urinetown,” is enjoying one of the few bullish moments in these sternly bearish times.

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