Theatergoers to offer report, rate shows on site

NEW YORK — One of the most visible groups at this year’s New York Intl. Fringe Festival won’t be putting on a show. Dressed in their matching blue T-shirts and festooned with personalized buttons, the Fringe-icals will be conspicuous at all 185 of the Fringe’s offerings. They have to be: It’s in their mission statement.

The Fringe-icals, a group of theatergoers who will report on every Fringe show for their newly created Web site, are the brainchild of producer Victoria Lang, co-president of Plus Entertainment. Two years ago, her company led “Matt & Ben” from its Fringe beginnings to a hit Off Broadway run. “I love the Fringe,” she enthuses. “I love the ‘Let’s put on a show’ attitude.”

In an effort to sift through the dozens of plays that she alone couldn’t see, Lang created a system that would allow the plays to get exposure while giving producers and theatergoers the chance to skim through the offerings themselves.

And so the Fringe-icals were born.

Lang found almost 20 volunteers to scout material, including everyone from her Plus Entertainment partner Pier Paolo Piccoli to eager local theater students.

Lang was right to think that labeling her team would “be a fun way to rally morale,” but even she was not prepared for the scope of Fringe-ical spirit.

Along with their T-shirts and mission statement, the group’s energy is on full display at their blog, fringe-icals.blogspot.com. The site purports to be “an online Fringe Zagat Guide,” meaning all the shows will get a Fringe-ical rating and review.

Granted, it’s hardly novel to review every Fringe show. Martin Denton has been doing it for years on nytheatre.com. But since the Fringe-icals project is a blog, anyone can respond to what’s posted. If enough people respond, the Fringe could become a major new online presence.

Online communities have undeniable power in generating buzz. “Avenue Q, for example, got early attention by getting Match.com and Friendster profile for its puppets. And for the last three years, the Edinburgh Fringe’s official Web site has hosted a popular public reviews forum. Marketing officer Leroy Harris reports, “Last year, we had around 3,000 public reviews … (and) that’s near the number of journalistic reviews we get.”

And those online opinions are affecting Edinburgh receipts. Fest spokesman Bob Farell notes they’re “playing a huge part” in the festival’s word of mouth, and says, “There has been a dramatic increase in sales since we launched the reviews.”

The New York Fringe, though, won’t be using its Web site to broadcast feedback. For festival founder Elena Holy, that would violate the Fringe’s spirit. “There’s a lot of fantastic work with no commercial potential … or that doesn’t even want a broad audience,” she says, “but those shows are just as valuable to us. Fringe NYC is all about diversity.”

Holy is wary of letting the Fringe be judged in terms of hits and misses. Since a panel chooses each show — this year’s crop was winnowed from 800 applicants — she feels the artists have already proven they deserve attention, even if it’s not from Broadway.

Not that she doesn’t support those seeking commercial product. Holy recently created the Producer’s Circle, a group in which producers donate $1,000 to receive advice about shows they might want to pursue. (Though she calls it a “very good idea,” Lang opted not to participate this year.)

And for everyday auds, there’s Denton’s annual “How to Fringe NYC” workshop which gives hints on how to take advantage of the festival.

As helpful as they may be, however, these fixed options don’t diminish the communal possibilities of the blog. Even as they seek commercial properties for Plus Entertainment, the Fringe-icals can instigate a new variation on the grassroots energy that forms the Fringe’s core. Roaming the Village and posting their thoughts online, they can promote both practical business and the freewheeling notion of theater belonging to everyone.

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