Mary-Arrchie works up a migraine scheduling its famously anarchic fringe fest
With as many as 50 companies and individuals mounting productions ranging from ten minutes to an hour, you might imagine Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company's three-day fringe festival, Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins, runs like a well-oiled machine. Surely such a long-running festival, an Off-Loop institution since 1989, must have a strict set of rules and regulations and a team of administrators to keep things running smoothly?
Don't count on it.
"It's pretty much a crapshoot. Hate to expose that," Mary-Arrchie artistic director Richard Cotovsky says with a laugh. Yes, in the grand (and occasionally flaky) storefront tradition, the Abbie Hoffman fest, now in its 17th year, rolls the dice and hopes for the best.
The festival—named for the radical yippie leader and Steal This Book author, and founded to commemorate both his death and the 20th anniversary of Woodstock—presents offerings from dozens of Off-Loop companies during a nearly nonstop weekend. It returns this year to Mary-Arrchie's Angel Island theater after a detour to neighboring Strawdog in 2004, and will feature offerings from A Red Orchid, Experimental Theatre Chicago, Steep Theatre, A Reasonable Facsimile and several other up-and-coming groups on the Chicago fringe, not to mention all the ad-hoc companies formed just for the occasion.
The famously mellow Cotovsky serves as the weekend's host, channeling the spirit of Hoffman himself. He's also the primary organizer, approving submissions and programming the schedule.
"I ask them their preferred times [to perform], their willing times and their 'absolutely cannot' times. I try to accommodate their desired time to do it," he says. "I basically tell them that 'prime time' is between five at night and two in the morning—and believe it or not, two in the morning on a Friday or Saturday is a pretty good time. I schedule everybody once in the prime-time section. Then I go around and look at what's left over, and usually what's left over are way-early mornings and afternoons."
Scheduling Abbie Hoffman may be a logistical nightmare, but there's more than logistics to consider. "I try to juxtapose [the pieces] artistically based on what kind of show it is—what time period it would be best viewed at, along with considering their desired time," Cotovsky says. "The more raucous shows are better late at night. [The schedule] really is about attention span and energy. Something that requires a real concentrated attention span is better suited to an afternoon. The more off-the-wall things I try to put later at night."
Once the weekend begins (after the traditional Friday-afternoon march from the Daley Center to Angel Island and Cotovsky's invocation at the theater), it's pretty much a free-for-all. Abbie vet Jason Lubow, who directed this year's Factory Theater contribution, Rapid Fire, explains that the contributors are left to their own devices until showtime.
"As long as you submit to them the information they need as far as how long the show is and how many people are in the show, you're pretty much left on your own," Lubow says. He agrees that late nights are easiest in terms of audience. "The hardest time audience-wise is Sunday morning, because audiences are smaller at that time, and the people that are there are usually exhausted because they've been there all night."
The companies that contribute to the fest have their own practical concerns about scheduling. "In my cast, I have one actor who's closing another show that weekend, and another actor who's opening a show. I just asked Rich, 'Please, nothing earlier than 11pm,'" Lubow jokes.
Inevitably in this frenetic environment, the schedule will go by the wayside. Audiences should be prepared to be surprised. "The worst it's ever run behind is like three hours," Cotovsky says. "Really there was no problem with that. Nobody really complained because they all know the idea is that if it falls behind then they see something they ordinarily wouldn't have."
Abbie bites the big one at Angel Island beginning Friday 19.