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How to Navigate the Fringe Festival

Date: Aug 11, 2010


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In any given year, Beth Lincks sees some 150 stage shows in New York: “I see theatre the way other people watch television,” she says. For that reason alone you would think she would not be overwhelmed by the 14th annual  New York International Fringe Festival , the largest theatre festival in North America. 

There are other reasons, too:  Originally an actress, Lincks performed in a collection of her own short plays during the first year of the New York Fringe, 1997, and then her very first full-length play, Last Train to Nibroc, was produced in the second year. It was the first Fringe play ever to move Off-Broadway, and it launched her career (under the pseudonym Arlene Hutton) as a serious playwright.

 Yet even for somebody like Lincks -- who over the years has developed a strategy for selecting the shows she wants to see -- the numbers in the Fringe festival can at first seem intimidating: There are 197 shows from which to choose this year, and only slightly more than two weeks in which to see them, from August 13th to August 29th.  Plus, there will be an estimated 75,000 theatregoers attending the Fringe, all looking for shows worth seeing.

“There's always that feeling that I'm going to miss something wonderful,” says Lincks.

To many theatregoers, the Fringe offers a perverse challenge.  They want to be able to boast of seeing those handful of shows in the festival that become the biggest hits – most famously Urinetown, which wound up on Broadway, running for 965 performances and winning three Tonys. They talk of seeing such performers as Mike Daisey (who wrote and performed 21 Dog Years, about life as an employee), before he became the biggest name on the storytelling circuit, or Mindy Kaling (co-writer and co-star of Matt and Ben, a play that speculated about the supernatural origins of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s stardom), before she herself became a star, in the cast of the TV series The Office

Yet this largely misses the point of the Fringe.

“People who come to FringeCentral ask what’s good,” says Elena Holy, the producing artistic director of the Fringe from the beginning. FringeCentral is the name of the festival’s makeshift headquarters, this year in an empty storefront on Eighth Street off Fifth Avenue. “We think it’s all good. So we ask their interests, their hobbies. There’s something for everybody.”

Some may question whether this is strictly true, but it is surely the right approach. To look only for the handful of shows that will wind up being commercial successes is a self-defeating strategy. These are the very shows that you will be able to see somewhere else.

As a long-time Fringe-goer, what I remember most is a play that could not possibly have moved to another venue, even though it took place in an automobile: Roger and Dave was a ten-minute, two-character play, in which the audience sat (two at a time) in the back seat while the actors in the front played out a scripted and hilarious confrontation. It was delightful, in part because it could only occur in a festival like the Fringe.

What the Fringe offers is a place not just for theatre makers but also for theatregoers to experiment.  This is largely possible because of the relatively cheap ticket prices.

For TDF members, that is doubly true, thanks to TDF’s Off-Off @$9 program. Started a year ago, the program allows TDF members to buy online tickets to Off-OFF Broadway shows for only nine dollars. This year, every show in the Fringe will offer at least one performance through the Off-Off @ $9 program. (That’s half of what it costs to buy a Fringe ticket at the door.)

But how does one choose?

“I really study the booklet,” Lincks says. “I narrow it down to people I know, shows and companies I've heard good things about, and, more often than not, a date, time and venue location that fits in between, with, or after other shows I'm already seeing.” 

This year, she says, she plans to see South Beach Rapture, since it is written by a playwright whose work she admires, David Caudle, and directed by the associate director of Primary Stages. She will see   An Idiot , directed by Eric Nightengale, based on the Dostoevsky novel. Lincks knows his work from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “It will be interesting to see what Eric does with it.” She adds, The Secretaries is written by the Five Lesbian Brothers, and I’m a Lisa Kron fan, so that‘s on my list too.”

She will also try to find at least one musical, one example of “physical theatre,” and one production of Shakespeare. She has even selected one play based on its ad in the booklet, American Gypsy.

And of course, she’s certain to see Running a two-character play that takes place the evening before the New York City Marathon. Lincks wrote the play, making it her latest entry in the Fringe. “The playwright is always the guest at a regional theatre,” she says. “At the Fringe, the playwright is one of the hosts.”

Linck's selections are her own and not necessarily right for everybody. Tomorrow, TDF Stages will explore how to make your own Fringe choices.


Jonathan Mandell covers New York theatre for  The Faster Times  and is on Twitter as  New York Theater

Photo credit: The cast of “Running.” Photo by Scott Wynn.


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