Why Time Is Still Ripe for the Fresh Fruit Festival

An act of defiance for 16 years and counting.

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Fresh Fruit
"Solo" at the 2018 Fresh Fruit Festival. Photo: Lorenzo Macillo.

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This tidbit of Newton’s Natural Law wormed its way into my brain in some high school science class. And it comes to mind again, but evolved, as I take in NYC’s summer theater landscape: “For every dystopian action we read about in the news, there seems to be an equal and opposite reaction by a perennial performance festival.” And, as Newton’s apple reacted to gravity, informing his discovery, the Fresh Fruit Festival — running through July 22 at The Wild Project — is reacting to the gravity of our challenging times.

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Now in its 16th year, Fresh Fruit is one of a legion of festivals operating under the banner of inclusivity. Other standouts include Dixon Place’s HOT! Festival, running through July 28, which claims the title of the longest-running annual LGBTQ festival in the world, and, this year, the Trans Theater Festival at The Brick in Brooklyn, running through July 22.

Fresh Fruit is presented by All Out Arts (AOA), which describes itself as a “nonprofit devoted to bringing together the diverse artistic, organizational, political and financial resources of the LGBTQ community in order to fight intolerance.” Artistic Director Liz Thaler takes great pride in the groundswell of inclusive NYC festivals. “I love [the other] venues and fests, and there’s definitely been cross-pollination in recent years,” she told me. “I learn so much about our community and about the future of art, honestly, by following our artists from fest to fest.”

Operating under the banner of inclusivity.

Although all three festivals landing in the same month makes a statement of tolerance, Thaler does have a qualm that all are in July. “I hope in the future they shift to June or August so I can actually see them,” Thaler suggested. “Seriously, someone needs to snag August now that [the New York International Fringe Festival] moved to the fall.”

The very structure of a festival like Fresh Fruit embodies inclusivity. So many diverse plays existing in the same space is the direct antithesis of a Trump-style Twitter rant. For queer arts practitioners, however, there is ultimately no avoiding the far-reaching repercussions of living in a society where intolerance is tolerated amid a brutalizing government. Thaler pointed out that this is nothing new for the LGBTQ community:

Trump is a representation of hatreds that have existed for a long time. It’s made clearer to people that we need more kinds of art. We’re fighting a movement that says there’s only one way to be an American, or even a human, so our message is, ‘Look at all these different people, living wildly different lives and expressing themselves in wildly different ways. We value all of them. They all make our country richer and stronger.’ I think festivals are particularly suited to these times, to be honest.

Of course, there is inherent tension in the curation of radical inclusivity — thoughtful curation requires discernment and, by extension, exclusion. Thaler must attempt to balance artistic excellence with AOA’s mission of “fighting prejudice through the arts.”

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“We take an intersectional approach,” she explained. “A compelling script might foreground, say, race more than gender or sexuality, but that doesn’t make it fit in with us any less. Secondly, when I put together our line-up, I look for diversity in multiple ways: artist demographics, show genre, even production team experience. I wouldn’t run a festival if all I cared about was safe bets, so we always have shows in our line-up that have less experience or less of a built-in audience. It’s one of the ways we bring in new blood. Third, we keep it accessible! We have various box-office plans so you don’t have to pay us a penny to be in our festival — and still get a cut of the ticket sales. We’re a modest operation, but we want as few barriers to entry as possible.”

As many artists struggle with how to make their art while resisting the atrocities of the day, being a part of a festival can be incredibly freeing. Two examples of this at Fresh Fruit are the world premieres of Prophesy by Karl Hinze and All My Love, Kate by Joe Breen. Prophesy is a juicy subversion of Catholic dogma that intertwines taboo eroticism with a history of saints in ecstasy. All My Love, Kate gives a platform to unrecognized same-sex spouses ignored by the government as they attempt to track down news on their partners’ status as a POW in World War II. Both plays, to me, felt timeless; neither succumbed to pure rhetoric. The genuine feeling of love and support in the auditorium was palpable.

Diverse plays in the same space are a direct antithesis of a Trump-style Twitter rant.

Still, putting on a performance festival is NYC in challenging, so Fresh Fruit’s 16-year run suggests there are lessons to be learned. Thaler says it comes down to a unifying mission. “Our mission is to give a platform to the full spectrum of queer voices. That might look different year to year, but it means our board and staff are people who see art as a tool for social justice, and who genuinely want to see and hear new stories. When people realize how sincere our mission is, how deeply felt our belief in a queer artistic community, they want us to keep going.”

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Inclusivity, she continues, is the aim: “It means valuing different perspectives and listening to our community. My experiences as a pan-woman are different from those of a lesbian woman even if we’re otherwise demographically similar — and queer people come from all demographics. So, we don’t want to take anything for granted.”

That Fresh Fruit is still here, operating on its own terms amidst a volatile political and cultural landscape, demonstrates the kind of hope the festival can provide. “Annual!” is its battle cry. It is here, and it will be here next year, as the equal and opposite reaction to whatever political and cultural actions are on the horizon.