For anyone who loves independent, boundary-breaking theater, Christmas comes early yet again this year.
Since 1996, the New York International Fringe Festival
has become a staple of the city’s summer theater scene, bringing hundreds of works from independent and fringe playwrights around the globe, introducing the slate to a community of open-minded theatergoers hungry for something new and different. The 2009 Fringe Festival (August 14-30) is notable both for the international diversity of its schedule and its vigorous attempts to rise above the recession that has ravaged so many fringe theater groups across the country – both issues that The L Magazine
addressed in a recent, in-depth interview with the festival’s producing artistic director Elena Holy.
The L Magazine: Obviously the elephant in the room this year, for every arts organization, is the recession that’s affected everything from consumer spending to philanthropic giving. How do you think the Fringe fits into the ongoing financial turmoil?
In some ways, we’ve become even more important to the artists who appear hear. As great a producing a bargain as Fringe NYC has been for the last 13 years, this particular year we have a lot of indie theater companies that, if they weren’t in Fringe NYC and weren’t receiving the support we provide in terms of a venue, they wouldn’t be able to make work happen at all. We’re proud of the fact that we’re still the cheapest way to produce a show in New York, and I think that’s a benefit that became even more important this year. Even for established New York groups, we get into off-Broadway venues that are typically out of reach financially. For Off Off Broadway productions, unless you just stop producing and fundraise for years for your Off Broadway production, the budget for the typical Off Off Broadway show is $20,000, but your typical Off Broadway show is $250,000. So our exposure can help these shows a great deal.
Looking beyond the support you provide the theater companies, what are you doing to reach out to the average theatergoer this year, who might be watching their pennies a little more closely?
We’re been very intentional about keeping our ticket prices low this year. The top ticket costs only $15, it’s been the same since 2003, and this year we’re considering ourselves to be New York’s “Best Staycation.” In fact, all our shows are divided up by different staycations – almost 30 different categories that can guide you through our web site, to find just the show you’ve been looking for.
What’s surprised you most about this year’s submissions, versus what you’ve seen in years prior?
In previous years we’ve had a lot of war stuff and last year we had the presidential election, but this year’s submissions feel more like an alternating between extreme joy and despair. Which almost parallels an average day’s news headlines. You watch CNN for an hour and you have Obama’s election and then the meltdown of the auto industry, this euphoria and pain back-to-back. This year, there are a lot of significant dramas and relationship stories. But like every year, there’s also a healthy mix of different kinds of work. While we may technically still have the same number of international shows, what jumps out at you thins year is that they come from some really amazing places – not just from Canada and Europe. We’re planning on having shows from China and Japan and one from Spain. There are four guys coming in from Perth, Australia who are doing something really creative in organize four entirely different, really unique one-person shows. They all applied and got in, so they’re teaming up to be each other’s board operators and managers. And when you look at how many people are coming into the city for the first time, you have to think at least part of that is because there’s a perception of a shift in the feelings inside the U.S. – a new president and a new outlook that surely makes it a more palatable idea for international companies to show here.
I was looking through the 30 or so staycation themes on your web site, walk me through a couple of these. Give me a handful of shows that you think look particularly promising.
We certainly realize that it can be intimidating, given that this year we have 201 shows in less than three weeks, to find just the right show for you. So we’ve tried to breaking things down:
- One of this year’s staycations is “Culinary Capers,” where all the shows have something to do with food. One standout is “Eat Drink and Be Merry,” (showing Aug. 20, 21, 24, 29, 30) a history of food on the planet from Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden to Queens, New York. It’s a food musical and very funny, and you’ll also learn a lot from the songs, which are pretty creative. It’s very us – a bizarre sort of a musical that we seem to specialize in.
- Another category is “Absurdly Surrealist Dream,” which includes surreal plays and absurdist comedies. In other words: The less linear work, which is my favorite sort. One interesting title is “Forest Maiden,” (showing Aug. 15, 16, 19, 20, 22) which is about a woman traveling through an enchanted forest who falls in love with an Elf, who becomes her girlfriend, and is then captured by a knight who’s also the host of a reality TV show. It’s absurd and hysterical and anachronistic in a way –a fable from a talented young playwright that’s very modern and yet in the kings-and-queens-and-enchanted forest setting.
- As part of the series “Wall Street Walking Tour” is a not-quite-revival of “How Now Dow Jones,” (showing Aug. 15, 17, 18, 20, 23) which was on Broadway for a minute and a half in 1968. Given everything that’s happened over the last year, it’s a surprisingly timely story, about a woman who is the voice of Dow Jones and whose fiancé won’t marry her until the Dow average hits 1,000. It’s fascinating to see this again now now, and to realize how tied into all of that we are in our daily lives – you don’t have to be a day trader, the stock parket is now part of all our lives.
- “Down the Aisle” features stories of weddings – or the destruction thereof. “A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage” (showing Aug. 17, 18, 20, 21) is styled after one of those social guidance films from the 1950s, a story that looks at all of the sexist etiquette that people were expected to follow. It’s a very funny, or rather darkly humorous, look at how shocking all of those roles seem now.
- One of our most unique series this year is “Outer Space Zombie Adventure,” which is our creative way of trying to get four or five plays to fit together. This is sort of an interesting collection of shows that all start from the same target market: Geeks like me who love sci-fi and B-movies. One fun show is “Devil Boys From Beyond,” (showing Aug. 23, 27, 28, 29, 30) which has flying saucers and aliens and these bizarre guys in pumps who invade this small rural town. It stars Everett Quinton from the Ridiculous Theater Company, and it’s just a riot.
(Photo credit: Libby Skala in “A Time to Dance,” photographed by Damon Calderwood)