Ghosts of Fringes Past

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Trav in “Misshapen Jack” in 1998 NY Int’l Fringe Festival

The recent happy news that Piper Mckenzie’s production of my play Willy Nilly: A  Musical Exploitation of the Most Far Out Cult Murders of the Psychedelic Era has been accepted into this summer’s New York International Fringe Festival provides a nice opening for a long-contemplated post on the topic of the Fringe.

On the pilot episode of the tv version of Indie Theatre Now (cablecasting on Manhattan Neighborhood Networklater this month), I remarked on the fact that the city now has scores of annual theatre festivals…at which point I heard something like a stifled snicker from one of the guests, essentially expressing the sentiment “Ffffffffp. Yeah.  Right. ‘Other’ festivals!”  I doubt the response came from Fringe Artistic Director and Co-Founder Elena K. Holy; she’s too ladylike. No, no. It could only have been her rambunctious, trouble-making co-founder John Clancy, whom I suspect also shot a spitball even as he collected tacks to put on my chair. But well may he gloat. His response (if he made it — it could have been the radiator) was the correct one. NY Fringe is the granddaddy, the Jabba the Hut of all the New York festivals. 95% of the others wouldn’t exist if this festival hadn’t blazed a trail. I won’t bore you with the impressive statistics (or impress you with the boring statistics). The bottom line is that the NY International Fringe is now a New York Institution, and it introduces tens and tens of thousands of people to all kinds of worthy and off-beat indie theatre on an annual basis.

My relationship to it over the years has been a complex one. I’ve probably looked at it through more lenses than almost anyone over the years: participant, conscientious objector, audience member, critic, adjudicator, FringeU panelist, gadfly, and even – just to keep me humble – rejected applicant. Its existence has enriched my life immeasurably. I want to marry it.

Here then a brief chronicle of me and Fringe over the years…

1997. As I mentioned in a previous post, the inaugural year of the Fringe was one of abstention for me. Disgruntled by the prospect of a participation fee and a selective screening process, the anarchist in me aligned with the RATs that year. (The NY Times and Village Voice both covered the brouhaha). More than this, however, after a decade of going my own way, I indulged in the ultimate act of alienation by presenting my own one man “festival”, which I called “Beyond the Anti-Fringe.” Productions consisted of my play Nihils which I presented at an Alphabet City squat called Bullet Space, performances of Misshapen Jack the Nebraska Hunchback in a community garden, and my two hander Hecate and Beckett the Existential Magpies
in Dead God, Dead Dog, Dead Ducks
, which was included as part HERE’s American Living Room series.

1998. The depth of my commitment to abstention may be measured by the fact that it only took me one year to drink the Kool-Aid. In the Fringe Festival’s second year I presented my one man rant Misshapen Jack the Nebraska Hunchback, a very Fringey show, and was rewarded for doing so by mention in two New York Times pieces (http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/27/theater/theater-review-sometimes-delightful-never-easy-it-s-fringe.html and also http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/09/magazine/sunday-august-9-1998-theater-no-chickens-will-be-harmed.html).  I also performed in Surf Reality’s Fringe extravaganza “the 101st Congress of Unnatural Acts” and wrote for the Fringe journal Propaganda, then edited by David Cote who as at that time also editor of Off, which I also wrote for.

1999. Addicted to drama, in the third year of Fringe, I joined up with an ill-fated splinter festival called Pure Pop, formed by one of the Fringe’s co-founders Aaron Beall [see earlier post]. Earlier in the year I’d had a successful run of my American Vaudeville Theatre at Todo Con Nada. Since I had this association with the venue at the time, it was really only natural to extend it by being involved with Pure Pop.
But the whole thing started to melt down. For one thing, the “venue” turned out to be an Orchard Street  storefront that was being used a storage space. To use it, we’d have had to move some merchant’s junk for him. Find yourself another sucker, bub! After this debacle I ended up doing some writing for the Fringe journal Propaganda again this year.

2000. Having learned my lesson, in 2000 I brought my country musical House of Trash, which had had a successful run at HERE earlier in the year, to Fringe. While some folks had only seen the HERE version, and the play has been produced subsequently, I continue to consider the 2000 Fringe version (which starred me in the central role of Preacher Bob) as the definitive production.

Trav S.D. as Preacher Bob in the 2000 NY Fringe production of "House of Trash"

Trav S.D. as Preacher Bob in the 2000 NY Fringe production of "House of Trash"

2001. This year, my follow up show to House of Trash was accepted into the Fringe Festival. This was my musical about the Manson Family called Son of Nothing (a.k.a Willy Nilly). As we started the process, the director of the show (for whom it was written) started to freak about the fact that he wouldn’t know the venue –or be able to design lights and sound for it — until the last minute, which is one of the admitted challenges of Fringe. So I was forced to pull the plug. The play is finally making its debut this year under the direction of Jeff Lewonczyck, who is very much making it his own.

But that’s not all the drama from that year! I was also invited to participate in a Fringe U panel on the subject of whether the Fringe should be allowed to exist. I really didn’t want to participate, but was guilted into arguing “against” because they couldn’t find enough panelists. The idea of publicly arguing against the Fringe’s right to exist filled me with no end of anxiety. So much so that I resorted to converting my participation into a sort of Dada spectacle, standing and spouting poetic non sequiturs rather than answer any questions properly. And, in it’s way, I suppose it was as good an argument against Fringe as any. Alexis Soloski describes it in the Village Voice here:http://www.villagevoice.com/2001-08-21/theater/britney-s-school-for-alien.

Also in 2001, Greg Kotis (creator of Urinetown) and I were asked (as two “Fringe success stories” to comment on our favorite shows from that year in Time Out New York. I also reviewed many Fringe shows (perhaps a dozen) that year for nytheatre.com.

2002. This year, I presented my show Sea of Love in the Ice Factory Festival, but I wrote thisVillage Voice feature about that year’s Fringe: http://www.villagevoice.com/2002-07-02/theater/theater

2003. Abducted by aliens.

2004-2007. During these years I was simultaneously out of work and writing and promoting my book No Applause. To keep a hand in, I mounted several extremely small scale, barebones shows from my personal repertoire in the Brick’s annual summer festivals (Cold Fire, Misshapen Jack, a vaudeville revue and Nihils). The core Bricksters, I should note, are mostly folks who either met in the context of the NY Fringe, or at Todo Con Nada, run by Fringe co-founder Aaron Beall. The organizers may affirm or deny this, but the way I see it, the Brick festivals, while imminently legitimate in their own right, are playful parodies of Fringe, acorns from the Fringe’s oak.

Also in 2006, I reviewed several Fringe shows for Time Out NY.

And in 2007 — my first rejection from Fringe. The show I pitched was uncharacteristic for me — an extremely serious work, a chorale about Sept. 11, which R.J. Tolan had signed on to direct. The script was very far from finished however (perhaps about 25% finished) and I hope it was on that basis the production was rejected! Also, this year, I interviewed numerous Fringe participants for the Indie Theatre Now podcast.

2008. My play Tenth Life of the Tom Cat (a.k.a Family of Man) was accepted into Fringe, but lacking funds, and feeling a need for rewrites, I withdrew. But I did cover the festival for the Village Voice again:http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-08-05/theater/the-new-york-international-fringe-festival-returns.Also, this year, I interviewed numerous Fringe participants for the Indie Theatre Now podcast, and reviewed nine Fringe shows for the Voice.

2009. Happy homecoming. I hope you will come see Willy Nilly this August!

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