How do you choose from 200 shows in two weeks (this year, August 12 to 28)? Practice.
True, it can feel overwhelming to be one of 75,000 theatergoers attending the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival, all looking for shows worth seeing. Here are the logos of just 60 of the shows in this 20th anniversary year, arranged more or less alphabetically:
I’ve written about the Fringe every year since it began in 1997; many years, this has included preview guides or general advice about how to Fringe.
One thing that’s changed: For the past dozen years, some of the pressure is off of each of us to avoid missing the shows that wind up being the biggest hits. Each year, some two dozen of the most popular Fringe shows have been presented again a few weeks later at the Fringe Encore Series.
Besides, Fringing is not necessarily about finding the next “Urinetown” (the only Fringe show ever to transfer to Broadway.) One of the shows I remember most vividly 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 theater makers but also for theatergoers to experiment. This is largely possible because of the relatively cheap ticket prices. (and, this year, I’m offering a contest – which ends today! – for a FREE pass to ALL the shows.)
With that in mind:
1. Get a Free Sample
One good way this year to get a taste of the Fringe is to attend the East 4th Street block fair on Saturday, August 13th, and check out the FringeNYTeasers – short excerpts of many of the shows. I did this last year on the roof of a building on the Lower East Side, and the smorgasbord felt as satisfying in its way as any of the full meals.
2. Ask On Line
While you are waiting on line for a show, it is always a good idea to ask the people around you what they have seen. (And you will always be waiting on line for a how: the Fringe people insist you show up at least 15 minutes before the performance.) This year, there is more opportunity for such conversations, because each show will be followed by something they are calling FringePlus Meetup, which is a chance to talk to the artists and so-called Fringe Ambassadors as well. Talking about the theater with fellow Fringers is one of the pleasures of the festival.
3. Ask Online
Use the Slice-o-matic on the FringeNYC website. You can choose by venue, time, ethnicity, genre. One year, I picked only shows having to do with food; another year, just shows in theaters closest to where I live. (Neither wound up my favorite years.)
Time Out NY and newcomer Show Score both commit to covering every show – Show Score is allowing theatergoers themselves to weigh in. I will write some reviews too on this blog.
A word about recommendations in advance: Show-Score has aggregated “best bets” from six publications, and added their own definitive-sounding two cents to shows nobody has seen at the Fringe yet. These previews are most useful when pointing to shows that have a track record elsewhere. But keep in mind that audiences in the theater capital of the nation may not respond in the same way as audiences have in other cities.
There’s no adequate substitute for plowing through the whole catalogue (online or on paper) yourself. In this way, you can pick up on interesting themes not necessarily evident through the Slice-o-matic or the “must-see” previews. I notice that this year, for example, there are several biographies of black men – Stokely Carmichael, Richard Pryor, W.E.B. DuBois
4. Follow Your Bliss
The best bet is to go with your interests and curiosities. As I noted in a HowlRound piece on the Fringe in 2014, Fringe shows tend to fall into one (or more) of seven genres:
1. “Urinetown”-Inspired (campy parodies. This is how people tend to view the entire Fringe, although the organizers like to point out this genre makes up only about a third of the offerings.)
2. Non-Traditional Venues (such as that automobile.)
3. Solo Ventures (These tend to be the most polished, since it’s the most competitive category.)
4. Serious Drama (This was the category in which you were most likely to be burned in the past, but, as I noticed last year,the serious has stepped up and this is even more true this year.)
5. Fresh out of college (University student groups have offered some of the best shows I’ve seen at the Fringe.)
6. New takes on classics
7. Performance Art and the International Avant-Garde. (These are not as numerous as in other festivals, such as the Public Theater’s Under theRadar; ten Fringe shows list themselves in this genre this year.)
5. Follow Your Favorites; Support Your Friends.
Beth Lincks writes under the pseudonym Arlene Hutton. Her very first full-length play, Last Train to Nibroc, was produced in the second year of the Fringe – and around the world ever since. “I owe my career to the Fringe,” she said at this year’s press preview, in introducing the show she co-wrote this year, The Gorges Motel.
“I really study the booklet,” Lincks told me in 2010. “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.”
Notice what criterion she puts first. The truth is, most times when I’ve asked somebody on line why they’ve chosen this particular show, it was because they knew somebody who worked on it. (That’s one of the advantages of living in New York.) Now, this doesn’t mean the shows will be any good, but it does render their quality a little less important.