With the opening of 2012's Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, the longest-running fringe festival in the United States, comes plenty of change – new producer, new board, new website and marketing techniques. Along with all the change comes something that isn't new at all – the yearly whispers around town that the Orlando Fringe itself isn't “fringey” at all. Is Fringe Fest going mainstream?
Michael Marinaccio, in his first year as festival producer, says no. “Fringe will maintain our CAFF [Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals]-mandated mission statement to be unjuried and uncensored, with 100 percent of the money going back to the artist. Forever. That is never going to change as far as Fringe is concerned,” he says.
New board members, like board president David Baldree, a producer at Disney Cruise Line Entertainment, aren't hindering Fringe's mission – they're helping to further it. Marinaccio says Baldree “definitely has those corporate connections” but also “is a huge fan of the Fringe and a huge proponent of our mission statement: He's the best of both worlds.”
“My first day on the job I received the greatest gift ever,” Marinaccio says. “[Board member] Kevin Banks had gotten us Clear Channel as a presenting sponsor – and that's what led to us doing this extensive billboard campaign. The board of directors is really starting to become more of a fundraising board. … The more sponsorships we can bring in, the better.”
The idea of “fringe” goes back to 1947, when a group of artists decided to run a festival alongside Scotland's Edinburgh International Festival so that plays and performances considered too controversial or risqué for the established theater festival could be staged. Thus the generally recognized definition of “fringe” was born – works either of new material or new approach that, owing to their content, message or style, would not otherwise have access to an audience.
For many, fringe in Orlando has taken on a new meaning with the two-decade evolution of the festival itself. Says Adam McCabe, Fringe's marketing and creative designer (whose “WTF” viral campaign graced those billboards), “If there are certain people that want to feel it's not real fringe, then they're right. And if there are other people who say that it is real fringe, then they're right also. The entire thing we're promoting this year is that fringe is exactly what one makes it as a whole. ‘Fringe' has become more than a word defining edgy theater; we want to use it to celebrate arts and entertainment themselves.”
Nowhere does this year's lineup in Orlando show the full gamut of this ever-evolving notion of fringe than the Orange Venue, which will play host to eight shows, from the family-friendly Kirikou and the Sorceress to the drama Mysterious Skin (which might come closer to the challenging nature of a “true fringe” show).
To Marinaccio, though, this diversity shows strength, not weakness. “The beauty of Fringe is that as a patron you'll be able to see anything that you like: If you prefer to see a published piece that you know, I think that's a great avenue into Fringe,” he says. “People will come to see a show and will be more likely to take another chance on another show.”
“There's something for everything in Orange Venue,” says Jeremy Seghers, who will be directing Mysterious Skin. “'Dog-Powered Robot,' which is a spectacle all it's own, family friendly and bright and colorful and wonderful, a wonderful dance show ... it's a great representation of the Festival."
Seghers is no stranger to the Orlando Fringe. After serving as assistant to previous festival producer Beth Marshall from 2005 to 2007, he has produced or directed more than a half-dozen shows in the past five Fringe Festivals. In 2011 Seghers decided he wanted to bring Mysterious Skin to the festival and a year in advance, alongside his producer, James Brendlinger, began assembling his cast and crew.
Originally a novel by Scott Heim published in 1996, and subsequently adapted for the stage in 2003 by Prince Gomolvilas and for film in 2004 by Gregg Araki, Mysterious Skin tells the story of the effects of childhood molestation on two boys, Neil and Brian. Though the play is nearly a decade old, this year's production in Orlando will mark its East Coast premiere. Seghers says Gomolvilas approached theater companies in New York and in Boston after the show ran in California – “theater companies that he considered edgy and progressive, and they all turned it down.”
Marinaccio is excited by the prospect of producing a festival where shows from both ends of the fringe spectrum can run in the same theater; to him, it only opens eyes to possibilities. “I'd like to see more of the general public at large come to Fringe and be less intimidated,” Marinaccio says. “Our uncensored nature has led to us receiving press for only what is considered the most subversive material. People see Fringe as a subversive element, and that's part of what we are, but that's not all we are. We have the best dance, the best drama, the best storytelling.”
An express goal of both McCabe and Marinaccio in constructing the environment for this year's Festival was to create and rejoice in a sense of mutually supportive community. “I wanted this year's theme to feel like a big ‘thank you' to everyone in the Orlando theater community,” McCabe says. “We [the Fringe staff] want it to be a celebration.”
In that capacity Fringe seems to be succeeding. “There's been a lot of coming together of people,” says Anthony Pyatt Jr., one of the two male leads in Mysterious Skin, “and a lot of unhindered support between groups of different casts and production.” Pyatt, 18 and a second-time performer at Fringe, was drawn to Fringe as a chance to learn. “It's the opportunity to become a part of something bigger, and to see people who are already integrated into the theater community expressing an open-arms welcome to emerging actors. Being able to step on the same playing field as well-regarded talent and new talent is a thrill.”
That community, Seghers says, is more than just actors, directors and producers: “Adam McCabe, the marketing director for Fringe – it's great that his billboards are up there alongside Orlando Magic advertisements and the like. It's wonderful exposure for this young, independent artist and graphic designer. And if he can do that and help the Fringe, that's wonderful.”
“Fringe is the most eclectic offering of live entertainment to be found anywhere,” concludes Marinaccio. “Fringe is the best avenue for unfiltered, creative expression. … We are unjuried, uncensored and do not control any of [a show's] content; that makes Fringe a very special event.” McCabe offers his own take on an effective approach to the Festival: “You've got to go to the festival with blinders on; just close your eyes, stretch out your hands and walk into the next theater you come upon.”
Close your eyes, stretch out your hands and see what you encounter – a good axiom for the Fringe Festival. A good axiom, perhaps, for life as well.
Editor's note: The original version of this story contained inaccurate information. Little Shop of Horrors will be playing in the Silver Venue; Jeremy Seghers was misquoted as saying that the show would play in the Orange Venue. We have removed the inaccurate portion of his quote. We regret the error.