Living on the edge
Does Chicago want a fringe fest? We'll find out next year.
In major cities across North America, the summer season is fringe season. Fringe festivals of low-budget, high-enterprise performing arts take place from June to September, from Seattle to Orlando. New York’s and Indianapolis’s just concluded; Philadelphia’s and San Francisco’s start this week. And Chicago’s…doesn’t exist. Are we missing out?
Sarah Mikayla Brown thinks so. As managing director of the now-defunct Tantalus Theatre Group, Brown traveled with the company’s show Dreadful Penny’s Exquisite Horrors to last year’s Minnesota Fringe and FringeNYC. “It was such an awesome experience,” she says, that she was struck by Chicago’s deficit. When Tantalus dissolved, she decided to found her own fest. On July 24, the Chicago Fringe Festival (CFF) was incorporated as a nonprofit, with a goal of producing its first festival in September 2010.
The concept’s granddaddy is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; in 1947, it began to spring up around the edges of the Edinburgh International Festival’s more traditional programming. The idea eventually became a movement, spreading into Canada and later the States in the ’80s and ’90s. Now there are more than 35 such fests on the North American circuit. (A Chicago Fringe and Buskers Festival, consisting mostly of solo performers, was curated and produced by John T. Mills and James Ellis at the Organic Theater at Clark Street and Buckingham Avenue in 1995 and 1996 but didn’t make it to ’97.)
As noted by fringefestivals.us, the website of the loose association of U.S. fringe producers, there are no rules or regulations for operating a fringe festival; the events around the country are independently run, and structures vary wildly. Some are juried, while others are open to anyone willing to pay a participation fee.
The content tends toward the experimental, the avant-garde and a DIY aesthetic—something Chicago’s not short of on any day of the year. And with such fringelike functions as Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins, the Rhinoceros Theater Festival and Around the Coyote already on the scene, there’s an argument to be made that the local market is saturated.
Brown acknowledges as much but thinks her CFF can be a viable and valuable addition. “Rhino calls itself on its site the city’s longest-running fringe festival, and I don’t want to take that away from them,” says the 28-year-old producer, who arrived in Chicago from Lafayette, Louisiana, in 2004. But unlike the curated Rhino or the juried FringeNYC, Brown plans for CFF to be programmed like the Minnesota Fringe, via lottery. “This would be in the model of Edinburgh and across Canada—completely open selection,” she says. “There’s no artistic director choosing one show over another show. That’s part of what makes it fun; everybody comes in on an even playing field.” And where Chicago’s existing festivals’ programming is almost entirely local, Brown hopes CFF will attract artists from across the country and eventually the globe.
This is, potentially, a Chicago fringe fest’s greatest selling point. While Chicago Shakespeare, the Goodman, Court and the MCA Stage have blessed us with dynamic international programming and visits from renowned U.S. artists, a nonjuried fringe will give our audiences a chance to experience work by storefront-style companies from other American cities and will offer our theaters a new opportunity for artistic exchange on home turf.
Funded initially by private donations and a nest egg from Tantalus’s dissolution, the fest is projected to start relatively small: 30 shows, five venues, five days. But Brown notes that even in the earliest planning stages—CFF currently consists of a website and a six-person board of directors—she’s already getting e-mails from interested artists from Pennsylvania to Louisiana. “They say, ‘This is so great, we really want to come to Chicago.’ They want to come here and show their work,” she says. “The vehicle of fringe allows them to do that with less risk.”
Track CFF’s progress at chicagofringe.org.