Fringe Benefits: Just How Easy Is It to Get Into the Philly Fringe?

Former PW staffer Jeff Barg learns first-hand.

By Jeffrey Barg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted Aug. 31, 2011

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Renzi and I talked about the space’s challenges: It has troublesome acoustics, and if you don’t fill the room up, it can look pretty empty. But the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.

Driven in equal parts by creative vision and a general shortage of viable theater spaces, the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe have always included out-of-the-way, out-of-the-box performance spaces as part of their draw. First the local stages get snatched up, then the bars, then the churches … and then artists start getting creative.

“There are some big machines that cut granite with water underneath us right now,” says Director Rebecca Wright, walking through the Machine Shop, a loft space above a warehouse on the corner of 21st Street and Washington Avenue. The set for her show Overseers is a work in progress, with random storage ephemera scattered around the room and a few makeshift furniture pieces taking shape in the weeks before the Fringe begins.

“When we first came in here, there was dust 2 inches thick,” she says. “There was a bunch of old rejected carpeting, window dressings and kitchen remodeling equipment. This shelf was piled high with rubber siding and venetian blind samples. It might not look like it, but we’ve probably swept and mopped it seven or eight times now.”

As with so many Fringe shows, Overseers demands a different kind of theatrical experience. The structure is what Wright calls “parallel narrative,” in which both actors and audience are constantly moving around the space. Actors are never offstage—they follow their own storylines from place to place around the room, and audience members can choose to follow one person through the play, to stay in one spot to see what happens there, or to do some combination of the two. Each character is the star of their own story.

“This work couldn’t happen on a regular stage,” says Wright. “We’re interested in playing with the audience relationship in a way that allows them to participate in that relationship in a way that’s more than they could or would or should if they were sitting in a dark room looking at a lit stage. A lot of people find that there’s a lot of payoff for that, and as artists, you find that you’re communicating with someone as opposed to to someone, and that’s exciting and rich.”

“People are more willing to go outside their comfort zone during the Fringe,” says Miriam White, whose show Longing With Language: A Performance Smorgasbord is also using the Machine Shop in the 2011 Fringe. “When you’re in an alternative space, the whole experience is so much more rewarding for the audience.”

But it’s not just artistic vision that drives these alternative spaces in the Fringe—it’s also economics.

“The off-the-beaten-path thing works for us, but we’re really poor,” says Wright. “We don’t have to worry about filling a 200-seat house every night in order to keep the lights on. We’re poor in this liberating way—we’ve got nothing to lose and we can do anything we want, and spaces like this let you do anything you want.”

For many artists, the mundane challenges of finding a space and selling tickets and securing insurance are too much to bear. Despite the ample assistance offered by the Fringe, “I know many artists who aren’t great producers,” says Producing Director Nick Stuccio.

Then there are those of us who have never written a show before and have to start from scratch.

Well, not entirely from scratch—Wars & Whores is an adaptation of Shakespeare, and the man provides an admittedly solid foundation. But there was still a show’s worth of songs to write.

For inspiration, Kamine cited the “Talkin’ William Shakespeare Time Travelin’ Blues,” an absurd number I’d written eight years ago solely for the amusement of my friends and myself. Follow that model, he said, and we could have an entire folk musical.

He gave me the first three song titles—“Make Love From a Horse,” “I Know You All” and the “Talkin’ Richard Two Two-Timin’ Blues,” along with a description of each song’s purpose in the show—and told me to get to work.

When you have a song title like “Make Love From a Horse,” the lyrics write themselves. “I Know You All” adhered verbatim to Shakespeare’s text, so that one came pretty easily as well. But then I went to write another Talkin’ Blues, and the well was dry.

I called Kamine to tell him I was bailing on the project. The Fringe was way too ambitious a goal, right?

He raced over and coached me through the block until I was up and writing again. The rest of the songs followed over the next few months, and stall-outs were blessedly few.

In the meantime, we enlisted local dramaturgy maven Sally Ollove, another college friend from the same old Shakespeare company, to adapt the script. I had the songs covered, and that would be about 50 minutes’ worth of the show. But uncut, Henry IV Part I is a nearly three-and-a-half-hour show. We were aiming for 90 minutes.

So she took first a hatchet, then a scalpel, combining characters, condensing plot points, eliminating wars (no need for the king and his men to go fight in Scotland and Wales now, is there?). Everyone who does Shakespeare cuts him up. But the task of making sure that storylines still flow, and that characters don’t end up giving birth to themselves or delivering messages that they never could have possibly received in the first place, provides a unique challenge to each book adapter.

Kamine and Ollove both work in theater—Kamine in New York, where his credits include the Brick Theater and the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, and Ollove in Philly, where she’s worked with Philadelphia Theatre Company, Theater Exile and the Arden, among others. But I’ve got a day job. Although I was supported by pros, I worried I was way out of my depth.

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1. Anonymous said... on Aug 31, 2011 at 01:32PM

“Nominal fees my ass. $100 just to even get in the game. around $125 for a blurb in their guide, $250 for a blurb and postage stamp sized photo (which they STRESS is needed if you want your blurb to be noticed.) If you DECLINE to pay for the blurb, you have opted out completely - because paying for the blurb is tied DIRECTLY into signing your artist agreement. You cannot do one without the other, so you cannot decline to be listed in their guide and instead spend your money on something like ads in local papers. $100 for their required insurance on your venue. Already you're out a minimum of $325, and then you have to consider the venue rental fee, poster printing, any other advertising costs you might expend.

The average act at Fringe doesn't even break even, and that's a fact. Imagine you're someone who no one has ever heard of. You've been able to afford to rent a small club venue for two nights at $300 each night. It seats 100 people and you're charging $15 per ticket. Assuming..”

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2. Anonymous said... on Aug 31, 2011 at 01:33PM

“...that you sell 30 tickets per night (which is optimistic at best) you'll make $900. Minus $600 for your rental costs, minus the $325 you paid to Fringe - you're already in the hole without the cost of posters and advertising.

Fringe is a great big sham.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Sep 1, 2011 at 03:54PM

“i would rather listen to 2 horses fart.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Sep 2, 2011 at 08:43AM

“Thanks for writing an article about the Fringe, as opposed to its pretensious younger sibling, the snotty and exclusive Live Arts Festival. Most Fringe producers are not terribly happy with the numerous costs of the meagre services that the Philly Fringe organization provides. Its resources are primarily dedicated to promoting the Live Arts Festival, whose curated (and festval-funded) events compete directly with those produced independently under the Philly Fringe rubric. If you've two or three thousand dollars to spend that you don't care about recouping, it is indeed relatively easy to produce a show in the Philly Fringe.”

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