The cable car turnaround at the corner of Powell and Market was the usual melee of tourists, panhandlers, commuters, shoppers, and boom-box body-poppers on the evening of Aug. 9. Few people seemed to notice the man in the bowler hat and tuxedo rolling a massive papier-mâche rock up Eddy Street, though he was surrounded by an entourage of odd-looking, noisy individuals, from a guy dressed as an alien to a bunch of besuited bouncer types with false eyebrows.
That performer Jack Halton's Sisyphean labors attracted so little attention from downtown crowds points to one of the best things about San Francisco and one of the worst. While it's liberating to live in a city where taking your pet boulder for a walk elicits merely a sideways glance from passersby, the Bay Area's "anything goes" spirit backfires when it comes to drumming up publicity for one of its most "anything goes" performing arts events.
The San Francisco Fringe Festival is here again, but I wonder: How many people have noticed? Home to such eccentric companies as Survival Research Laboratories, Lunatique Fantastique, and Thrillpeddlers, this city ought to welcome Halton's Sisyphus on Vacation and all that is otherwise weird, wonderful, and downright fringe-y in the theater scene with excitedly jiggling antenna. Yet because the esoteric is just part of everyday life around these parts, the Fringe like many of our more colorful local events, such as the Tour de Castro tricycle race and the Faux Queen Pageant seems to come and go with little more than a few hangovers and some trampled fluorescent pink wigs to prove it ever existed.
In a way, the marginality of the festival is a shame, as it truly is one of the most relaxing, fun, and cheap theater experiences around. Offering 38 shows over 12 days, our 15-year-old Fringe may be minuscule compared to the 59-year-old one in Edinburgh, for example, which this year offered close to 1,900 productions by more than 260 groups throughout August. Yet because of the small size of S.F.'s venues and our low barriers to entry (no show lasts more than 60 minutes and all tickets are priced at $9 or less), San Francisco Fringe Fest performances frequently sell out. Featuring local performers like Dan Carbone alongside appearances by companies from other cities (like New York's Banana, Bag & Bodice), the event is consistently colorful and comes with few of the hassles of its hectic, high-priced Scottish counterpart (not to mention that you don't need to pay airfare to get there).
Then again, marginality can be good. It comes with the territory of being an open, nonjuried event anyone who wants to get up on stage can do so. Fringe material isn't meant for the mainstream; that's what's so great about it. When a fringe festival starts being embraced by mass culture it loses out, as complaints from audiences and companies regarding prohibitively high prices and the mob scene at Edinburgh prove.
In this respect, SFFF director Christina Augello is on to a good thing. "So we don't outgrow the audience, I would rather have [fewer] shows with full houses than lots of shows with empty seats," she says. "We could fill probably a hundred groups who'd come to the Fringe if I let that much happen, but if you don't have the audience, what's the point?"
Halton's Sisyphus-inspired publicity stunt may not have attracted much attention, but as a statement about the Fringe, it's apt: For better and for worse, creating wild, "out there" theater is all about toiling relentlessly in obscurity.