A Handful of Fringe: Looking Back on NOLA’s Most Eccentric Theatre Fest

Published  November 2012

Five years ago, scattered sparks were woven together by a community of dedicated performers and arts enthusiasts to form what has become one of New Orleans’ most popular festivals, Fringe Fest. Held yearly, Fringe has grown into a rich tapestry of events, bringing together performances ranging from puppetry, dance and opera to circus and so much more. Stitch in some yard art, a parade, a “free-forall” tent, after-parties and you have the fun, fearless and affordable New Orleans Fringe Fest, which in just half a decade has become one of the most desirable Fringes across the country in which to perform. This year’s Fringe Festival presents 72 different shows over 5 days for only $8 per show. Everyone has their place in Fringe’s wild, weird, wacky design. ANTIGRAVITY has covered the Fest since its beginning, with a preview look in 2008. 5 years later, I sat once again with Kristen Evans, Executive Director and Damon Rosenzweig, Development Coordinator, to talk about Fringe then and now.

Kristen, you and I met 5 years ago to talk about Fringe Fest, when it was still an idea just about to explode. You didn’t really know what to expect but it has turned out from that first year and every year since to be wildly successful. What are some of the changes in these past years that you didn’t expect when first starting out?
Kristen Evans: The flipside to that is what hasn’t changed. We started as a scrappy grassroots community effort and we are still that at our heart. It was an idea, pulled together by the seat of our pants, not really knowing what we were doing. But with passion and a lot of folks from the community jumping in to make it happen, we have built something that has staying power but hasn’t lost its flavor, that original spirit. We recently did a strategic planning meeting with the 4 core organizers: myself, Damon, Emilie Whelan and Phil Cramer. We’ve had four great years— what do we do now? Do we become an arts institution with overhead and full-time staff and an office, those things that organizations seem to move towards inevitably? We made a decision that no, that’s not right for us nor is it very smart. We’ve been agile. Where a lot of other arts institutions in New Orleans are struggling or closing doors, we are growing. We can’t forget that and we must retain what made that work, the spirit that keeps people giving and making the whole thing happen.

As you mentioned, there have been so many changes in the theatre and performing arts world in New Orleans over the past 5 years. What are you doing differently that has kept you going stronger and bigger each year?
KE: There are actually a lot of groups and venues thriving. What you are seeing is a shift. This is not an environment where there is much government funding. You have to pay your own way and generate earned income. There is so much going on here and people producing so much great and weird work. They are doing it all over the place, with a tremendous amount of energy and creativity of a type and variety that didn’t exist before.
Damon Rosenzweig: Fringe is truly artistcentered. More institutional theatres are driven by a curator or driven by the market or a perception of the market. Over the years, we’ve sculpted Fringe to be even more artist-driven. To be in a Fringe-managed venue, you go through an application process and it is driven by 16 peer reviewers from the performance community. We rely on the community itself, the reviewers switch in and out. [Laughs] Most have applied and been rejected in the past! We receive 150 applications for 24 slots. It is your peers who are saying, “This is something New Orleans should see.”

The number of applications has grown enormously from Fringe’s first year. Have you seen a change in the types of shows that are applying?
KE: We’ve gotten a reputation as the fringiest of the Fringes. What sometimes happens in Fringes is there are a lot of one-person solo shows because those are easiest to do. We recognized early on there are some really great solo shows but how can we encourage ensembles, dance troupes, people being really innovative where they see the format as not a constraint but actually a platform for them to experiment and do unusual stuff? We are really fortunate to see the work not only get better and also more sophisticated but not out of reach.
DR: People want to come to New OrleansFringe because we have very appreciative audiences. We are artist-centered but the artists know their audiences. The audiences here have no problem being vocal and cheering and the performers love that.
KE: We also have no problem with dark, intellectual theatre either. A lot of Fringes are all musical comedy. There is some great musical comedy out there – we had Zombies Actually… An Undead Musical last year – but even that was still zombies. DR: We went to a conference and were on a panel with Fringe organizers from other cities. We were asked by a performer what kinds of shows to submit. We were at the end of this row of panelists. The first speaker said, “Oh musical comedy is what sells and what people like. They like [it] light-hearted, nothing heavy or intellectual, everything upbeat.” And I, on the other end of the panel said, “In New Orleans, we like heavy, dark intellectual art. And then we will have a party with you after. How does that sound?”

