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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Turns out that the Philly Fringe is the one time each year when lots of closet artists unleash the beast … or at least they try to.

Cymande Lewis, whose one-woman show My Name Is Sam Johnson is appearing at the Arts Garage, has a day job. Fringe Director Craig Peterson clearly remembers first meeting her.

“When she came in to sign up, she said, ‘I’ve never done a show before! I’m terrified! I’m gonna do it!’” he recounts breathlessly. “That was the epitome of the Fringe to me.”

Her story—and mine, it turns out—is not uncommon.

“A lot of people who put on shows are people who have a love for the performing arts, but have no context for doing so,” says Peterson. “They have a day job, but they love doing comedy or theater. It becomes a time when people who maybe did college theater can finally pursue it. Or that band or musician who doesn’t perform regularly can rent out a bar. It sounds a little hokey, but it’s kind of a make-my-dream-come-true kind of thing. There are a substantial number of people who really just want to tell a story.”

Jay Nachman fits the bill perfectly. By day he works PR for the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall. In the Philly Fringe, he gets to let a different side out.

“I’ve always done creative things—writing, taking acting classes—and the Fringe provides a venue where I can put these creative talents out there in a way I can’t do at my job,” Nachman says. “It’s a desire to express myself. It’s a little more engaging than just writing about it. I like getting the immediacy of an audience response.”

His one-man show My Dad Is Now Ready for His Sponge Bath is taking advantage of another of the city’s unique venues—Grasso’s Magic Theater at Front and Callowhill. The show, which sprung from Nachman’s father’s battle with lung cancer, takes a surprisingly humorous look at an otherwise very unfunny topic. He has performed previously in the D.C. and Wilmington, Del., fringes, along with New York’s Emerging Artists Theatre. But the performance side of Nachman remains a side project—at least until it isn’t anymore.

“Does everybody dream of being a rock star? Yeah. Do I dream of doing this on Broadway? Yeah, sure,” he says. “But it is what it is. I’m just happy about any audience that comes to see it. For me, it’s rewarding enough when people tell me that they get something out of the show.”

It’s a sentiment that Fringe organizers see time and again in their artists.

“I think people are really committed to the understanding that this is an endeavor they’re taking on for whatever reason is important to them,” says Peterson. “Doing shows in the framework of a festival makes people feel a little less isolated. They aren’t producing their work in a bubble.”

Stuccio sums it up even more succinctly: “There are all kinds of people in this world,” he says. “Some just look at their circumstances and say, ‘I can do this.’”

It wasn’t until two-thirds of the songs were written that I actually told myself, “I can do this.” By the time we had 13 songs in the bag, and a band to play them and a cast to sing them, the show started to feel real. Before we knew it, rehearsals had commenced, we were fundraising to cover expenses, we were blitzing local media in the grand scramble for air amid a crush of shows all happening in the same few-week span, and as we started to publicize the show, people actually started buying tickets.

Now we’re just over a week away from a four-show run in the Rotunda sanctuary.

As much as we were told about the hurdles—it’s tough to find space, you have to really promote yourself, how the hell are you going to write a musical—very little of it has felt like a heavy lift.

Maybe it’s deceptively easy work. Maybe we got really lucky.

Or maybe, when it’s not a job, but a passion, even the most difficult pieces feel like a hell of a lot of fun.

Wars & Whores: Fri., Sept. 9, 7pm; Sat., Sept. 10, 2pm and 7pm; Sun., Sept. 11, 2pm. $5-$10. Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St. 215.413.1318 or livearts-fringe.org

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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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