NEW YORK — New Haven, Conn.; Chicago; San Francisco, sure. But New York as tryout town?
It’s not often that plays use Gotham for their out-of-town test drives. But until July 30, 15 companies will be stationed at the 59E59 Theater for “East to Edinburgh,” a preview event that lets them try out their work before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.
The manic pace in Scotland — more than 300 shows perform around the clock — offers little chance to sleep, let alone fix problems. But a trial run in New York allows for a more polished product at an event where word of mouth is the prime marketing tool.
“Edinburgh Fringe is the biggest festival in the world,” says producer Seth Goldstein, whose “Christine Jorgensen Reveals” has six perfs at 59E59. He says if a company wins festival awards or popular acclaim, it has a chance at an international identity and high-quality international press. A popular show, he notes, can tour everywhere.
There have been enough serious hits born in Edinburgh to keep producers flocking there in support of their own work or as interested buyers. Gotham auds can see one example in Will Eno’s “Thom Pain (Based on Nothing),” which won several Fringe awards in 2004 and became a surprise Off Broadway hit after opening to stellar reviews in February.
Another recent example is Adriano Shaplin’s “Pugilist Specialist” from San Francisco-based troupe the Riot Group. The Iraq war drama followed last year’s Fringe with worldwide productions, including a healthy Gotham run that started with a limited engagement at 59E59 and transferred to the Culture Project.
Of course, that kind of success doesn’t come without risk. Fringe material usually is done on the cheap, but there are still entry fees, space bookings and travel costs that can amount to thousands of dollars.
Of “Christine Jorgensen Reveals,” which stages a 1952 interview with the world’s “first famous transsexual,” Goldstein readily admits, “From a cash-flow standpoint, this show is dangerous.” And with that kind of fiscal peril, it can’t afford to have script problems or design flaws while seeking an audience. “We have 23 performances (in Scotland),” he says. “And we have to get it right every time.”
Elysabeth Kleinhans, artistic director of 59E59, started “East to Edinburgh” last year because she wanted American companies to get it right, too.
“We have to help small companies who wouldn’t normally have a chance to do something,” she says. “These people are going and being ambassadors for America.”
This is why the Gotham fringe preview is organized like the main event in Scotland. Shows perform for paying crowds in small houses (50 or 99 seats) and, since the schedule is tight, a group might have 20 minutes to strike its set before the next show loads in.
The bonus is that there’s time to hear feedback and make changes. Plus, companies pay only $100 a night to rent the small space ($150 for the larger), a drastic reduction on standard rates for a rental venue like 59E59. Add the front-of-house support and the 10,000 promo postcards, and the theater is arguably investing a lot for little return.
Kleinhans doesn’t see it that way. To her, this project is the necessary flip side to the theater’s “Brits Off Broadway” series, which imports fringe hits from the U.K. “We’re a foundation, and it’s in our mission,” she says. “And these companies ought to be seen in America.”
There’s no telling whether any of the “East to Edinburgh” shows will become the next “Pugilist Specialist” or “Thom Pain,” but Goldstein is grateful for the chance to fine-tune in New York. “God bless Elysabeth Kleinhans,” he cheers. “She saw a need and put her money where her mouth is.”
Kleinhans plans to scout projects soon for “East to Edinburgh 2006.” Eventually, she says, she would even like 59E59 Theaters to be known as the New York branch of the Edinburgh Fringe. That could make Gotham an essential city for out-of-town tryouts.