It's 9 p.m. on opening night of the Cincinnati Fringe Festival at Volunteer Headquarters -- the first floor of Know Theatre Tribe's new space on Jackson Street. Headsets and hand-held radios are buzzing and cracking with urgent dialogue, laptops share a power strip plugged into another power strip and a printer is spitting out schedule sheets.
A bizarre array of neon-colored cookies begins to look appetizing to volunteers whose last meal was hours ago. Laughter begins to rise from a chorus of giggles to a cacophony of cackling.
"You better not be this loud when there's a show upstairs," Know Theatre Executive Director Jay Kalagayan warns good-naturedly as he lends a hand stacking badges.
The Fringe Festival celebrates the art being made in the corners of the art world -- the cerebral but not spectacle, the esoteric but not introverted, the works that begin in obscurity and might never bloom in the full light of a monster production, but nevertheless inspire and cajole when given an open-minded audience. (See CityBeat's coverage on page 49.)
Fringe volunteers, too, emerge from art's unlit corners. They're art admirers and fringe enthusiasts who revel at seeing cultures collide. They don't seek the bright lights and glory, just the satisfaction of facilitating connections. (I should say "we," as I'm volunteering, too.)
The Fringe Festival requires more than 100 volunteers to fill 260 shifts managing box offices at 20 sites; ushering audiences to their seats; couriering artists, equipment and food; hosting galleries; and answering questions. Amassing a huge corps of volunteer cultural ambassadors is the task of Cincinnati Advance, whose mission is to retain the "creative class" in Greater Cincinnati.
"I'm amazed with our volunteers," says Brian Griffin, Cincinnati Advance board president.
"We have people from all walks of life. They all share the willingness to come out and work for art and theater."
Griffin and Eric Platt, Fringe volunteer coordinator, direct the overwhelming logistics of personnel coordination for the festival.
"Not only do (the volunteers) provide help and effort, they provide an audience," Griffin says. "They help the audience grow. They're a marketing tool for the festival. They give it essence. There is no show without the volunteers."
The huge corps of volunteers helps connect theatergoers with the art by making the venues approachable and the works accessible. Even if you're not daunted by the shows' subject matter, the number of choices can be overwhelming. Fortunately for Fringers, knowledgeable volunteers in recognizable Fringe shirts are everywhere -- and they're connected by radio to HQ and all the other Fringe sites, so no question goes unanswered.
"Some of the subjects are challenging or controversial, and some people do get uncomfortable," says Michelle Horner, a Fringe volunteer for two years. "At the same time, that's the point -- to bring those issues out front so people are made aware. Even if they don't 'get it,' maybe they'll go off and do their own research or think about it differently.
"I come from the suburbs. I learned a lot about downtown, and I'm a lot more interested in some of the places to hang out. A lot of people, you sort of wish they would open their eyes and have one of those 'A-ha' moments, one of those 'Oh, yeah, there are other people besides me and my SUV and my two kids and my dog' moments. ... I think it's really cool to see how people who are very different can come together and enjoy a lot of the same things, and I think Fringe Festival really fills in those niches, where everyone has to come out of their shells a little bit."
The works in the Fringe Festival are edgy but not razor-sharp, challenging but not scary. Fringe is one of those Cincinnati festivals, like Taste of Cincinnati or Oktoberfest, that brings people from the suburbs into the city.
But unlike the big, noisy street festivals, Fringe pulls people even deeper into the city -- into its intimate spaces, its buildings, basements and backrooms, down its side streets and, in the case of the on-site performance of bus-centric Stories from Behind the Wheel, all over the city. And that can be intimidating for some people, even those whose minds are open to fringe art.
On June 2, Virtue: Did she fall or was she pushed?, a post-feminist solo performance by Jen Spillane, is about to begin in InkTank's main room on Main Street. A young man wanders in off the street and looks around.
"Where am I?" he asks.
He says he's been downtown only once, for a Bengals game, but he's heard from people he must avoid one particular downtown neighborhood. He can't think of the name.
"You're in Over-the-Rhine," says InkTank Director Jeff Syroney, also development and finance director for the Fringe. "We call this the revolution district."
"That's the place," the man says. "Everyone tells me, 'Don't go there.' "
"Well, you're here, you made it," Syroney says. "It's not that bad, is it?"
"No, it's great!" the man says, looking outside, gazing up at the old building moldings.
That same young man shows up later at the Know Theatre space, laughing with a group of audience members after The Catholic Girl's Guide to Losing Your Virginity. He promises he'll come back downtown before the Bengals' season.
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