Late summer wouldn't be late summer without the traditional Fringe Whinge, when arts journalists across the world vent their misgivings about "the state of the Fringe." The loudest voices of detraction bellow forth from Edinburgh, Scotland, where commentators annually deride the mother of all underground theater festivals for resembling, to quote a recent article by The Daily Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen, "a monster devouring its own children."
Here in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Fringe Festival suffers no accusations of becoming overcommercialized or overcrowded. Boasting fewer than 50 oddball shows in various offbeat downtown venues, the S.F. Fringe Fest more closely resembles its Edinburgh counterpart as it was 40 years ago — "a smattering of students and amateurs mounting humble shows and innocuous skits in a few bleak church halls," as Christiansen fondly remembers.
But does its comparatively humble stature make festivals like the San Francisco Fringe more "authentic" than the behemoth Edinburgh Fringe? What constitutes fringe theater, anyway?
At one level, fringe productions share similar attributes in keeping with the original Edinburgh vibe: They are generally produced on shoestring budgets. Venues tend to be cramped. Tickets are usually cheap. (The range is free to $9 at this year's San Francisco event.) Productions often showcase new scripts by little-known writers; provide unorthodox, often-truncated readings of classics; and foreground the physical and whimsical. In addition, Fringe shows seem to define themselves by the sizes (small) — and typical ages (young) — of their casts. Design and technical elements are often sparse, and barriers to entry usually low: The San Francisco event is open to anyone who can make it through the lottery system and pay the $475 registration fee.
But that low barrier to entry doesn't guarantee truly unique programming or outré content. Though the San Francisco event is unlikely to include Neil Simon plays, rarely do I find my sensibilities shaken up by the endless navel-gazing parade of autobiographical solo shows typically on offer. Cheap to mount, 18 of the fest's 47 productions are solo efforts this time around. Every now and again, a solo performance will be "out there" enough to fulfill the traditional Fringe edginess quotient. San Francisco playwright and performer Dan Carbone, with his disturbingly sexual soft-toy–tastic shows, defies the norm. But in general, there's only so much innovating you can do with one person onstage pouring out his life story. Other festivals suffer from similarly staid content, albeit of varying genres. "A quick glance at this year's program reveals 18 musical comedies, nine with exclamation points in their titles," wrote Village Voice journalist Alexis Soloski in an article about the 2007 New York Fringe. "Not since 2000 has a Fringe show really surprised me."
Intriguingly, one of the few shows over the last few years that has stayed with me — The Sewers by New York–Bay Area performance collective Banana, Bag & Bodice — didn't fit regular Fringe parameters. This elaborate, dark, steampunk-saturated original boasted high production values and a relatively steep budget. According to artistic director Jason Craig, mounting The Sewers cost around $6,000, a losing proposition when you're putting on nine shows in a 49-seat venue and can charge a maximum of only $9 a ticket.
What this all goes to show is that a fringe festival is a mutable concept. If we momentarily look beyond the festival structure itself for a moment, terms like "fringe," "alternative," and "experimental" turn out to be wide open to interpretation. Fringe is a relative term, defined above all by context. What occupies a "shoulder" position in one environment is middle-of-the-road in another. For example, the drag cabaret act Kiki and Herb might be considered "fringey" in some circles, especially when the duo performs in the intimate, booze-infused surroundings of Joe's Pub in New York. But what happens when they perform on Broadway or the Geary Stage? The act's aesthetic may remain broadly unchanged, but differing audiences and venues radically alter the experience. While Kiki and Herb feel dangerous at Joe's Pub, their work feels slicker, tidier, and much more predictable on a mainstream stage.
Yet if there's one characteristic that ought to underpin all "nonmainstream" theater, it's rebellion against the mainstream. The Edinburgh Fringe started out in retaliation against the snobbery of the exclusive Edinburgh International Festival. Now that the Fringe has usurped the juried Festival in terms of profile and size, its kamikaze spirit has died. Lacking a major arts festival against which theatermakers might rebel (our local International Arts Festival, though curated, is hardly a high-profile affair), the San Francisco Fringe largely exists in a self-contained bubble. In a city of proud freaks, the Fringe's freakishness barely stands out. Plus the event tends to be a focal point on the calendar more for theater people than for the general public per se.
However, like its big sibling in Scotland, the event, masterminded by the Exit Theatre, serves a vital function in terms of nurturing careers. As much as it's a lab for experimentation, the Fringe also provides a crucial rite of passage for artists. While stalwarts like Banana, Bag & Bodice are now graduating to larger stages like Berkeley Rep and New York's Abrons Art Center, directors like Mark Jackson have gone on to international careers. "Producing shows on the Fringe was my graduate education and also my calling card," Jackson says. "Producers were able to see my stuff in action. It's because of this work that I'm now able to freelance."
More than a whinge, I always get a kick out of the Fringe. I love the event for its never-know-what-you're-going-to-get atmosphere, the opportunities it provides for socializing, and the titillating possibility of discovering a few hidden gems.