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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Live a Little

You know the look. It's the look that people get when they’re processing what you've just said and they have come up against a huge disconnect in logic.
It's the look I get when I tell people that Ithaca Fringe Festival acts are selected by lottery.
It's kind of funny, actually. These good folks immediately have the concept of “What? You just let anybody in?” Then they weigh that against the prototypical no-miss business model that lives vaguely in their heads and there you go: cosmic stalemate. You can't equate letting “anybody” in with having a successful festival.
I mean... what if... what if... the acts suck?
Good question. I could regale you with tales of horror-stricken audienceship as I ingested a musical based on Arthur Miller's The Crucible. (It must have sounded good on paper.) Or a tale of mind-numbing boredom at yet another interminable interpretive dance performance that must have been choreographed by a four-year-old whose main theme was “I have a load in my pants. And it's on fire.”
These things happen. I can say, based on the number of fringe festival shows I've seen, that the percentage of “did-NOT-suck” to “mind-blowingly brilliant” shows far outweighs the number of craptastic crimes against theatrical humanity. I've rarely been disappointed at a fringe show.
Bear in mind the mitigating factors: fringe shows are usually cheap (Ithaca Fringe $10/pop, cheaper if you buy multishow passes); short (about an hour); and plentiful (the Edinburgh Fringe, granddaddy of them all, has some 12 billion; we have eight this year). So what if you attend something as off-mainstream as Hemorrhoids Through the Ages? You at least have a helluva story to tell later. (Honestly, what would you rather listen to, the story that starts with “This show was so good,” or “OMG you cannot believe how bad... how horrifically godawful this show was...”?)
But,” these folks ask, “you don't at least choose which ones to pick from?” Nope. I don't. I'm the producing artistic director (yes, a three-word title), and even though I wield supreme executive power over this festival, I do NOT jury the entries. Why should I?
They struggle with this, doubting that we'll have a decent lineup. I get it. It's scary when you think of business plans and success. I'm not saying I don't wish fervently for every show chosen to be brilliant and to sell out, but I have to go with the essence of the fringe itself. I have to go with taking chances. I'm probably my own worst enemy. I don't ask “Is it any good?” I ask “Should I see this?”
I'm a playwright. I send my work out to prospective theatres and contests frequently. 99% of the time I never get a response. .05% of the time I get the usual rejection: “It was the toughest choice of our lives, but after sacrificing half of our children and reading their entrails in the dust,” (I'm paraphrasing) “we eventually went with the sock-puppet version of Dick Cheney's Puberty...” I am no stranger to rejection.
So, when I first envisioned the Ithaca Fringe Festival, I fully intended to vet the submissions and throw out the obvious crap. Then, when I attended the US Association of Fringe Festivals conference in Portland, Maine, I was waylaid after dinner by three representatives of three different fringe festival organizations who impressed upon me the very nature of a “fringe.”
Look,” one said, “the idea of a fringe is anything but safety.”
Absolutely correct,” another fringe rep concurred, “this is not comfy seats and Appletinis. This is the shit, the good stuff the real theatres can't gamble on even though they may want to and thereby won't invest in.”
Exactly,” said the third. “You are performing a goodly artistic service by refusing to deny struggling artists a chance to have their work shown to the world. You know how many artists out there will never get a chance to be heard, to be seen, to express the fruits of their souls?”
Besides,” they said (yes, all three in perfect three-part harmony), “who are you to be the be-all and end-all of artistic taste? What makes you qualified to say what's good and what ain't?”
I had to admit, later on as I surveyed their arguments, they had a very valid point. How many times had I walked out of a theatre performance with more than a few complaints: The plot made no sense; the show was redeemed only by stellar acting; the ending was a feel-good copout that betrayed everything that had come before it. Or the show raised a series of important and timely social issues and did not fully or legitimately explore them. The show had no characters I cared about. The show did not say anything. On and on.
And yet . . . others liked these shows. Liked them enough to produce them for three weeks, five nights a week, in a 99-seat house. So maybe I have a twisted sense of artistic value. I loathe almost anything Hollywood produces, thinking it high fructose corn syrup for the mind. I do have high standards, and I expect all playwrights and producers to as well. Yes, I fully admit my opinion is not everyone’s. You'd be amazed what Perennial Favorites I think are crap. I think most “classic plays” taught in high schools and colleges should be frozen and time-locked until 2246. Bring in the new stuff, start working with the plays that reflect what's going on these days. Be contemporary, be relevant. Be dangerous.
A fringe festival is where some of the best the new stuff shows up. The experimental . . . offbeat . . . non-formulaic. A fringe is where theatrical adventure comes into its own, where what's left of America's theatre scene finds spiritual and intellectual rejuvenation. It takes chances, as it should.
So no. We don't vet. We don't judge. We take your (small) application fees, throw your scripts into a revolving hopper, and pick. This year we'll pick eight. I don't know how good they will be. But I’ll wager most of them will be terrific. And I hope you come out and see them, support the creative arts, and have some fun. And don't worry if the acts aren't the best thing since Phantom. Ask yourself if they are acts you should see.