New York theater fest wraps 8th season

NEW YORK — It’s tempting to think of the Midtown Intl. Theater Festival as the new kid on the block. It’s small and not as well known as its cousins, the NYMF and New York Intl. Fringe Festival, but the series just finished up its eighth season on 36th Street, running July 16-Aug. 5.

“We’re not so large that you feel lost, but we’re not so small that no one’s going to see your show,” says Glory Sims Bowen, the fest’s artistic director for plays. “We have a strong community feeling because we’re so compact — everyone goes around and sees each other’s shows and meets people.”

So how does Midtown differ from the Fringe?

For one thing, there’s no base of volunteer workers, and fest founder John Chatterton says he’s “as much interested in the producing and marketing teams on these shows as I am in the work we’re going to produce.”

Each show in the fest (there were 42 this year) has a choice of two plans — pay up front and take home 90% of the box office, or pay only the participation fee and take home half the box office after the fest has deducted the cost of the production.

Midtown is also distinguished from other festivals by its programming. For one, they do revivals, such as this year’s staging of George Axelrod’s “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?”

Doesn’t reviving relatively recent plays defeat the purpose of a theater festival, where the point is to showcase new work? Not according to Bowen.

“A lot of revivals we take on have new concepts behind them,” she says. Bowen gives the example of this year’s production of John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves,” in which director Emily Plumb cast the 1971 comedy about middle age with young actors and had them play the parts young in an effort to lend new texture to an old work.

Still, the lion’s share of the scripts at Midtown is new, or at least interestingly mutated, like Gila Sand’s “Twist,” a kink-filled musical based on Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” that is decidedly not “Oliver!” The fest has Debbie Williams, who works as artistic director for musicals, to thank for that one.

With so many festivals on the lookout for new work, one would think demand would deplete supply, but Bowen begs to differ.

“I think it’s a ‘more the merrier’ kind of a thing — there’s a reason why all of these festivals exist,” she suggests. “There are a lot of theater artists out there who want to get their work done.”

So will the festival get bigger in the near future? Midtown’s funding comes mostly through participants’ fees and box office receipts, so the potential seems to be there. Chatterton hopes it will work out that way.

“We maxed out this year,” he says, pointing out that approximately 6,200 tickets were sold in 2007 compared with 4,300 the previous go-round. “We managed to use every part of the cow except the moo. We need more theaters and more shows, so we’re actively expanding our net.”

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