Miss me? Sorry to disappear last week, but the perfect storm that was the 17th Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival blew my regular musings right off the map. Attending more than two dozen different shows (some more than once) in just over a week, while at the same time producing a show of my own and still managing to show up for my day job – let’s just say it ain’t for the fainthearted. Next week we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled pop-culture programming, but I think the longest-running festival of its kind in America deserves a few more words.
I come here not to bury Fringe, but to praise it: I’m a longtime fan of, and participant in, the festival and am proud to make a significant annual donation to it (via the beer tent). But I’m also a nitpicking nudge, as my girlfriend, a Fringe employee, will wearily attest. So along with the compliments I have a few constructive kvetches – and I’ll skip the standard screed about painful parking and reduced Orlando Rep participation.
Shows: First and foremost, I saw many more good shows than bad this year. (You can read full reviews on the Culture to Go blog: www.orlandoweekly.com/blog/c2g.asp). My favorites included The Cody Rivers Show, Diamond: A Neil Diamond Tribute, Flamenco con Fusion 08, Reefer Madness the Musical, Skip Peril and the Players of the Lost Trunk and Robinson Crusoe – All Washed Up (I think). But with 70-plus shows on the schedule, it’s near impossible to even scratch the surface. (Adrianne Blattner Patron Award–winner David Horgan somehow saw 58, but I don’t know how.) The show I most missed squeezing into was Power to Pleasing: The Sex Life of Teenage Girls, held in the women’s restroom, occupancy 14.
Beer lawn: The grassy expanse between the Shakes and the Rep – I just can’t call it the “Green Lawn of Fabulousness” – expanded exponentially this year. I loved the variety of food available; Elite’s soul food was as delicious as ever (and expensive!), but the gyros, Thai curry and Che Bella cheese gave them a run for their rice and beans. Sadly, the size of the area sidelined socializing; I’d restructure the layout with vendors grouped in a food court and a more intimate centralized seating section. Add table umbrellas, ashtrays, hand-sanitation stations and a mist tent, and I’ll spend a lot more time (and money) out there.
Visual Fringe: Kudos to curator Anna McCambridge and the participating artists, who bested last year’s record with 34 pieces sold. (I just wish TJ Dawe’s Rube Goldbergian sketches had been for sale.)
Admissions: Fringe has evolved a long way from the old “cash in a cigar box” days, and with progress comes policies. But the regulations regarding admissions need revising for sanity’s sake. The 10 percent holdout of seats for performers’ comps, Superpass holders and volunteers who earned Fringebucks worked in the past, but it breaks down when comp lists are filled with fictitious “friends” like “Dave” – code words in an unofficial artist ticket-exchange scheme that inadvertently undermined the spirit of the comp system. In the future, unsold seats should never be left empty, but should be filled with Superpassers, Fringebuckers and (if the group opts in to an exchange) fellow artists, whether or not the comp list is full. And once the doors close, be humane about allowing (at the performer’s option) late entry in the first five minutes: There’s nothing worse as an artist than being told a close friend (or critic) was locked out of your show by mere seconds, as happened more than once this year.
Lottery: The Fringe format is proudly 100 percent uncensored and unjuried, and I wouldn’t want shows screened for content before inclusion. But the current lottery system already gives preference to national and international groups based on geography. Why can’t it also give a leg up to groups that, by objective measure, have paid their Orlando Fringe dues? I would seed veterans, particularly past sold-out and Patron’s Pick awardees, by giving them an edge (not a guarantee). When proven producers like Margaret Nolan, Women Playwright’s Initiative and David Lee are shut out, it’s bad for the festival as a whole. For balance, the outdoor Red Venue should be reserved as a low-cost location for Fringe freshmen: It’s unsuitable for more experienced producers, and in the daytime you’d have to be the proud parent of a young performer to persevere, but it’s the ideal place for first-timers.
Waste: Fringe generates tons of trash, and while recycling sounds simple, it’s neither cheap nor effective compared to cutting back on the crap. All artists should declare cease-fire in the flier fight and restrict handbills to centralized brochure boards. The official program wouldn’t become refuse as often if it were more readable – replace the text-heavy schedule with a TV Guide–style grid, visualizing show lengths and distances between venues for easier planning. Rebuild the website into one that is reliable, informative and able to sell tickets without jumping through hoops; then provide Wi-Fi (and a few cheap PCs) for people to surf it. And sell me a refillable beer mug so I can quit killing plastic cups.
Fringe folks: Beth Marshall might be the face of Fringe, but her staff is the heart of the festival, and the volunteers (coordinated by George Wallace) are the lungs, kidneys and various other sweetbreads. They toil long hours for little to no reward, so when you see one (know them by their haunted, sleepless gaze) say, “Thank you for helping art live in Orlando!”firstname.lastname@example.org