Perhaps it's the nature of "fringe theater" that, as the Cincy Fringe Festival is about to launch its fifth annual celebration (May 27-June 7), there are still a lot of people who respond to the announcement with a blank stare. What kind of food do they serve? Is it on Fifth Street or the riverfront?
Perhaps a quick history lesson is in order.
More than 60 years ago in Edinburgh, Scotland, eight theater companies weren't included in the already well-established Edinburgh International Festival. The disgruntled groups found spaces in which to present their shows on the periphery -- or "fringe" -- of the more traditional event.
Today the Edinburgh Fringe, which happens annually during the first three weeks of August, is the largest arts festival in the world; in 2007 it sold nearly 1.7 million tickets. It's inspired similar events elsewhere, including here in Cincinnati. Some estimates indicate that now there are more than 200 such festivals worldwide.
Because fringe theater is, by definition, alternative, it's a bit hard to pin down its parameters, but there are common features. Works are generally experimental and presented with minimal trappings, although there are plenty of exceptions. What's available is often of inconsistent quality, a product of the fact that directors, producers and actors are pushing in new directions.
Many fringe festivals are "unjuried," going back to those disgruntled Edinburgh companies that didn't like being excluded from the more established festival. Cincinnati's Fringe began as an unjuried festival, but for two years it's had a selection panel. Still, fringe acts are always adventurous even if they fall flat.
Some acts are locally generated, while others are touring performers who travel a fringe festival "circuit" -- from Seattle to New York City to Orlando and other major cities, approximately 20 across the United States. Canada has a thriving fringe scene, too, with the largest in Edmonton, Alberta; occasionally those performers find their way south.
These itinerant performers are often solo, because the cost of traveling -- made worse by today's fuel prices -- is steep and the returns are minimal. Typically, fringe artists split the ticket revenue for each performance with the organizers, who use the balance for promotion and other administrative aspects.
There are noteworthy success stories from fringe festivals. The one everyone points to is the satirical musical Urinetown, which began at the 1999 New York Fringe, found its way to an Off-Off-Broadway theater, then to an Off-Broadway venue and eventually to Broadway, winning several Tony Awards in 2002.
But if you check around you'll find others: Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in fact, premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1966. Many familiar players from Monty Python's Flying Circus started as fringe performers, as well as more mainstream actors such as Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie (the star of House on TV). But fringe theater is more about discovery than catching a star, and that's what makes attending an adventure.
Fringe in Cincinnati
The first Cincy Fringe Festival was in 2003, largely at the instigation of Jason Bruffy, today the artistic director of Know Theatre of Cincinnati. Bruffy, who laughingly admits he'd never attended a fringe festival but was attracted to the concept, had come to town as a member of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival acting company.
He convinced CSF to stage a fringe festival under the umbrella of the company's Studio Series. In 2006 the Fringe organization migrated to Know Theatre when Bruffy became that company's artistic leader. This year's festival is administered by Know Associate Artistic Director Eric Vosmeier.
As the Fringe's producing director, Vosmeier is scheduling more than 175 performances of 35 productions during the 12-day event, which kicks off on Tuesday (appropriately) with a party. Theater performances begin May 28, but the Cincy Fringe also includes visual art and film, which get started a day earlier (see related previews "Going With the Gut" and "Unusual Visions").
It's a mind-boggling task, but audiences increasingly are responding. The 2007 festival sold more than 6,000 tickets.
"The energy and excitement that the Cincy Fringe Festival generates for its organizers, participants and patrons is unparalleled by any other event in the region," Vosmeier says. "The festival is a time when all artists, regardless of medium, can come together as a community to teach, to learn, to mingle with like-minded artists who want to push the boundaries of their art form and the minds of our audience."
Vosmeier's own mind is pushed as he deals with the ins and outs of scheduling so many performances at more than a dozen venues focused around Over-the-Rhine's 12th Street corridor between Race and Sycamore streets. (See the venue box to the right.) This year's acts were selected from 76 applicants: local (49), regional (5), national (19) and international (3).
Vosmeier is confident that the 2008 lineup is the best ever presented locally.
"The selection committee had some very difficult decisions to make," he says. "But they've given us a lineup of incredibly high quality, unique and thrilling performances that will challenge, entertain and engage our existing audience and reach out to new people."
