Helping You Get the Most Out of Your Misery






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Sunday, August 28, 2005


Fringe Elements

The New York International Fringe Festival closes today. For those of you who are unacquainted with what a Fringe Festival is, allow me to briefly summarize: it is the theater-world version of a clusterfuck. In most Fringe Festivals, you've got upwards of a hundred shows from local, national and international theater companies (although "international" usually means there's a one-man show about duck-raping from Wales and that's pretty much it). These companies--and I should pause to mention that we are not talking about, say, Steppenwolf or Blue Man Group when we say "company"; many of these groups are gotten together solely for the purpose of this one show and many of those groups will never produce another piece together because they'll want to drown each other in pig shit by the time the festival is over--are assigned a fairly random venue and get usually about five time slots to put on their shows. Most festivals are nice enough to give each company at least one decent slot, say 8PM on a Wednesday, but usually you get stuck with at least a couple slots that are more like 12:30AM on a Monday. The venues are sometimes as much of a hindrance to ticket sales as the time slots. Theater space in most cities is limited, so a lot of times, you'll get stuck performing in a second-hand livestock auction tent or in the un-air-conditioned storage closet of a larger space. With venue, it's really the luck of the draw, unless you don't mind blowing a few festival organizers. Groups then have to haul their set down to the venue and, if they're lucky, they get a three by five foot section of floor in which to store it. Then it's a rushed two-hour tech at which you usually find out that the "complete sound system" your festival contact person promised you is, in fact, a Radio Shack turntable circa 1973 and a Yamaha amp.

Under these circumstances, even the best shows might come off a little unpolished. The thing is, there are usually very few best shows. These things mostly work on a "first-come, first-served" basis and so, often, shows that have no earthly business being in front of an audience--unless it's as part of Abu Gharib-style interrogation technique--slip through the cracks and get a slot.

Now, because of the sheer number of shows, these festivals do not go out of their way to promote individual shows. Companies are expected to put up their own posters and pass out their own fliers, which is great for young, motivated troupes. It's not so hot if you're a bunch of thirty-ish slackers who'd rather be drinking, but that's neither here nor there. What the festivals generally will do for you is to include you in the Fringe Guide. The Fringe Guide is simply a listing of all the shows in the festival, their dates, times and venues, usually a logo or picture and a brief description. Each company is in charge of writing their own description and--except in rare cases when a show has word of mouth--it's up to you as a festival-goer to decide which shows you want to see based on nothing more than the description and any posters/flyers you may have seen.

My first bit of advice for anyone attempting to pick a show is: don't be suckered in by a title or a poster that promises sex. Once groups started to see that nine out of the ten top shows had "whore" or "naked" or "naked whore" in the title, they started calling their Kabuki exploration of agrarian economics in 10th century Scotland The Cum-Slurping Slut's Guide to Life. Likewise, be careful with posters. Don't be fooled by that flyer for The Belle of Amherst that features full-frontal Dickinson; I'm betting she doesn't make out with Jane Austen onstage.

I would also suggest that anyone trying to choose a play not do so based on how far the company has traveled. I understand that you might feel obligated because they've come from another state or country, but you really needn't. They're not going to sit down with a phone book and send letter bombs to everyone in town who didn't show. Nor should you assume that these companies are touring internationally because they're so good that the world has to share in their greatness. Often, they're performing here because back home people know to avoid them and they had to leave their own time zone to find an audience.

Truthfully, there is no way to pick a guaranteed winner when going to see a Fringe Festival show. There is, though, a pretty good way to handicap which shows in the guide are going to suck so hard that the lighting implements will be ripped from the ceiling and hurtle toward the stage. Just keep an eye out for certain words or phrases in the self-penned descriptions of these shows. Once you know the vocabulary and what it portends, you know which shows to avoid like Wendy's chili.

Start by crossing out any show that admits right in the ad that it's a "one-person show". Yes, this means that you might miss out on the next Swimming to Cambodia or Tru, but more often it means that you'll be missing out on a two-hour onstage jerk session. Most often, these people are performing shows about their "journey" through life to place of better understanding. Trust me, you do not want to understand them.

Also, you should be sure to skip any show that says in the credits that it was "written by the ensemble". This usually means that a group of actors who just graduated with their BFAs last year and haven't learned how to live without their acting instructors got together and "explored their emotions" for three months before ending up with a sprawling narrative about the persecution of Wiccans in the south, told through the writhing movement of Butoh. Ten minutes in, you'd be willing to trade your child's eyeballs to get out of the theater.

Many shows don't know how the hell to describe themselves and so just write a list of all the various "wacky" elements that find their way into their narrative. Don't even bother to look at the performance dates if the show's description reads something like: "Ice cream. Dead spiders. Leiderhosen. Nuns. Hookers. Miracle Whip. Jesus. Anal probing."

Avoid like the plague any show for which the description contains the words/phrases "a place of healing", "hilarity", "metaphysical", "exploration", "challenging", "confessions of a...", "audience suggestion", "...the Musical!", "harrowing", "yearning", "the seducer and the seduced", "myriad", "autobiographical", "modern day fable", "infatuation", "renewal", "endurance of the human heart" and "Grandma Belly dances to techno."

Armed with this knowledge, you stand a decent chance of not seeing a show that makes you want to rip off your leg and beat the producers to death with it. This is, of course, not to say that you'll see something great. Unless I've got a show in the festival, in which case, you're in for a harrowing celebration of the endurance of the human heart.


Was surfing to see what was going on at the NY Fringe and saw your name and this piece. I love it. Two years ago I joined a friend of mine in launching the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. Would love to have you if you can swing it. If not, would love to post some of your thoughts about fringing on our blog.

Hope you're well.

Jeff Syroney
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