There is an application process to be one of the Fringe-managed venues but what about BYOV (Bring Your Own Venue)?
DR: We have this completely wide-open mechanism of BYOV. Originally it was envisioned for shows that were one-offs or needed to be at a particular location and particularly prepared; but I started pushing for it to be broader, an alternative to the Fringe venues. It has ballooned from a handful to this year’s 45 BYOVs. It is building a huge capacity for dozens of New Orleans performing groups to be able to successfully self-produce their own work. Groups who choose to do a BYOV learn the whole process, all the organization and coordination that it takes, how to attract audience, how to follow through. BYOV groups learn whole new skill sets and immediately put those skills to use for Fringe and then after the festival. They can apply those skills to take their shows on the road or in producing a re-mount or another show at a different time of year. Also, because a sizable portion of each year’s BYOVs are out-of-town groups, those out-oftown BYOVs get a full-on immersion in how to successfully bring their shows to New Orleans. We feel like that opens the door wider for benefits to New Orleans audiences.

Fringe gets bigger every year, not just in number of shows but in types of events. Yard Art is something I was really excited to see last year.
DR: Yard Art is another manifestation of being wide-open and accessible. You put something out where people can see it from the sidewalk and you want to call it art; we will call it art, too and we will put you on the Fringe Fest map. We’ve got Michalopoulos with the sculpture garden to people who never thought of themselves as artists but someone said, you really should register for this. Last year, we ended up with 38 people registered right in the neighborhood. This year, Heather Byrdie made a specific effort to talk to the galleries on St. Claude and tell them, this is yard art, this is outside, this is not just another gallery hop or studio crawl. You put your art on your porch, on your roof, hanging off the tree. You project out of your window rather than trying to get people to look in. A lot of visual artists are involved with theatre, the co-mingling is wonderful.

When we first talked 5 years ago, you weren’t really sure where your audiences would be coming from, if they would be just from New Orleans or also regionally or even nationally. What have you discovered since then?
DR: We got a BP Tourism Recovery grant. We used it for a program we called FAR: funding audiences regionally. The premise was really simple. We underwrote tickets for about two dozen performers in the festival. We told them to contact people you know in the area outside New Orleans, regionally; it doesn’t matter who they are. If you give them tickets, will they come for a night of free theatre? And they did. 158 tickets used that way.
KE: And tickets are still really cheap. In the first year they were $7; last year and this year they are $8. You buy a ticket and you can use it at any show. We want to keep it flexible. Sometimes shows sell out but if it does, you can go right across the street to see something else. Because the tickets are so inexpensive, the audiences can just go and experiment. We have two versions of Shakespeare, two original operas, Indonesian shadow puppetry. Also, if you volunteer a shift, you get to see a show for free. We now have an audience development access program which Fringe underwrites and provides tickets to Lazarus House, R.U.B.A.R.B. Community Bikeshop, Christopher Inn, Puentes, Dillard, Xavier, McMain and Cafe Reconcile.

I’ve met so many performers who moved to New Orleans because of its theatre and performance art community. Do you think Fringe has been part of this motivation?
KE: Every year we have at least two or three performers who move here in the months right after the festival.
DR: There are tons of people who came for Fringe and stuck. They’ve thrown in and become a part of it all. Fringe is part of an environment that people want to be in. We are an opportunity-rich environment. A lot of people see that and explore that. Fringe becomes a vehicle for it.
KE: This is a place where a notcompletely formed idea and shoestring budget can do it where they couldn’t anywhere else

The 5th Annual New Orleans Fringe Festival will be held from November 14th through the 18th, in over 60 venues around town. Check out nofringe.org for info on shows and tickets.

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