After fourteen days, hundreds of performances, and countless thousands of beers, the 22nd Annual Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival finally came to a close last night. My brain, butt, and liver are exhausted after this epic entertainment marathon, but I have just enough neurons left to share a few final thoughts on Orlando's largest-ever Fringe.
With 101 different ticketed productions, there was a wealth of wonderful experiences to be found at the 2013 Fringe. I was honored to participate (along with Steve Schneider and Matt Palm) in Fringe's first-ever "Critics' Choice Awards," organized by retired Orlando Sentinel critic Elizabeth Maupin. The big winner, and my personal pick for best show of the festival, was Wonderhead's Loon, a heartstring-tugging fable told through masterful mime and mask work. The complete slate of awards were as follows:
Best show: Loon, Wonderheads
Best original work: Loon, Wonderheads
Best solo show: Little Pussy, John Grady
Best comedy: God Is a Scottish Drag Queen, Mike Delamont
Best drama: Brutal Imagination, Project Spotlight
Best musical: 6 Guitars, Chase Padgett Productions
Best variety show: Mr. Robb Goes to the Fringe, This and That Productions
Best dance production: Misa Flamenca, Flamenco Del Sol Dance Company
Best female performance: Kate Braidwood, Loon
Best male performance: Robert Wright, Brutal Imagination
I was very pleased with all the awarded productions, which include many of my favorites from the 50 shows I saw this year (a personal record, but still only half of the presented plays). Other stellar shows on my short list included (in no particular order) The Pussy Riot Sister, Key of E, The Dark Fantastic, Ain't True and Uncle False, The Boxer, and Magical Mystery Detour.
This year I reviewed 22 shows by the end of the Festival's first weekend, but a family emergency prevented me from writing as many as I hoped. The show I most wished I had been able to review was Kurt Fitzpatrick's solo show Cathedral City, which deftly blended memories of his agonizing back injury with tantalizing tangents about urban legends, Schroedeger's cat, and the craptastic film Creepshow 2, into a funny and thoughtful meditation on mortality.
Seeing shows aside, eating and drinking are the main attractions at Fringe. The big addition to the Loch Haven lawn was a full-liquor bar sponsored by Stonewall Tavern, but theme-park-style prices kept me drinking Stella at the beer tent. My favorite fried frog legs from Pete's Roadhouse Grill were back, but my new go-to snack became the savory pork skewers served by the scantily-clad Babes of BBQ. Food trucks were advertised as appearing for the first time at the new Visual Fringe venue, but my biggest dining disappointment for the Festival was finding that Monsta Lobsta pulled up stakes an hour before their scheduled departure, citing slower-than-expected sales.
While I like deep-fried fat and sugar as much as the next guy, and really appreciated the presence of Spork's vegetarian offerings, for the sake of us hard-core festival-goers I'm begging Fringe to find more heathy and affordable options. At a minimum, Fringe themselves should sell small snacks -- cut veggies, fresh fruit, energy bars, cups of soup -- for a nominal fee.
The Fringe Festival took a big leap forward by ditching their old ticketing company and taking on a new high-tech system using iPod-based scanners that greatly speeded show entry. And the Fringe's website is now much more aesthetically pleasing than it was a couple years ago, though there are still usability issues to address with the somewhat-confusing site structure.
Next year, I'd like to Fringe to finally render their mostly-illegible printed program obsolete by building a native smartphone app (iOS and Android) that integrates the show schedule with a virtual wallet for tickets and social media functions. The website is frustrating to navigate on a small screen, and it would help build community to have a dedicated app instead of an ad hoc hodgepodge of Facebook/Twitter/Foursquare/etc.
While final numbers aren't yet available, the 2013 Festival returned over $250,000 to artists and raised a $20,000 endowment (thanks to a matching grant challenge from Barry Miller), so they must be doing something right to get the word out. Clear Channel stepped up again with eye-catching Fringe billboards across the region, and Ivanhoe Village and Mills 50 made great strides in involving their respective neighborhoods.
But with the Fringe now expanded to new venues on Orange and Virginia Avenues, crowds were sometimes inconsistently distributed, with the Visual Fringe's new warehouse gallery frequently feeling under-attended. In order for Fringe to fulfill the promise of their new footprint, the festival needs a dedicated professional marketing maven to improve the clarity and consistency of Fringe's communications (inaccuracies and omissions plagued many of this year's marketing materials) and widen its message's reach beyond Orlando's core theatre-going consumers.
Fringe will return next May, but Festival-sponsored events will pop up throughout the year, and applications for the next edition will be available in September. Until then, I'll be taking a much-needed nap...