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Fringe stays scrappy

New York festival gears up for 15th year

With the New York Intl. Fringe Festival heading into its 15th edition next month, the annual dogpile of scrappy legit shows never turned into the throughway-to-Broadway observers thought it might after the fest’s 1999 launch of “Urinetown.”

And that’s exactly how organizers want it, according to Fringe leadership.

“When ‘Urinetown’ transferred, it was kind of a double-edged sword for four or five years,” says producing a.d. Elena K. Holy. “On the one hand, people returned my calls and our profile went way up. On the other hand, we could have easily turned into a big backers’ audition.”

The fest launched in 1997 with 175 shows attracting some 20,000 theatergoers. Although the slate has stabilized in recent years to around 200 shows per year (with 194 on tap for the 2011 incarnation, running Aug. 12-28), attendance has grown to 75,000.

With an operating budget drawn from the $600 participating fee ponied up by each show, as well as funding support from the government and other donors, Holy says it was initially a struggle to prevent the Fringe from being seen solely as a commercial-oriented event.

Still, the Fringe is no stranger to shows with potential legs, including the touring mainstay “Dixie’s Tupperware Party” and “Silence of the Lambs” spoof “Silence! The Musical,” which recently opened a commercial Off-Broadway run.

This year, a healthy dose of attention will likely go to “Yeast Nation,” the New York preem of the latest work by “Urinetown” creators Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis. Harriet Harris stars in the comedy set among Earth’s earliest lifeform, salt-eating yeast.

There’s no shortage of other wacky outings looking to grab some attention, from “Jersey Shoresical: A Frickin’ Rock Opera” to steampunk choose-your-own-adventure whodunit “You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery.”

Still, Holy says, the Fringe fanbase of devoted theatergoers maintains a taste for arty and edgy.

“A pop culture musical with a catchy title gets written about early, but our audience loves new plays and performance art,” she notes. “A little puppet show from Australia can be the next big hit for us.”

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