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Fringe Binge

[whitespace] San Francisco Fringe Festival On the Fringe: The Troubadour Theater Company in 'Butt Pirates of the Caribbean' is just one of 50 theater troupes from around the world participating in the Fringe Festival.

Artistic anarchy abounds at the San Francisco Fringe Festival

By Kerry Reid

Theater in this country has an image problem. In many quarters, it's either dismissed as hopelessly out of touch, condemned as too elitist (and expensive, at least compared to movies) and sneered at for being less willing to experiment with new forms, unlike, say, dance or music.

All those misconceptions can be swept away for 10 days this month as the seventh annual San Francisco Fringe Festival hits the boards at five venues close to Union Square. Fifty performers and theater companies from around the world (or at least the Northern Hemisphere) will present hour-long pieces, none of which costs more than $8 and most of which feature new work in a variety of styles, encompassing sketch comedy, solo performance, literary adaptations, movement theater and more.

I've performed in three different Fringe Festivals over the years--once in San Francisco and twice in Seattle--and I can safely say that the Fringe experience is unlike any other a performer is likely to encounter. It's aesthetic democracy in action, controlled anarchy, an adrenaline rush for performers and audiences. (Since the Fringe doesn't take reservations for any shows, dashing to get in line early for those word-of-mouth hits that emerge each year is de rigueur.)

"The thing that I emphasize about the Fringe every year is that it provides open access for the artists," says Christina Augello, artistic director of the EXIT Theater, which produces the festival. "Every year, I explain that it's noncensored, noncurated, nonjuried." What that means is that the first 50 entries to reach the Fringe Festival office by the spring deadline get a slot. Period. No one reads a script or previews a video of a performance before putting the show on the program. No one outside the companies, including Augello and co-producer Richard Livingston, knows what the shows will be like until they open.

So, naturally, many might assume that most of what hits the stage is unadulterated crap. Not so, says Augello. "Curating doesn't create quality." And I must concur; although I've undoubtedly seen some Fringe shows that (to put it charitably) needed more work, I've also seen some absolutely luminous and incredible pieces of theater.

The thoroughly democratic nature of the festival lets people decide for themselves what's good and what's not. "We're empowering the audiences to make their own decisions," Augello says. "For once, they get the role of making the critic's choice. And Fringe audiences really understand and participate in the process."

For performers, the festival offers several perks. First, although they must pay an entrance fee ($425 this year; the fee covers the cost of their venue, a house manager, someone to run the lights and sound, and minimal publicity), they get to keep all their box-office proceeds. Augello notes that last year's festival returned nearly $45,000 to the participating artists, with the average amount returned being $970. Unless they go insane with production costs (and given the stripped-down nature of the festival, that's never a good idea), most participants can easily break even or make a profit. Few venues in the Bay Area that regularly present new work or solo artists can make the same claim.

More importantly, the festival provides a safe haven in which to present new work in front of audiences and to learn how to market that work in the future. Byron Yee presented his solo autobiographical show, Paper Son, at last year's festival and received Best-of-Fringe honors. He has since presented Paper Son at several Fringe festivals in Canada, as well as at the Seattle Fringe. Yee says, "Without the Fringe Festival, I would not have had the opportunity to do this work. I hadn't done solo performance before. I came out of a stand-up comedy background. It gave me a definite goal, and it also scared the hell out of me, getting up onstage in front of audiences and doing this intimate work. It gave me a great place to take risks."

That risk-taking has benefits for more than just solo performers. Although the economics of theater means that solo performers tend to dominate at the Fringe, some of the best theater companies in the Bay Area have made their names, at least in part, at the Fringe.

Kaliyuga Arts, whose erotic exploration of the works of Jean Genet, Beauty, premiered at the 1994 San Francisco Fringe, has since toured the work internationally, most recently at the Gay Games in Amsterdam this summer. And Unconditional Theater Co. got a big boost when its documentary-style piece Groping for Justice: The Bob Packwood Story got raves and Best-of-Fringe recognition in 1996. (The Best-of-the-Fringe honors usually encompass about six productions that run for an extra weekend after the regular festival closes. These shows are chosen by the producers.)

John Warren, Unconditional Theater's artistic director, notes, "Clearly the exposure we got from the Fringe helped. We got an Examiner review when we remounted the show in January [1997]. I think there had been enough of a buzz that Rob Hurwitt [Examiner theater critic] had heard about it one too many times and said, 'OK, this is something real.' "

That buzz helps artists who visit from out of town as well. New York-based comedian/writer/solo performer Elisa DeCarlo has performed at every San Francisco Fringe since 1995 and has been recognized as one of the Best-of-Fringe performers twice. Her newest, Size Matters, is a comic autobiography about excess both physical and verbal--the struggle between wanting to be a wild funny woman and a sex goddess.

"The San Francisco audiences," says DeCarlo, "are far more sophisticated than New York about certain things. A New York audience will be much more conscious of the level of professionalism, and there's a very high value on technical slickness and snazzy packaging and being able to fit into a niche--on being the theatrical equivalent of TV. On the West Coast, they don't care about that stuff, and they don't care if you don't fit any particular niche."

DeCarlo's experiences last year with the New York Fringe Festival (a juried event) gives the lie to the notion that curating leads to better theater for performers and audiences. "The New York Fringe was a nightmare from start to finish," DeCarlo recalls. "There was virtually no publicity unless you were on the short list of what the festival deemed 'stars.' I think they took terrible financial advantage of all the performers. You had to pay just to apply for entry to the festival. They took one-third of your box office; you had to pay to go to the after-hours club for performers; and then performers were expected to give workshops for free. Then the producers bragged that they came out ahead financially despite having only 50 percent attendance."

Creating a community of artists, however temporary, is one of the things that matters most to Augello and Livingston. "After you have all the performers gathered, there is always a synchronicity or a link that develops between them. Networking opportunities abound at Fringe Festivals--many performers find out about good places to perform in other cities, so the Fringe definitely has that old vaudeville-circuit feel to it: pack your trunk and hit the road.

What's on for this year's Fringe? A lot of solo shows, several of which are either performed by women in their middle years or are about women "of a certain age," which may be a reflection of the fact that good roles for middle-aged women are still scarce in mainstream theater. There are two pieces about Algonquin Round Table darling Dorothy Parker. Los Angeles-based Troubadour Theater Company is bringing its long-running hit Butt Pirates of the Caribbean.

Phoenix Theater, which lost its space on Eighth Street last year, rises from the ashes with Millie and the Sea Carpenter. Local sketch-comedy favorites Killing My Lobster will be on hand, as will companies from Dallas, Toronto, Nevada and New York. What will be great? What will be painful? There's only one way to find out. Get thee to the Fringe!

San Francisco Fringe Festival runs Sept. 10-20 at five venues: EXIT Theater and EXIT Stage Left, both at 156 Eddy St.; Actors Theater at 533 Sutter St.; Cable Car Theater, 430 Mason St.; and Il Teatro 450 at 449 Powell St. Tickets are available at the door 30 minutes before each show. For details, call 415/673-3847 or visit the Web site.

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From the September 7-20, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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