September 9, 1997 VILLAGE VOICE
At New York's first Fringe Festival, I saw the new life in art we're all going to have once we're done losing the culture war. I didn't see it onstage, but in the festival's infrastructure and ability to sell itself. Skillfully organized and effectively marketed, the Fringe began with no funding and ended with no debt. This after 175 shows in 21 venues over 11 days: a miracle. I came away with new hope and new forebodings. For the Fringe was also a bit of a fraud, less a showcase for edgy work than a construct of "the edge." Or, as the Fringe guide put it, "our own private theme park, Off-Off World."
The day after the festival ended, phones were still ringing at The Piano Store on Ludlow Street Fringe Central. "This thing could become Sundance tomorrow," said John Clancy, one of the festival's organizers and artistic director of The Present Company. "A lot of people think that's what should happen. But our commitment is to keep it real. To keep it Fringe."
Indeed, there'd been enough Sundancey frisson around the festival to draw agents, casting directors, and other heat-seeking missiles into the un-theaters on the Lower East Side. But I've been around other scenes the East Village galleries, the downtown performance clubs, and this energy felt different. Was it really evidence of a theater boom, or was it hype?
This Fringe reminded me very much of the original at Edinburgh, with its impressively coordinated schedule, funky spaces, shows starting almost really on time, a daily paper with schedule changes and reviews, and, I'm afraid, only a few pieces that were really innovative.
Still, neither Beall nor Clancy has ever been to Edinburgh. They modeled the Lower East Side version on Seattle's Fringe, with that festival's Jonathan Harris joining them in selecting work. They accepted 175 of 450 applicants, a controversial move since the festival in Scotland is open to anyone who can find a place to perform. Here where there's a space problem and just as often a quality problem, I don't care that someone made a first cut. But it added to the canned feeling of the thing.
While I saw "only" 15 festival plays in a week, I'd also sampled the 24-Hour Play Project at P.S. 122 (which produced over 50 new plays in 10 days) and I dropped in on the anarcho-alternative RAT Conference (Raggedy-Ass Theater? RATs don't like to be defined.) In this landscape of frenzied playmaking, I detected, at least, a boomlet.
Certainly that transgressive work born in the performance clubs more than a dozen years ago is gone. And given what's pacing the boards today, it's as if those scabrous Karen Finley monologues (and everything else that supposedly brought down the National Endowment for the Arts) never happened. One night during a Fringe performance of K., the Neo-Futurists' clever adaptation of Kafka's The Trial, I realized that the last time I was in this particular theater in 1988 I saw painter Joe Coleman bite the heads off several white mice and throw their carcasses into the audience. But let me not wax nostalgic.
Now theater is "what the kids are doing," says Aaron Beall, another Fringe organizer and executive director at Todo Con Nada, a venue at the heart of the Ludlow Street scene. "Theater is like a cultural backwater that's been ignored, so it becomes a tidepool, and all of a sudden you have these vibrant new forms springing up." The festival's organizers are given to speaking of Ludlow Street as "the new Montparnasse." But their "big soundbite" is, "Theater's the new rock and roll."
There's fringe and then there's fringe. Most artists use the perimeter to launch themselves centerward. But a few are on the perimeter, falling off trying to fall off.
I first met Nick Fracaro and Gabriele Schafer in 1991 when they were living, by choice, in a tepee they'd set up at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, in the city's oldest shantytown. After about nine months in this camp, the two staged a Heiner Muller play in the tepee. And they did not want media attention.
Schafer and Fracaro knew that once their fragile scene became visible in the media, it would disappear in real life. And I remember thinking that these were artists without a real community. Now they have RATs all over the country, connected by modem.
RAT is a national network of theater folks operating "under the radar, below the market." RAT exists for the sake of the endless conversation on how to survive in the theater. At RAT's invitation, I participated in a roundtable on the press. By the time that convened, the Voice had printed a piece on RAT's origins and internal conflicts [August 19, 1997], the Times had run a story declaring "civil war" between the Fringe Fest and the Ratfest(ation), and Fracaro was saying, time to disappear again.
There is no war (though Fracaro did call the Fringe work "McTheater"). Beall and Clancy went looking for the RATs that Sunday night, good-naturedly carrying a couple of margaritas in McDonalds' cups. When they met, they all agree, "This is silly." They shook hands.
Right now artists are trying to cope with a post-Helmsian world, and while I don't want to belabor their differences I think that the Fringe and the RATs just happen to illustrate the only two options. You can scurry away and hide like the RATs, or you can become art entrepreneurs like the Fringe.
"What has been freeing Downtown is that there is no cash, no money," says Beall. "So the sky's the limit on what we can do." Fringe producing director Elena K. Holy developed the plan for running the festival in the black. Everyone paid $35 to apply, $315 more if they got in, and that pile of money covered all rents, posters, and guidebooks. Then, since artists made $7 out of the $11 ticket, they could make back their $350 by selling a mere 50 tickets over the course of the Festival. None of the organizers made anything, none of the artists made much, and some lost money, but the event itself is paid for, with a bit put away for next year. It's a long way from what RATs are trying to set up: a barter system.
Meanwhile, a mile from the new Montparnasse, was another Fringe project with a completely different energy. By 10 p.m., there must have been 40 people or more at P.S. 122, all preparing to spend the next 24 hours making theater.
Project coordinator Tina Fallon began Polaroiding the actors and told everyone to write their one-line bios. From 11 pm to 6 am, the writers would write. At seven, the directors would come in and read the scripts, at nine they would cast the actors, then everyone would rehearse and learn lines until five tech rehearsal. At eight, the new batch of plays would go up before an audience. And this had been going on for nine days, with no one allowed to appear twice.
The evening I stopped in happened to be Drag Night. I'd arrived in the middle of the last piece, but I could tell it had been great. There's a particular conn3ection audiences made to what they like and that bond is invisible but detectable. As the show ended, the queens and kings took their bow. Here, i realized, was the energy missing from the Ludlow scene an art unconnected to career, theatricality as life, as subversion, even survival. Needless to say, the actors wore their costumes home.