The Fringe Festival has always been about artists producing work they otherwise couldn't, and audiences seeing shows they normally wouldn't.
With rising ticket prices, and a seemingly increased focus on their curated, high-price-point Presented festival, the measures that FringeArts takes to nurture that dynamic are rarely noted. Indeed, it has recently been negatively compared with the SoLow Fest, Philly's DIY festival-that-could that charges no fees and restricts ticket costs to pay-what-you-can.
But despite fees that may seem restrictive, emerging artists flood the pages of the FringeArts Guide every year. According to Katrina Atkin, one of three collaborators in foundling dance group AKA Performance, FringeArts is simply the best way to get a show off the ground.
"We had never put on a show before," says Katrina, "so we thought that FringeArts would kind of walk us through it, and they have."
FringeArts holds a variety of workshops and offers downloadable tips and guidelines for everything from how to make a press photo to how to negotiate a venue contract. Artists must get insurance — a vital production lesson — and are guided towards producing extra marketing photos, videos, and copy. If artists provide materials, FringeArts builds them a press page.
"The hope," says Tara Demmy, FringeArts programming manager, "is that through the steps online, our marketing tools and the documents we provide, that we are actually teaching them how to produce a show."
"I feel like, in a way, I'm still in school," says Atkin. "I'm paying to learn."
Demmy points out that the $350 participation fee, which is up $50 from last year, has helped raise the services artists receive. Artists universally receive an image in the Festival Guide and a sandwich board to put outside their venue during their show, both items which once cost an extra $50. They also get $5 rush tickets for any Fringe show, enabling artists to see one-another's work. "Each year," she says "we're trying to find the best way because you need a lot of support and a lot of focus for 136 companies. This way, all the artists are on the same level."
Atkin and her collaborators received a discount as students and recent graduates; they paid only $300. They also had to buy insurance, though, and they took out an additional ad in the Guide, which FringeArts suggested. All of that is out-of-pocket, and they can't necessarily expect to make the money back.
AKA is not unique in this. Lauren Rile Smith, the founder of interdisciplinary circus company Tangle Movement Arts, cites a similar experience with their first Fringe show in 2011.
"No one in Tangle had ever produced a show," says Smith. "We had this vision, and the Fringe provided a structure that made it possible."
hat first year, says Lauren, "I went in prepared to lose money. Actually we were quite successful, and we've managed to continue to build our audience and build on our success." Tangle is now producing their third show with FringeArts, Break/Drift/Resist.
Festivals provide a shelter under which to create art with a bit of security and, perhaps most importantly, an established audience to try and draw from. In the case of FringeArts, an internationally renowned festival that draws some of the world's most compelling work, it also provides a respectable listing on curriculum vitae.
For established theater companies with a higher bankroll and expenses, the question of performing in FringeArts is often one of development. Will they be able to add names to their email lists? But nurturing the Fringe culture is not a one-sided effort, and I was surprised to find that many companies also question whether their shows will contribute to the Fringe culture.
EgoPo Classic Theatre is producing in FringeArts for the first time in three years. "I didn't want to use the Fringe just for publicity's sake," says artistic director Lane Savadove. "I want to be in the Fringe when we feel like we're a really good addition to the Fringe."
"And this idea of doing a one-girl version of A Doll's House," says Lane, referring to their contribution to 2013 FringeArts, "with a 14-year-old actress, feels like a really nice fringe-y fit. And it's in a less-expensive theater space, it's got one actress, so it's cheaper."
The consensus generally seems to be that a Fringe show should be both edgy and cheap.
Not only do companies need to offset fees somewhere but, for audiences members, price is a key element in preserving the nature of the fringe. It's fun to see five shows when tickets cost $10; when they're $15-$25, or $39 like the Presented Fringe shows, taking risks and seeing new work becomes increasingly difficult.
Theatre Exile, another long-time contributor to the fest, decided not to produce in Fringe this year. Instead, they are lending their South Philly space to the duo of Aaron Cromie and Mary Tuomanen, who are re-creating the life and times of Joan of Arc out of a pair of suitcases. "It's an ideal Fringe show," says Cromie. "It can be loaded in and loaded out in minutes."
"FringeArts is a wonderful entity in Philadelphia," says Deborah Block, artistic director of Exile and previously a founding executive of the Fringe. "I would be surprised if it was not pricing someone out of the market, but that's why other entities evolve."
FringeArts asserts that they could not make participation fees any cheaper. The claim is supported by the fact that their fees are better than competitive; the Neighborhood Festival is at least as affordable as any major, unjuried festival around.
The existence of multiple festivals in Philly is a testament to a wide range of needs. Just like FringeArts, SoLow is not the venue for every performer; tickets are set at pay-what-you-can $5-$10, so any company with bills to pay—designers, rent, costumes, multiple actors, or groceries—is unlikely to come up with the show that fits.
And SoLow fills a need that FringeArts cannot. They not only create a forum for the extremely underfunded artists, they also manufacture a uniquely safe space which encourages both artists and audiences to take risks on boundary-breaking theater.
Though its structure is by no means perfect or infinitely sustainable. The three administrators stretch themselves thin during festival time while receiving absolutely no paycheck for their efforts; all their work is volunteer. With the likelihood that SoLow will grow over coming years, they are faced with the question of how they will continue to run it while also keeping it cheap for audiences and free and supportive to performers.
"It would be almost unreasonable to expect that any of our organizations wouldn't evolve in some way," says Block. Adaptation is the only option for any functioning artistic organization, whether a 152-show juggernaut like FringeArts is this year or SoLow, which started four years ago with just five artists.