Sixteen years ago, Elena K. Holy had a dilemma. Her young theater company had drawn some recognition for its production of Brian Parks’ Americana Absurdum — so much so that supporters were urging her to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The problem was, the troupe couldn’t afford the trip.
Then came the brainstorm that’s now known as “the Great Head Thunker.”
“We quickly realized we didn’t have the money to get to Scotland,” Holy said. “Then, suddenly we thought, ‘Wait a minute! Why not do a festival in New York?” With that realization, the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC) was born.
Starting as a door-to-door campaign collecting signatures and donations, it has grown into a mainstay not only in this city, but in North America. It has become the largest multi-arts festival on the continent, backed by more than $1 million. From Aug. 10 to Aug. 26, FringeNYC hosts a whopping 1,200 performances by 200 companies spanning 20 downtown venues, all for just $15 per show.
FringeNYC is all about showcasing its “scrappy downtown personality.” This year, organizers are excited to present Fringe Al Fresco with the help of two partnerships: one with Fourth Arts Block, an organization dedicated to creating a cultural district on East 4th Street; and another with the city transportation department’s Summer Streets program, which blocks off streets for pedestrians to enjoy artistic and cultural events.
The Al Fresco street festival will offer play “teasers” that will “do for shows what trailers do for movies,” only live, while restaurants on the streets will offer table service. “Think of it like a huge block party,” said Holy, FringeNYC’s co-founder and producing artistic director.
The festival showcases pieces that run from the weird to the wonderful. In past years, it’s helped shows such as Tales from the Tunnel and Silence! The Musical! go on to Off-Broadway triumphs. Others, such as Debbie Does Dallas, and perhaps the best known of all, Urinetown, have made it all the way to successful runs on Broadway.
Jonny Savage, a British tourist visiting New York City for the first time to see the festival, loves to take a chance on fringe theater. It’s “more exciting to be here while there’s an event like this going on,” Savage said. “You get a real feel for the area and its cultural vibe.”
His boyfriend, Greg Davies, added: “It’s an inspiration to me as an artist trying to make it. I’m excited to see new theater in a city so famous for it.”
In deciding what shows to see, Savage said,“You go and see stuff that you wouldn’t think about going to see otherwise. You get a chance to find new things.”
With sharply rising prices throughout Manhattan, though, it’s becoming more and more difficult to produce new and independent theater. Troubles range from venues closing due to lack of funding to artists choosing to live in cheaper cities to avoid unreasonable rent.
In spite of all this, “New York is still a creative destination, and we want to help keep it that way.” said Holy. Since the beginning, Holy and her crew have tried to “provide the infrastructure and support to fledgling artists to make indie theater happen.”
“We’ve really tried to stay true to our roots and we’re really proud of that,” Holy said. Venues such as The Kraine Theater on East 4th Street and The Studio at Cherry Lane have become staples, with the often sold-out Fringe Fest performances there helping pay the rent for another year. That support base is crucial, Holy said.
“If I can say one thing,” said Holy, “it would be ‘thanks!’ to the Lower East Side, East Village and West Village, too. Thanks because we feel so embraced by downtown and we feel like [you’re] proud of us and we’re just so grateful.”
The 16h New York International Fringe Festival kicks off tomorrow in various downtown venues and runs through August 26th. For more info on locations, times and tickets, visit their site here.
Giacinta Frisillo is a teacher, writer, and visual artist. She works and lives on the Lower East Side with her cat and constant companion, Chairman Miao.