Those helping Vosmeier and Bruffy select performances this year were Northern Kentucky University's theater department chair Ken Jones, Cincinnati Ballet Artistic Director Victoria Morgan (the Fringe has a significant dance component, with works presented at the Contemporary Arts Center) and Ensemble Theatre Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers.
What to expect
The 2008 Fringe marks the return of numerous successful performers from previous festivals, not to mention the chance to see new acts and experience works that are beyond everyday theater.
Don't Make Me Pull This Show Over: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Parenting has great credentials. It's directed by UC College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) drama professor Richard Hess, whose past Fringe outings (Don't Look Down, (Un)Natural Disasters, The Catholic Girl's Guide to Losing Your Virginity, The Kid in the Dark) have been as varied as they've been popular.
This new show is a new musical revue by Cincinnati native Richard Oberacker, the music director for The Lion King on tour and various Cirque du Soleil productions in Las Vegas; his show Ace, a big hit at the Cincinnati Playhouse in 2006, is headed for Broadway. Music director is Terry LaBolt, whose credits include Broadway, CCM and the popular "cabaret night" on Sundays at Below Zero Lounge. The cast includes some of the area's top musical theater performers.
One of those performers is Charlie Clark, who also has his own solo Fringe show, The Charlie Clark Show, a one-man show about creating a one-man show. It's the kind of self-referential work often found at fringe festivals, and Clark, a multiple Cincinnati Entertainment Awards nominee, will make it funny and engaging.
If you like seeing performers push boundaries, there's Undertow at Know Theatre, a collaboration between musicians Sean Rhiney and Mark Brasington and filmmaker Marcelina Robledo. Taking cues from Pink Floyd's The Wall, the guys wrote a 12-song cycle that accompanies a film Robledo created in response to the tunes. The music is played live as the film unspools, creating a fascinating experience that changes from performance to performance.
And how about this from the category of new experiences? Inner: City is a two-hour guided walking tour of Over-the-Rhine. You'll depart from Know Theatre on Jackson Street armed with an iPod and a podcast. Presenters call it a "site-specific audio installation" and a "multimedia odyssey," which sounds like an imaginative blend of 19th-century architecture and 21st-century technology.
How to approach the Fringe
Single tickets are $10, but once you've made notes about everything you want to see you'll find that a Festival pass is probably a more economical choice. If you plan to see a lot, your best bet is a "Full Frontal" pass for $150 (that's less than $5 per show if you see everything); you'll have access to everything on the schedule for the festival's entire 12-day run.
If you don't think you can attend quite so many performances, a good option is the "Swinger" pass, which admits you to 10 performances for $75. And if your own schedule limits you to a weekend, your best is probably the "Voyeur Pass" for $50, which will get you into six shows.
If you want to have fun, get informed and launch your own personal Fringe festival, head to the CityBeat Fringe Kick-Off Party Tuesday at Know Theatre. Doors open at 9 p.m.; the evening features performances by local bands Eclipse (9:30) and The Hiders (11:00).
What else are you doing on a Tuesday night? As Vosmeier likes to say, "On your mark, get set, Fringe!"
Follow the Fringe
Once again CityBeat is your best source for figuring out which Cincy Fringe Festival shows and events to attend. The task can be a little daunting, but you'll have a blast no matter what you try.
Kick-Off Party: Everything starts up Tuesday at 9 p.m. at Know Theatre, 1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine. Local bands The Hiders and Eclipse will perform, and the Christian Moerlein beer will be cold.
Performance Previews/Reviews: Fringe performances begin May 28 on 13 stages in Over-the-Rhine and downtown. There will be a total of 175 performances of 35 productions through June 7; look for previews of every single production in next week's CityBeat Hot Issue and in the June 4 issue. CityBeat critics will review each show as soon after it opens as possible; look for reviews posted daily at the CityBeat Fringe Blog.
Wrap-up Coverage: Look for Rick Pender's post-Fringe wisdom in his Curtain Call column on June 11.
Details: The best place to keep up with venue, showtime and ticket changes and details is the Cincy Fringe Festival web site.
Building the Fringe: Curious how Eric Vosmeier, Jason Bruffy, Jay Kalagayan and cohorts constructed this year's festival? Check out the five-part Fringe Festival trailer at the Fringe web site.