Every August, performance venues throughout lower Manhattan grow even busier as hundreds of up-and-coming artists descend on New York for a little over two weeks. They come to take part in the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC), one of the city’s oldest and largest multi-arts festivals showcasing dramatic one-acts, improvisational comedy, puppetry, dance, and other types of performance. This year, the festival will run from August 12th – 28th, offering a programme of nearly 200 different shows. Some of the participating artists originate from the greater New York City area, but many come from across the country and around the world, making this festival also one of the city’s most eclectic.
Given the sheer size and breadth of its programme, the festival can be overwhelming, even for seasoned attendees. So how to choose what to see? “The best advice is to be adventurous and really dive in,” says Elena K. Holy, the festival’s Producing Artistic Director. That’s fine advice for folks with wide-ranging interests or little time to plan. But for those who prefer a more strategic approach, there are several ways to learn more about the programme and determine which shows best align with personal tastes.
Navigating the Festival
This year, the festival is hosting several special events that provide ways to learn more about the programme and opportunities to mingle with artists. The earliest-scheduled event is the FringeCLUB party, which kicks off the festival on August 11th at the live-music venue Drom, located at 85 Avenue A. Party attendees can chat with artists and meet FringeNYC “Ambassadors”—knowledgeable festival volunteers—who will discuss the programme and help choose which shows to see. The party begins at 10pm and admission is free.
The festival will also include several ongoing events, including FringePLUS meetups—gatherings of artists and audiences held after selected performances (look for FringePLUS icons next to the titles in the programme to determine which shows are participating). The meetups provide opportunities to chat with performers and creative staff about their work, meet other festival-goers, and purchase discounted tickets to other shows on the programme. For a more informal experience, festival-goers can visit the FringeLOUNGEs, which will be open at two different locations. There, Ambassadors will be on hand to answer questions and snacks will be available between performances.
Like all fringe festivals, the quality of shows at FringeNYC will vary. But it’s unlikely that any will be completely unwatchable. That’s because every show on the programme had to demonstrate promise early on to land a spot in the line-up. Holy explains the festival’s selection process: “Over the course of about six weeks, our 70 adjudicators [form panels] and review every script (or video) and application, and look for vibrancy, innovation, and diversity. By the time someone gets accepted to the festival, their application has been reviewed by at least four people.”
In past years, the process has worked well. FringeNYC has served as a launching pad for several New York City theatrical hits, both on Broadway and off (Urinetown, Matt & Ben, and Debbie Does Dallas come to mind). But is it easy to predict which shows will be the biggest audience pleasers? “I wish! But no,” Holy says. “[The panelists] are seeing the first production of a play or musical or solo show [during adjudication],” so it’s difficult to determine which will break through and become bona fide hits beyond the fringe. Of course, “breaking through” isn’t exactly the point of FringeNYC. According to the festival’s official website, its mission is to “create a community that provides an opportunity for the untried and the untested, as well as a gathering place for lively discussion and interaction among artists and audience.” Holy believes that the festival’s adjudication process preserves these goals: “It is truly the way we have maintained the spirit of the festival, despite numerous success stories. It’s important to us to remember why we started this festival, and to always be thinking of those emerging artists who need us.”
There’s certainly no shortage of applicants who need them. “The challenge is really just to remain open and caring as you’re reviewing nearly 800 applications,” Holy says. For many artists, the competition is worth it. Once an artist gets accepted into the festival, Holy’s team provides an exceptionally supportive platform for producing work: “We actually are renting the venues,” Holy says, as well as “providing the staff, assisting with marketing, and providing a lot of shared resources and collective bargaining power to leverage the size of the festival in our artists’ favor. It’s kind of like building a little town for three weeks.”
A Political Personality
If FringeNYC is like a town, then it’s certainly a diverse one. The programme boasts fourteen different genres of performance staged across sixteen venues. But even among such variety, trends in programming appear each year, lending each year’s fringe a unique personality. When asked about this year’s trends, Holy pointed to the election year’s influence on artists: “We have so many social issues being explored [this year], some in comedic ways, others dramatic or allegorical. It’s interesting. Even though it’s a ‘political’ year our artists aren’t doing the political parodies you might expect. The shows are more about the issues behind the politics, and what we can do about them.”
Indeed, political shows can be found in almost every genre. Zero Population Growth, a solo performance written and performed by Mac Welch, explores the tumultuous psychologies of five Americans, including a libertarian gun owner and an office shooter. Dipti Mehta’s HONOUR: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan leads audiences into Mumbai’s red-light district to expose the lives of sex workers. Mehta has teamed up with Apne Aap, an Indian grassroots organization that aims to stop sex trafficking. In drama, Maya Contreras’s Let the Devil Take the Hindmost tells the story of an African-American math teacher, her Latino Art-History Professor husband, and their activist daughter as they navigate 1969 Washington, D.C. Sean Chandler and David Leeper’s At the Flash won the 2012 Pride Films and Plays Great Gay Play and Musical Contest. Set in an imaginary gay bar, the play spans five decades of gay rights and activism.
To get a feel for the performance styles and aesthetics of these shows and others, audiences should look for FringeNYTeasers, which will be performed throughout the festival and which consist of short excerpts from the line-up. But, to echo Holy’s original advice, an adventurous spirit is a useful asset when exploring the programme. The festival is large, yes, but when approached with an open mind and a willingness to explore, it can also be, in Holy’s words, “scrappy, creative, surprising, and fun.”
To find out more about FringeNYC, visit their website here.