In 2004 I was approached by some recent college grads from Carolina to be in a Fringe show. I was to play a Vietnam vet, also the father of a 17 year old girl. Never mind that I was 33, and was four years old when we withdrew from Vietnam, I said “sure”. Half because I’ll do anything for a Tar Heel and half because I just really wanted to be in the Fringe Festival.
It was amazing. My pass got me in to any show for five dollars, and once we opened, I wandered around, sometimes sprinting, from show to show desperately trying to cram as much theater in a day as possible. I knew almost no one, I went to shows because they were close to me and opening in fifteen minutes. I loved some, hated some, was thrilled and maybe bored, but I remember the feeling, running from performing space to performing space, like a glutton at a free buffet.
I didn’t really understand the power that the Fringe Festival in New York can have over our little industry. I didn’t understand that people made plays for the Fringe in the hopes that they would be testing grounds for a bigger move, to off, or even on, Broadway. That approach, even all these years later, doesn’t really make any sense to me and there have been few companies who have had more success than we have in the festival. We’ve had sold out runs of several shows and we’ve won awards for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Playwright and Outstanding Play, all in different years… but we’ve never moved anything to Broadway.
Of course, we weren’t trying to. We wanted to produce in the Fringe Festival for three reasons. The first two are obvious – it makes a show affordable and it makes marketing a little bit easier. Your rent for a two week run will cost you $7k in New York, if you get in the Fringe Festival that’s already covered in your $650 entry fee. That’s insane. On top of that, Ron Lasko at Spin Cycle does everything he can to promote the festival and if that means he can use your show, he will. If you’re on your own then… well, you’re on your own. Better to have a publicist who’s looking for your show than nothing at all.
These first two reasons are just the math of it all. The real reason to do it is so you can be a part of this incredible full-bodied whallop that attacks downtown New York like a car crash. I have loved every single minute of being part of the festival, I’ve loved every meeting, I’ve loved every time Elena starts crying in the middle of her speeches when she thinks of the volunteers. I even love the way the regular New York Theater community stares down their noses at the batshit crazy stuff that’s going up in twenty different venues around them. The criticism is always that there’s too much, too many shows, too many venues, no way to see everything, and when you go up to Elena and say that, she’ll just smile and say “that’s the point.” The New York International Fringe Festival is the very definition of “Go Large”.
Now, I’d be lying if I said our experience with the festival was a purely artistic success. They changed our fortunes, completely. Some of my closest artistic friends, the people who’s work I would never miss, I only know them because of the Festival and they consistently come and see our shows for the same reason. “Fleet Week, The Musical” in 2005 put us on the map, and we found ourselves sharing the stage at the Lucille Lortel Theater with the very best shows from the first ten years of the Fringe. “Hail Satan” introduced our work to David Cote, who saw it not as a reviewer but as a guy taking in shows at 45 Bleecker Street. And “Viral” ended up running for another month at the Soho Playhouse, with the looming possibility of an Off-Broadway transfer still lingering in the air. We couldn’t have done the work we’ve done outside the festival, if the festival hadn’t made it possible.
But if I’m honest, my favorite year was that first one, in 2004. Going from show to show, drowning happily in a sea of theater, feeling like it didn’t even *matter* if the next production was good or bad, I wasn’t going to resent 90 minutes and $5 when I was only a half hour and a walking-slice-of-pizza-meal away from another show. And the show I did? I can honestly say, it’s some of the best acting I’ve ever done. And I find myself eight years later still friends with the folks who made the show. The playwright is writing constantly and teaching at Hunter college. The guy who wrote the music is touring the country with his band “Apollo Run”. The director works on Broadway and off, and just directed Bekah Brunstetter’s latest “Miss Lilly Gets Boned”. And the woman who played my daughter? She has her own TV show – she’s a cop.
If you had been to our 40 seat theater 8 years ago, you could have seen us all work together. And you would have thought it was good. Starting tomorrow, if you take a chance and wade into the madness, you’ll see the geniuses of 2018 making the theater of today. Check out our Gideon Productions facebook page for recommendations and feedback on the shows we see.