hff13-hollywood-fringe-festival-2013-poster-lgThe “Best of Fringe Extensions” program has swung into full gear, and, excited for the chance to see some of the shows I missed the first time around, I went to the Hollywood Fringe website looking for a list of shows. I went to the home page, then the blog, then the “about” section. Nothing. No list of shows and no link to the Best of Fringe Extensions (a separate entity) home page, despite the fact that the shows are all still selling tickets through the Fringe site. Even the Extensions home page only provides lists of shows once you’ve already clicked on a venue.

Hmmmm, I thought, doing my best Marge Simpson.

This communication gap reflects a frustration I’ve had with the Fringe website all along–it does nothing to help potential audience members who don’t know the artists and haven’t been personally invited figure out what to see. The broad and seemingly overlapping categories are not further broken down by any meaningful system of tags, meaning that A) clicking on a category only narrows down your choices to, in one case, 67 shows, and B) that potential audience members who don’t see what they’re looking for in the categories have no other way to peruse shows by interest. In addition, the meanings of the categories themselves are opaque. What does ensemble theater mean? Why is there comedy but no tragedy? Does comedy really mean stand up? Why are so many solo shows listed under comedy and not under solo performance? If an audience member clicks on solo performance, shouldn’t she be able to assume that all of the solo shows are listed there?

The lack of a link to the Best of Fringe Extensions page also illuminates a larger confusion about what Best of Fringe Extensions means. According to the Best of Fringe Extensions website, the shows are chosen because they have “artistic merit, commercial viability, and development potential.” However, I saw many shows that met all three criteria and yet were not extended. At least one show that sold out every performance, for example, did not “win” Best of Fringe.

It’s not just the participants who need to know. The audience should know what it’s being sold. For example, how does the Extensions program define “artistic merit”? Does “development potential” refer to artistic development? In other words, if a show is finished, is it not considered? Or is development potential really another way of saying commercial viability? Best of Fringe Extensions is framed as a competition which certain shows “win.” A public statement as to criteria for winning would make the win more plumb for the artists and more meaningful for the audience.

Mind you, I say these things out of love. Cindy Marie Jenkins‘ made a great list of this year’s successful engagement strategies and I agree with all of them. As someone who is  just getting involved in the Los Angeles theater community, the Fringe provided an invaluable opportunity for me to meet fellow travelers on the artistic road. By training producers and bringing most (not all–more on that later) of the Los Angeles theater community together, the Fringe provides a valuable service, not to mention fosters a lot of great art.

Speaking of art …

The Miss Julie Dream Project, created by the relatively new group Fell Swoop Playwrights, made the most of the likelihood that audiences at Fringe Festivals would be theater people by creating a piece of theater that could best be appreciated by them. This is not to say you can’t appreciate the show if you don’t know Strindberg’s Miss Julie and A Dream Play as well as say, a theater professor. In addition to drawing on those dense texts, the play engages as its central trope the nightmare we’ve all had in one form or another: Some people dream that they have to take a test for a class they never went to. Some dream that they have to play a concert but don’t have their instrument. Theater people dream that it’s opening night and we haven’t rehearsed.

Blending pop culture references with the fever-dream logic that characterized Strindberg’s inferno of a mind, the show delves into sexual politics, desire, and authorship without ever resorting to the dogmatism that characterizes the originals. Rather, Miss Julie and her dreams are effectively removed from the birth-is-destiny philosophy of Naturalism, enabling us to examine them in the context of a modern woman’s life. Turns out, we’re still being objectified and put on pedestals of off which we are bound to fall.

Time Machine: The Musical made the most of another moment: The current popularity of genre fiction. The dystopian themes of H.G. Wells’ 1895 futuristic novel–social degeneration and human devolution–can be found in contemporary films like The Hunger Games, Elysium, and Oblivion.

This full-length musical was on its way to production when the market crashed. For creator Steve Altman, the Fringe provided an opportunity to keep the show alive on a small budget. It’s musical style is suited to Broadway, and  a well-designed production would no doubt dazzle. But in the context of the Fringe, this stripped-down, hour-long version, complete with moving performances and elegant staging, proves that unlike film and television, theater has the capacity to engage the audience’s imagination without a lot of tech.

In a Fringe as focused on entrepreneurship as this one is, the shows that have the resources and the personnel to market themselves are, with a few exceptions, going to be the ones to attract the most audience, win awards, and get extensions. Neither the Hollywood Fringe nor the Best of Fringe Extensions program may see it as their job to level the playing field, but defining the terms of the competition would at least allow smaller groups the opportunity to find creative ways to compete with fewer resources. Entrepreneurship should not just be about money, but when money is the only thing that buys success, it’s hard for it to be about anything else.

Holly L. Derr is a writer and director and professor of theater. Her final piece on the Fringe will appear in a few weeks on HowlRound. Follow her @hld6oddblend.

