In 1997 I co-founded the New York International Fringe Festival. In our second year, The New York Times was calling us an institution and in our third year we had one of our shows, a musical with the unlikely title of Urinetown, transfer to Broadway where it won three Tonys. The following year, 2000, I directed a show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and we were fortunate enough to win a Fringe First. In 2002 I directed four more shows in Edinburgh and had to buy a new suitcase at the end of August to lug home all of the awards. Since then we’ve picked up three more Fringe Firsts in Edinburgh and two Adelaide Best of the Fringe Awards. So it would seem, on the face of it, I should have a working knowledge of what makes for a successful Fringe.
Don’t believe it, friends.
In business, success is clear. If you make money, your business is a success. If you make a lot of money, it is a tremendous success. Couldn’t be simpler. In theater, the level of audience appreciation, the number of curtain calls, the volume of applause, the amount of favorable ink in the morning paper, all of these are reliable indicators of success. In the business of theater, some combination of the size of your paycheck, the level of audience appreciation and the tone of the critical response can be used to say “Yes, I am succeeding,” or “No, it’s time to go home.” But none of these things accurately reflects or measures the success of a Fringe Festival.
A Fringe Festival has more in common, in its frantic, secret heart, with a beer bash than a business, with a street party than an exhibition of art. A Fringe Festival is judged successful as a party is, and no one knows, really, why one party ignites and rages all night while another quietly dies an hour after everyone has arrived. It has something to do with who shows up and something to do with the attitude of the host. Beyond that, it’s voodoo, luck and magic. So let’s look at the guest list.
Fringe Festivals exist for the benefit of ambitious, organized newcomers. The Fringe is the entrance point for the marginalized, the genius that no one has heard of yet, those voices in the wilderness shouting in a language not yet translated. It’s the shock of the new that is the central draw for the audience, the chance of being electrocuted and blindsided by an artist you don’t know. It’s just like the morning after a great party when you say, “Who was that guy? That was the funniest shit I ever heard.” Or like the morning after certain other parties when you find it necessary to introduce yourself to the person lying naked next to you. Random, passionate, intense engagement with strangers is the recipe for both a good party and a good Fringe.
Now along with these embryonic geniuses, comes an endless parade of fools and bores and bad, bad artists. No way around this, but, again, the point of the whole thing is an almost aggressive trust and a boundless faith on the part of the audience and the host. One can’t trust without being disappointed and faith means nothing if its not tested. So, you need to invite strangers and then you need to talk to them.
Now let’s look at the host.
There is a political party in Mexico that calls itself, with a straight face, I assume, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. That name captures all of the frustration and challenge of the job of Artistic Director of a Fringe Festival. For your festival to mean anything, you must be thinking as a revolutionary. For your work to continue, you must be planning as an institution. Any artistic director, but particularly a festival artistic director, and most particularly a Fringe Festival artistic director, has to work and program from a place of risk. But when you become part of an institution, or god forbid, responsible for an institution, it’s no longer just your time, money and reputation on the table. You’re risking other people’s jobs, other people’s plans and futures. So, responsibly, you stop and think for a second and in that one second the artist retreats and the administrator steps in. The administrator talks soothingly and the artist climbs off the ledge and thinks in terms of safety. After all, it’s one thing to jump from rooftop to rooftop, pretending you can fly. It’s another thing entirely when you’ve got a baby in your arms.
But I say, Fringe Festival Directors of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your babies. You are the gatekeepers. Let the barbarians in.
Talk to your guests. Encourage them, actively, to talk with each other. Encourage dissent, raised voices and spontaneity. Invite interesting people and stay up all night with them. Expect furniture to be broken and drinks to be spilled. Throw a good party and you’ve thrown a good Fringe. Run a good business and the party will certainly move on.