Thinking the unsinkable

Ten years later, the Seattle Fringe Festival promises to defy expectations.

AFTER 10 YEARS, the Seattle Fringe Festival has become an accepted, and expected, part of the local theater scene. Sure, there are inevitable grumbles. Participating artists complain about receiving just a portion of their box office in return for their efforts, unlike fringe festivals in Canada, which are subsidized by the government and corporate sponsorships. Lacking such generous financial support, it's hard to see how the mostly volunteer-run Seattle version can come close to breaking even without taking a cut of the door.

Unsinkable Fringe: Seattle Fringe Festival

Various venues on Capitol Hill, March 9-19

The other complaints about our Festival mostly come from theater artists working in Seattle's year-long "fringe" scene, who see most of the event's participants as enthusiastic amateurs. (The staff of our established theaters, on the other hand, seems to be entirely unaware of the Festival, even though the 79 participating companies and the over 450 shows they present greatly enhance Seattle's national reputation as a theater mecca.) If you want to raise the hackles of an actor from a smaller, year-round venue, call their productions "fringe." Never mind that, like their once-a-year theatrical brethren, they're almost undoubtedly part-time artists with day jobs, working in venues and on budgets little larger than what you'll see in a Festival show.

But it's easy to show these year-round theater artists that in skipping the Fringe they're missing more than a bunch of sloppy dilettantes involved in an onstage education. Several established theater companies, including Greenstage, Open Circle, ReAct, Dappin' Butoh, and Lelavision, not to mention a whole host of sketch comedy groups (Some Kind of Cult, Pork-Filled Players, Kazoo), have shows in this year's Festival. Other performers, such as Vince Balestri (of Kerouac fame), are theater veterans who've simply never chosen the regional theater route.

On a deeper level, the Festival is a celebration of the democratic ideal of theater and the potential impact that theater can have outside of the large-house, regional model. The Seattle Fringe Festival is theater as folk art. To believe that theater is best left to the educated professionals is not only elitist but unimaginative. So many actors take the prescribed route of BFA, graduate school, fringe theater, regional theater, with maybe a soap opera or sitcom as the dream destination, that they might as well be pursuing promotions in a corporate structure. Instead, the Fringe Festival is theater as a community event, in which veterans rub shoulders with amateurs in a healthily competitive atmosphere.

As always, you can expect some bad theater at the Festival. But hey, you can get bad theater in Seattle year-round at any number of venues. It's only at the Fringe Festival that you'll encounter such a rich and vital mix of professional and amateur, generous and indulgent, and just maybe a show so good that it will make all your risk-taking worthwhile.

Read our Fringe Picks.

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