At the 22nd annual New York International Fringe Festival, which is running through the end of October, there are 40 shows in six venues – plus more than 25 shows at The Nuyorican Poet’s Café created by some of the alumni of the 21 previous years of the festival.
To the novice, this might sound overwhelming. To veteran fringe-goers, it’s probably a shock.
Compare this year to the 20th annual New York International Fringe Festival in 2016, when some 75,000 theatergoers attended more than 200 shows in 16 venues over two weeks in August. The shows were selected (“adjudicated” in Fringe lingo) out of double or triple the number of submissions.
None of the shows this year are adjudicated. And there are none in some of my favorite genres.
There are none of the weird and wonderful site-specific experiments that have been a fixture of the festival since the very first one, when I had the pleasure of attending “Louis and David,” which was performed every twenty minutes in its entirety in an Oldsmobile parked on the Lower East Side, with an audience of four in the back seat and the cast of two in the front. Or “When We Were Idiots” at the 18thfestival, when Australian Xavier Toby, dressed as a penguin and carrying a megaphone, offered a walking tour of random landmarks in New York City as if we were visiting the city, newly excavated from under a mound of rubbish, one-hundred years later. Or “Makbet” last year, when an immersive musical version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play took place in a shipping container at a Brooklyn recycling center.
It is even hard to discern whether any of this year’s offerings fit into the genre of campy musicals, which was one of the most popular genres starting in the third year with “Urinetown,” the only Fringe show ever to make it to Broaday, a musical about a city very much like New York, except that a severe water shortage has led to the control of all toilets by a malevolent corporation.
What happened to the New York Fringe? The short answer is: They ran out of money. But it’s more complicated than that.
After the 20tth festival, the Present Theater Company, the producers of the festival, announced a year-long hiatus, to give them time to rethink the festival.
“New York City should have the best Fringe festival in the world — and that’s not what we had,” Elena K. Holy, the co-founder and producing artistic director explained to me a year ago.
The festival came back in 2018, with lots of changes – 100 shows rather than 200, in venues focused in the West Village rather than mostly in the East Village, and, most consequentially, a move from August to October. It was also split into two different approaches. The Fringe shows based in Manhattan were adjudicated, as they had been from the get-go. But there was now a Fringe BYOV (bring your own venue) in the other four boroughs. Anybody could put on a show in venues outside Manhattan, which is the practice established by many of the fringe festivals in the U.S. and throughout the world, including the largest and oldest fringe festival, the one in Edinburgh, Scotland, which has been around since 1947.
In the middle of the 2018 festival, the funding the festival organizers were counting on fell through.
Neither the State Council on the Arts or the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs renewed their regular grants. The Council had given them money annually since the very start, fiscal year 1997– $25,000 for each of the previous three years before fiscal 2019. It is unclear why the spigot ran dry — whether this was a vote of no confidence in the changes to the Fringe, or whether the changes didn’t conform to the requirements for funding, or whether this marked a sudden change in government priorities. That year off probably didn’t help.
Whatever the reason, “we faced a situation where we needed to raise $100,000 by the end of 2018 or face closing entirely,” Holy recounts now.
They were able to raise half that amount, thanks largely to Fringe alumni. “So we’re able to do half the festival – the FringeBYOV part.”
Holy has given a new name for the 2019 FringeBYOV, “in light of the events of the past week” — FringePeachment
“Our indie community is helping keep the Fringe alive – possibly year-round, as we restructure and form the new festival. “
Meanwhile, as in the past, the best way to fringe is still to 1. use the Slice-o-matic on the FringeNYC website, where you can choose by venue, time, ethnicity, genre. And 2. Ask other fringe-goers for recommendations.
It’s much harder to make recommendations in advance when there is no jury you can consult who has read all the submissions. But here are a handful of shows that sound intriguing to me, or at least feel worth mentioning, grouped into two genres that in my past years of fringe-going have resulted in some satisfying experiences.
There are 14 solo shows this year in the festival. In the past, the solo shows have represented the most geographic and ethnic diversity; they’ve also tended to exhibit the most polish.
Oct 5-25, Kraine
Alex Curtis plays a charismatic clown who discovers magic chalk that makes everything he draws come to life. Non-verbal physical comedy in the style of the silent-film era comedians
Oct 4-15, Under St. Marks
Rachel Brill tells her story as a Jewish woman who fell in love with a Palestinian man.
Performance Art and the International Avant-Garde
Always a sparse but rewarding genre at the festival, the two most promising this year are both being presented at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn (the only venue this year outside Manhattan.)
Written by the most celebrated living contemporary Brazilian playwrights, Jô Bilac, and performed by an all-Brazilian cast, this dark comedy dives into a love triangle between a writer, his wife who suffers from short-term memory loss and their eccentric neighbor.
Tech heavy (just take a look at their website), this show promises to bring the Internet on stage: “Become friends, tinder swipes, avatars of yourself in this improvisational performance.”