Skeletally staged autobiographical solo shows and wigged-up, whacked-out, comedic cabarets: That's what you can usually expect at the annual San Francisco Fringe Festival. But in recent years, the goofy bubblegum flavor of the uncurated fest, in which local, national, and international companies submit and self-produce unconventional work on a low budget, is starting to see a slight shift. Not to worry -- the offerings still include all the usual suspects of improv, puppetry, and stand-up. But the festival, now in its 14th year, has also become a breeding ground for ambitious and serious-minded local writers who, dissatisfied with the dearth of Bay Area venues for new work, are taking matters into their own hands.
"In San Francisco, there are a lot of black box theaters and bigger venues like ACT," says Boaz Reisman, musical director of Thunderkiss Production's Got Lucky, a play about brothers, ghosts, and the deadly consequences of Niagara Falls barrel-jumping. "What there isn't much of is that midlevel, a way to take that next step."
"It doesn't feel like stuff is moving from small to medium venues," agrees playwright Ellen Koivisto, a teacher at San Francisco's School of the Arts who has been active in the local theater scene for more than 20 years. Production dilemmas for new work begin with a lack of venues, a problem Koivisto attributes to the dot-com bust, a loss of state and federal grant money, and the economic effects of 9/11. Koivisto's show "Politics on the Edge," co-produced with Jon Brooks, consists of three short political plays, one of which will be directed by two of Koivisto's high school students. "The Fringe can do things," says Koivisto. "It allows us the opportunity to experiment."
Tickets are $8-9 per show (a Frequent Fringer Pass and a Buddy Pass are also available)
Reisman and Koivisto are not alone in their sentiments, and shows by local writers flood the festival this year: Veteran Fringe participant Joe Besecker brings us Paper Dolls, a portrait of the AIDS crisis in the mid-'80s; a group of six accomplished playwrights including Ellen Sebastian Chang and Anne Galjour presents Being Something, a musical drama about urban life; Claudia Barr of Theatre Artists' Conspiracy premieres a play about Albert Einstein in 1933 Berlin called Go Kibbitz; and Bay Area playwriting group Rumpus premieres six independent shorts in "Bound and Gagged."
While there are other U.S. Fringe Festivals, many of them are curated or are less profitable for participants. But S.F. Fringe producer Christina Augello has fought hard to keep her festival doors open to all and to keep the proceeds going 100 percent to the artists. And she takes pride in the development opportunities that the fest provides. "American theater," she says, "is being built at the Fringe."