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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The New York International Fringe Festival - The Mainstream Fights Back

While this year's NY "International" Fringe Festival is smaller on paper (180 shows? Pish-posh!) it is featuring an infusion of accomplished, established performers who can barely be categorized as "fringe." Take "Bridezilla Strikes Back!" a show featuring a young woman who appeared on Reality-TV; or "Silence! The Musical" which features a cast of veterans ad naseum. Take a look at the NY Times article which cherry picks a few of the bigger numbers.

As usual, the Times is forced to speak out of both sides of its rather large mouth. (I mean this all with the greatest respect, oh ye powerful Times.) It notes that the fringe is featuring a more mainstream line-up, but then highlights only exactly these performers and shows.

This is not to say that these performers don't deserve to have their day on the stage. This may well speak simply to the fact that it's so difficult to find a home for new work, that even the clunky, overworked and under-air-conditioned fringe has started to appeal to just about anyone with a goofy idea they can't sell a producer on.

The problem, of course, is that the festival is still too big to be covered, not selective enough to be taken seriously, and too addicted to the politics of shock-value. "Fringe" has become in our era what "Alternative" became to the music scene: a genre that is sold, regardless of budget or artistic merit. It was about five years after Nirvana that it became clear that all you had to do was wear the flannel and not shave and you were "grunge," no matter how much your father paid for your SUV. The Fringe Festival has a similar take: If you are a satire with an exclamation point, feature a celebrity in your title, or can add "The Musical" to the end of something that seemingly resists songs, you are Fringe materal. If your choreographer recently worked on Broadway, it's not big deal. He's just slumming it.

Fringe musical titles of the future will clearly be: "Cancer! The Musical," "Iraq! The Musical" and "Sling Blade! The Musical." Our straight plays will feature such titles as "Scientology is a Sex Cult," "Morgan Freeman is My Baby Daddy" and "Spadling Grey Lives!"

None of this honestly will make stars or feature the next Beckett, the new sensiblity of young writers (at least not those whelped on something besides South Park), or will draw us to new conclusions about the world. They will, instead, sell to their market and happily call it "art." Increasing numbers of agents will direct their quarries to this easy publicity mark, looking for the ever present "street cred" for performers who would much rather be doing commercials.

I'm certain that in this festival, like all of them, there are going to be 50 or 30 or, heck, 10, unheralded and beautiful productions. The Widow of Abraham is a brilliant play, and is by a Humana Festival participant, for example. Let's just hope the Fringe sees the merit of dumping the little money they have into fewer shows of higher quality, and stop wasting time and space on the mess of publicity stunts.

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