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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.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Zinoman on the Fringe

Jason Zinoman writes a Fringe round up that sort of begs bloggery and discussion.

The opening salvo:

"Does it matter that New York has a drearily mediocre Fringe Festival?

I have long thought not, since the annual August assembly line of toothless political parodies, dumb musicals, navel-gazing solo shows and occasional gems always seemed harmless. It gave hundreds of young artists a chance to shine and filled a niche for the press during the dead quiet of summer. As I have visited much more audience-friendly Fringes in Edinburgh and Philadelphia, however, the New York International Fringe Festival now appears needlessly bland and poorly organized. It also does no favors for the reputation of downtown theater. We deserve better."
Read the rest here.

So...what do you think?

I'm wondering if the web has had a one step forward two steps back approach for the Fringe. Now, more shows are reviewed than ever. But does that reduce the incentive to just wander around trying shows and meeting people?

Anyhow...love to hear your thoughts on the Fringe Festival, and Zinoman's assessment.

Update: Isaac asks if we even need a Fringe in NYC anymore. Hyperbolic? Sure. Provocative? Sure. Worth a read? Heck yes.

Update 2: Playgoer also speaks to the article.


Jihad Punk 77 said...

I didnt even know NYC has a Fringe festival until I heard about it in a blog a week ago.

I've never been to Scotland, but almost everyone knows what the Edinburgh Fringe is. It's a huge honor to be showcased there.

so yes, I'll say the NYC Fringe Festival is doing a piss poor job promoting itself to the world.

Caviglia said...

One of the problems is that FringeNYC can only present to the public what is submitted to them. And then I think it becomes one of perception, which Zinoman's piece doesn't really help. If innovative artists don't think of the Fringe as somewhere that innovative arts are presented, then they are less likely to submit, contributing to a spiral of possible stagnation. But, as someone who sat on the adjudication panel for 7 freaking years, I feel really comfortable saying that innovative work is what is wanted and actively sought. So, I guess, if we want a better festival and not just to bitch about it, encourage innovative artists to apply. Because then they will get in. And then everyone can see their shows.

His complaints about about the festival being spread seem really disingenuous to me - this year in particular, as there are 6 venues on 4th street bet. 2nd & 3rd alone, which is not a hugely different situation from the nada spaces and the Theatorium being clumped back in the Fringe days of yore. And I think people forget about how far away some of the venues were even those first few years (the Y on 14th, some of the spaces down in Tribeca, the hike to Henry Street, etc.).

Also, for whatever reason, I think my hit/miss ratio this year has been far, far better then Zinoman's. A possibile reason for this might be his own disengagement with whatever is happening in the festival and the artists involved compared to what it possibly was ten years ago. I mean, is he actively talking to people and asking them what they've seen that they have liked, or is he just working off of press releases and zipping from show to show? There are all kinds of things at play.

Caviglia said...

*spread out

Sarah said...

Having been involved in a Fringe show last year, I have to admit that I found the festival extremely poorly organized and difficult to enjoy being a part of. As a result, I made a decision this year NOT to be a part of it and act in another piece instead. While the rehearsal and production experience has been far more enjoyable, it is almost impossible to compete with the Fringe for press. I think the Fringe Festival has the potential to be great but needs some serious restructuring if it aims to be a showcase of the yet unknown talent that exists in New York.

George Hunka said...

It's important to note, I think, that the name of the event is the "New York International Fringe Festival" -- which implies that the work presented there is not New York-centric nor does it originate in New York.

The danger has come in the possible assumption by New York Fringe audiences that Fringe work is indeed representative of New York downtown theatre: and as at a shopping mall, one can get their fill of it through a few weeks in August and neglect it the rest of the year. It is not necessarily the fault of the Fringe, since this is not how they present themselves: but it would be worth their while, I think, and engender a better relationship with New York theatre artists, if their intentions were clearer.

While I appreciate Caviglia's thoughts (and his/her admission that he/she sits on the adjudication panel), I'm not sure that questioning Jason's motives or activities will clear anything up. Perhaps a part of the Fringe can become an invitational: rather than simply encouraging submissions, they might invite groups whom they'd be interested in presenting and provide them with additional resources (prime venues, increased load-in and load-out times for more complex shows, etc.) The invitational might also point theatregoers to those shows that have the potential of standing out from the rest of the festival.

Jason Zinoman said...

