On Saturday afternoon, in the stained-glass gloom of the First Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street, a "theatrical exorcism" was underway.

Members of the Hamilton, N.J.-based Phenomenal Animals stood in front of a bare-bones, hand-painted set and addressed the "congregation." They prepared to cast out demons from a woman who was either possessed, a pyromaniac, or just the victim of malfeasance by villainous oil drillers. Then the plot thickened - to the point of opacity.

This may look a lot like Fringe Festival fare, but that annual theater showcase is still a month away.

This is Fringe/Fringe, a new, monthlong, experimental-theater festival Aug. 8-31. It was conceived by Joshua McLucas, 21, a Swarthmore College senior who thought the 18-year-old Fringe Festival, and even its little sister, the Neighborhood Fringe, were just too mainstream, too big, and too expensive for his fledgling [redacted] Theater Company.

"To participate in the Fringe Festival, it's about $300 for registration - and it's money that we just didn't have," McLucas said. "The last thing we wanted was to go into the red on our first performance."

Total inclusion

Other members of the theater company participated in the Neighborhood Fringe last year, but audiences were small and consisted mostly of people they knew personally. "Essentially the return on investment of the Fringe registration and purchasing an ad in the guide was zero to negative," he said.

So, just before the Fringe sign-up deadline in June, McLucas and his friends concocted a plan for an alternative festival. He built a simple website, FringeFringe.com, and combed last year's festival catalog for lesser-known names who might want to join him. His pitch was simple: total inclusiveness. There is no fee for performers, and all shows are pay-what-you-can.

Four companies - some brand new, others more seasoned - signed on.

Performances will include a multimedia "living gallery" from a Philadelphia theater collective called the Playground Project, and a theater piece meditating on responses to female artists by a women-only company, She Is a Problem.

McLucas' troupe will host a "sleepover play," which includes a three-course meal and a couch to crash on in an apartment in West Philadelphia.

'Awesome option'

Devin Arroyo, associate director of the Phenomenal Animals, said the company had performed at festivals in Scotland, England, Canada, and the United States. But fees, travel expenses, and production costs add up. For out-of-town performers, breaking even is considered a win.

"It's an awesome option to have a slightly smaller festival for people who might not be noticed in the much larger Fringe market," she said.

Getting noticed even outside Fringe can be challenging, though.

A quick poll of audience members Saturday afternoon indicated a mostly captive crowd. Many were parents of cast members, dutifully seeing the show for the second or third time. Three teenage boys sitting off to one side were on a mandatory outing from VisionQuest's Community Sanctions program for juvenile delinquents.

The official Fringe Festival will run from Sept. 5 to 21 and include more than 130 performances.

It's the first year in new headquarters for festival organizer Fringe Arts, which has shifted much of its focus to bringing internationally renowned artists to Philadelphia.

Fringe Arts president Nick Stuccio said the organization does offer discounts on its registration fee, which is $350. But he welcomes the Fringe/Fringe.

"This is about the sixth time that people have said, 'I'm the fringe of the Fringe,' " he said. "I think the energy is what's great. Artists need something to rub against. They need tension. If they're being pushed out, edged out, priced out - that's good. I'm happy to provide that tension."

McLucas sees Fringe/Fringe not as competition to the established festival, but as a talent incubator.

"I envision it as being the bottom rung of a ladder," he said, "where you can do the Fringe/Fringe when you're first starting out, and it costs you nothing, or very little."