Fringe Favor

The Seattle Fringe Theatre Festival is back! Sort of. Maybe.

Ever since the festival met an inglorious end in late 2003 (declaring bankruptcy with nearly $100,000 in debt), there's been talk of reviving the annual event but little action. At its height, the 10-day festival featured various Capitol Hill venues for over 80 local and touring companies to produce low-budget and high-risk shows. Practically every non-Equity actor in Seattle was in a festival show during its 13 years, and while the work ranged from the sublime to the unwatchable, I still think it was invaluable for the sheer amount of new work it generated, the companies and collaborations it launched, and the number of artists who had their first taste of that most necessary of theatrical experiences: self-production.

This September, the new head of Theater Schmeater, David Gassner, plans to turn his Capitol Hill venue over to a mini-Fringe Festival entitled Open Stage, where 12 companies, chosen by lottery, will each be given four slots to present shows over one week. Each of the companies will be charged $500 to cover the cost of the venue, publicity, and tech support.

But Gassner's move hasn't exactly been met with universal praise. "The Seattle theater community has gotten used to there not being a festival," Gassner says, "and there's a negative perception based on the failures of the old one."

That's hardly surprising. The festival went down in a conflagration of unpaid bills and bad feelings. (Full disclosure: I worked for the festival in 2002 and 2003 as a salaried P.R. manager, and also was a producing artist for two shows in its final year.) Prior to declaring bankruptcy, the board contacted participating artists to see if they'd donate their box office back to the festival. This colossally bad idea turned the theater community against them at a time when they needed all the support they could get, and artists who participated in the final year (including myself) received only a fraction of their box-office receipts, with the rest disappearing into the festival debt. Any talk since then about revival has been necessarily prefaced by a disclaimer that "it's not the old festival."

Gassner's Open Stage is inspired by San Francisco's Fringe Festival, which he participated in during the years he lived in the Bay Area. Unlike the Seattle model, it's got clear parameters on length (one hour), ticket price ($10 maximum), and most importantly, how much of the box office goes to the artists (100 percent). It's also much more modest in scope than the old Seattle festival.

One element that Open Stage will share with the old festival is that the work will be unjuried—an aspect that routinely drew complaints from local critics. "The model we're looking at is an open mike," says Gassner. "We provide the venue, they provide the content. Fringing is a full-contact sport. You have to expect to be bruised a bit. When it's bad, it's pretty bad, but the good stuff is phenomenal. That's part of our goal, training an audience to plan to see several shows."

In my experience, both as a critic and an occasional art juror, juried festivals produce just as many clunkers as unjuried events. A well-written project proposal rarely bears much resemblance to what you'll see onstage, and to quote Theodore Sturgeon, "90 percent of everything is crap." The Fringe Festival averaged about the same number of hits and misses as you'd see anywhere else.

But where a bad show at the Rep or ACT, for example, is usually competent but dull, bad shows on the Fringe are often bad out of a hubristic ambition to be great, or at least entirely different from ordinary theater. To dare to be bad is practically a prerequisite to producing theater that's amazing, and at the original festival, the two or three great shows I'd see each year more than made up for the ordinary, the mediocre, and the awful. Like anything worthwhile in life, theater's a risky business. Those who fear bad theater rarely end up seeing the good stuff.

John Longenbaugh

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