I'll just ignore you calling me disingenuous and assuming i'm not engaged like i was ten years ago, as if i have not been consistently covering the fringe the entire decade (look it up) and probably reviewed more shows than any other critic at a major newspaper. Let's focus on substance.

Even if the Fringe is less spread out than it once was (and that case is a tough one to make), could you possibly entertain the idea that it would still be a good idea to make the area more centralized? That might mean you lose a few theaters and some quantity, but if we could get more of a critical mass of viewers, would that not be a good thing? If you don't think so, please make the case.

Second: I believe that when you worked on the jury you wanted innovative work. But i suggest the fringe could have more success on that count if it looks at other fringe festivals. These are issues of structure and org, not bad intentions. As i point out in the article, Edinburgh manages to be more democratic and bigger without losing eccentricity and high standards. Why can't we learn from them? Or from what Philly or DC or the Canadian festivals are doing? Maybe the NY Fringe is great and better than them all, but is it too much to ask for it to try and rethink itself now and again? Can it be better? And if it's not being successful, should be cover it differently?

I have been going to the fringe long enough to say that this is not a problem of one bad year or some poor luck choosing shows. It's a problem of vision. My job is not to encourage innovative artists to join the fringe, unless by "encourage" you mean do my best to find them and write positive reviews, which i have done now for a long, long time. If i honestly give my opinion and it happens to be that the fringe is safe and mediocre, i would suggest that calling that "bitching" doesn't help.

Freeman said...

I think there's definitely a lot of desire to see the best possible festival, tone aside. For me, the Fringe is about being big ("the largest" is all over their marketing).

Quality has to be the bottom line. Sure, quality is a moving target, but the damage done by a lack of quality control. Imagine an adventurous new audience member who decides to take some risks...and what their likely reward will be for that effort.

There are tons of great shows at the Fringe every year - VIRAL was terrific last year, for example. Sadly, the sheer volume makes locating those shows complicated, and makes the likelihood of uncovering a gem low.

Another issue is that Festivals are now a year-round affair, all over the city. The reason is that others have discovered that festivals are cost-effective. This dilutes the Fringe's brand. For now, its distinction is size. What else distinguishes it?

More to the point...what should distinguish it?

Jason Zinoman said...

Viral was good, and as a matter of fact, i said as much in a review last year. In terms of size, i think the Fringe could get smaller while still being really big. i mean, very few people see more than 20 or 30 shows, so if you lost a few dozen, would we notice?

But i think big or small is not as important as rethinking the way curatorial power is structured. Imagine if a jury picked the shows and then a series of different people heading up separate theaters picked from that pool. Eventually within the fringe different taste-makers would emerge. Some you might like, others not. But you would have a better idea of what you wanted to see.

Another strategy would be to just make theaters home to a certain kind of work. The Lortel could be musicals. HERE solo shows. Another place does experimental work. That would be another way to help audiences navigate the fringe. There are surely other options, but as long as we think the fringe is just fine as is, they will not be explored. From the feedback i have been getting, very few people seem to want that.

That includes ticketbuyers, theater people and critics, especially the ones who have been covering this festival for a while. I am not sure i have written anything that has received so many Amens in my in-box in my entire career. But hey, tourists are still coming, the Fringe makes a profit and if a few people think downtown theater means bland, safe work, who cares? Well, I do. And if you think NY theater matters, you should too.

George Hunka said...

In which case, why a Fringe festival at all? It is 14 years old this year, and perhaps when it was founded by John Clancy and others, there was a necessity to bring these smaller theatres to the attention of theatregoers who rarely ventured below 14th Street. But is that still true?

HERE, PS122, The Kitchen, La MaMa, Theatre for a New City, newcomers like The Brick, the Incubator Arts Project at the former Ontological-Hysteric: these venues produce work -- largely not bland, largely not safe -- the year round; do any of the Fringe tourists ever visit any of these other venues through the year? If not, it may be that the Fringe's most central interest is the Fringe, and the continuance of the institution rather than a change of vision for the kind of work it produces.

There are many artists who have chosen not to take part in the Fringe, and they include many of New York's most important downtown theatremakers. This should say something to the Fringe administrators -- or, rather, it should have said something to them long ago.

Freeman said...

If there are Fringe organizers reading, I'd say that the idea of venues being identified with a certain kind of theatrical genre is one that could be put pretty quickly into practice without much change in the curatorial process (although there probably should be a revision there.) Love to see that tried next year. Heck, why not?