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The Hollywood Fringe Festival, like most Fringes, is all about freedom of expression. Taking after it’s mother-ship The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, The Hollywood Fringe mission states that it “is completely open and uncensored. This free-for-all approach underlines the festival’s mission to be a platform for artists without the barrier of a curative body.” Perhaps that’s what makes the Fringe a perfect place for one-person, autobiographical shows–the absence of an institutional force mediating what the audience sees is mirrored in the show’s lack of a fictional narrative mediating between performer and audience. The result is a plethora of solo shows.

collage_lb_image_page2_14_1Tiffany Phillips, whose piece I Never Met a Jerk I Didn’t Like sold out every performance, says she created her show out of a desire to turn her personal experience into something positive:

I went through a rough period in the love department. My self esteem was in the dirt and I needed to pull myself out of it, so I started writing. I’ve always felt that comedy and laughter are a great healer. Instead of whining and complaining about these “Jerks,” I wrote about it and turned a negative into a positive.

Phillips avoids the self-indulgent trap so many solo shows fall into by creating a colorful cast of characters that are distinctly not her:

These men I dated were such “characters” that I knew I had to bring them to life on stage. People relate. Both men and women. We’ve all been there. The woes of dating are a universal theme.

In a performance that echoes the physical and vocal transformations of Anna Deavere Smith, Phillips manages to tell a story that is personal, entertaining, and cathartic.

FINAL IMG_6138Jacquetta Szathmari’s That’s Funny. You Didn’t Sound Black on the Phone took on the explicitly political subject that informs her personal life. She relates,

I had been doing standup based on my experiences growing up in extreme rural Maryland and not fitting in with “my people” and a lot of black people would pull me aside and whisper that I was telling their story. It’s hard to get enough stage time to really examine the race/class issues I wanted to tackle so I figured, I’ll do my own show and see what happens.

Szathmari, who does not consider herself an actor per se, quotes characters in a storytelling style rather than embodying them in theatrical characterizations. Most of the time, she simply speaks as herself. This personal narrative combined with direct eye-contact with the audience and a few in-the-moment asides allows even audience members whose lives are nothing like Szathmari’s to enter completely into her world.

hkiofs3v-980x980Keena Ferguson, a dancer and film and television actor, says she had seen very few solo shows when she began work on Keena: Unbranded The Solo Experience, so she didn’t feel confined by expectations that she’d be presenting a certain kind of theater. Her process, she says, was similarly free-form:

I started writing the stories that spoke to me immediately and I just wrote them with no editing at all. Kind of free writing. I picked songs I knew I wanted in the show to dance to. Then when I first met with Tanya Alexander, my director, I would just read them to her. My show is non-linear so there was no order at all to the flow of the show and then I had these dance pieces that were there. It was like a collage.

Ferguson employs a live musician as well as recorded sound as she moves in and out of dance, first-person storytelling, and characterizations of the important people in her life. She takes the audience on a journey from her life as Miss Ohio to the travails of getting started as an actor and dancer in LA, which invites the audience to consider that even the most beautiful women have to work to succeed.

MV5BMTY3OTU5NzA3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjEzMzk3OA@@._V1._SX450SY450_Rati Gupta’s Not Another Teen Solo Show takes yet another approach by using pop culture to connect with the audience. She says she began writing when on a visit home:

I was bored, so I started reading through my old journals and was HORRIFIED by my high school self. I used to watch movies that paralleled whatever situation I was currently dealing with, thinking that they would guide me out of it. I kept comparing myself to Rachael Leigh Cook from She’s All That. When I reminisced with my friends about high school and all those teen movies, I realized that I wasn’t the only one whose expectations of love, friendships and the future were so affected by the TV/movies. These stories of mine weren’t a fluke, they were universal, and incredibly entertaining in hindsight.

Unlike with That’s Funny. You Didn’t Sound Black on the Phone, in which the artist’s race is the subject of the narrative, Gupta’s show makes only one reference to her Indian heritage as it tells the hilarious and universal story of a typical teenager in Indiana who just wants to be popular. 

Gupta, Szathmari, Ferguson, and Phillips all found the Fringe Festival both a great place to experiment–they all changed their scripts in the course of their runs–and a great way to make what Festival Director Ben Hill calls “Fringeships.” Gupta put it this way:

Being a solo show writer/performer is lonely. Outside of your circle of personal friends and handful of artistic collaborators, you don’t really have that many people championing your work. With a fringe festival though, you’re thrown into this crazy fun mess of other creative people. People-power is clutch when it comes to solo shows. You CANNOT do one on your own, as ironic as that may be. Surrounding yourself with as many like-minded, positive, and supportive people, which is SO easy to do at fringe festivals, is incredibly important. It makes the whole process less stressful and more rewarding in the end.

Just as the Festival does not put itself in between the artist and the audience, these solo shows eliminate the fiction that usually provides viewers with a way to distance themselves from the artists. During these performances, the audience can’t disappear into the dark anonymity of the theater. Luckily–given the quality of the material–they don’t want to.