One strength of that idea to underline is that genres are one of the strongest ways that most people organize their consumption of any other art. Rarely will you find a music fan that doesn't call himself or herself a fan of hip-hop or punk. Wouldn't it be useful to let those who are fans of experimental, or solo shows, or musicals have easy access to their favorite type of work, and to know that when they hit a certain venue, they'll be with theatergoers who share their enthusiasm?

Aaron Riccio said...

I do like the idea of breaking down shows into specific venues; considering that they're already listed that way in the guides, why not?

I'll say again, though: I have no problem with the surprise of the Fringe as it is. You learn a lot from even the bad shows, and sometimes it helps you to appreciate how good the production values are for some of the REAL Off-Off-Broadway work out there.

However, I'm not a tourist to the scene, and there's a valid concern raised: if this festival only re-enforces an image of the Downtown Scene as being bland, then that's a shame. Moreover, looking back, the three best shows I've seen so far have either toured from other cities OR were developed at other festival-like atmospheres here, like Butterfly, Butterfly Kill Kill Kill! (which was, unsurprisingly, part of the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator): do these groups need a FRINGE to showcase their work? Or do they need another COIL/Under the Radar festival?

I also once thought that the Fringe was just a good way to get shows on their feet and to see what's working (like NYMF, which also has a lot of misses), and a great way to keep theaters filled during an off-season (as opposed to the Midtown Festival or the Frigid Festival, which are both hard to schedule in . . . and even more hit-or-miss). Now I'm hearing from artists that that's not true?

George Hunka said...

As much as it might be easier for theatregoers to find shows in which they'd be interested, Matt, doesn't that contribute to less adventurousness on the part of these theatregoers, rather than more? And it doesn't address the question of what we're calling the safety or blandness of these shows -- and surely there's safe, bland hip-hop and experimental theatre as much as there's safe, bland neoclassical theatre. In a sense, this may just be hiring a designer to feng-shui the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Jason Zinoman said...

George, That's a good point. It seems like it wouldn't address the adventurousness issue, but again, look at Edinburgh. There are far more commercial comedies and silly hip-hop whatevers there, but if you want to see the kind of thing you might find at PS 122, they have a theater for you. If you prefer Enda Walsh dramas, there's a place for you, too. It makes everyone happy. And if you are the type to just want to roll the dice you don't have to figure out what the identity of each theater is. Just show up and see. Don't like it, go to a different theater later in the day.

Freeman said...

I think I should have a t-shirt that says "Feng-shui on the Titanic."

Anyway, I think you gain something and lose something from any change. What you gain in clarity, you lose in, perhaps, some risk. I guess the question is how to produce results that make the theatergoing experience more rewarding and bring people to shows they'd like to see. I think you might find people MORE adventurous if they feel more welcomed overall.

George Hunka said...

Point taken, Jason; and the Edinburgh Fringe's supple organization may have something to do with the history of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (a long history; they've had fifty years to work out the kinks!). That said, it will take a better audience survey than I can conduct to tell whether or not audiences have the time or the inclination to theatrehop from place to place; my own experience tells me that time is short enough as it is.

George Hunka said...

(By the way, I also suspect that geography may have something to do with it. Edinburgh is a far cry, in psychological and physical distance, from London; bringing "fringey" material to downtown New York stages is like ... well, like bringing coal to Newcastle. The Becks were doing their thing in Upper West Side living rooms back in the 1940s, and the OOB movement from Caffe Cino through the 1960s to the mid-1970s already demarcated a territory for experimental and non-commercial work downtown. The NYFringe may have injected new blood into the system, but that was some time ago. Just a thought.)

RLewis said...

Please add my Amen to the in box, jz. From reading the comments, I do wonder whether it should be FringeINT'L instead of FringeNYC. 'Seems like it wants to market both, but not sure which it really wants to be.

And I can't see what it would lose by being 100 shows instead of 200, but then again I prefer quality over quantity.

I've never applied to the Fringe for only one reason: I just can't imagine doing my best work with something that has to come up and go down in 15 minutes or less, only because I find design to be an integral part of theater's collaborative art, and that takes time to mount.

I find the City's alternative theater to be a year-round Fringe, but I don't have a problem with a Fringe's Fringe every August. I would say that taking a good look in the mirror from time to time, and not just repeting the same thing every year expecting different results, couldn't hurt.

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