This was the question posed recently by KCRW’s theater critic, Anthony Byrnes, in his most recent radio segment/column.
Anthony is clearly a fan of the Fringe, but his question in this context is a very good one. Here’s the meat of the matter from Anthony:
So here’s the first problem with LA’s Fringe. What is it a ‘fringe’ to? Our major regional theaters? The Geffen, the Taper, Pasadena Playhouse? Or to the international and national offerings at RedCat and the newly reborn UCLA program? Or is this a fringe to LA’s vibrant 99-seat theaters?
The trouble is the answer to all of these seems to be: yes.
Now that’s no surprise when it comes to the bigger institutions. What’s shocking is that the festival feels like an outsider even to the 99-seat scene, which is itself a sort of year round fringe festival with the wealth of theater companies and spaces that call LA home.
Now, I love the idea behind a non-curated, open to all festival. I wish I could quote Steven Leigh Morris of the LA Weekly on the radio who wrote basically, ‘you have to be a jerk not to love the fringe festival,’ but in more colorful terms.
At the risk of being that jerk – I love the festival but does LA need more opportunities to make theater? Or does it need more opportunities to make theater with a bigger impact?
The first answer to Anthony is, yes, it does need more opportunities to make theater with a bigger impact, and he is right in making the case that basically the majority of theater made in this town – that of the smaller theaters – is already, well, “fringey”, for want of a better term. It’s small budget, short run, produced by pop-up companies and maverick producers and a couple dozen more established theaters, some with homes, some without. We need to continue to hold our work to higher standards and allow more opportunity for shows to succeed here in LA, not somewhere else.
But back to Anthony’s central question: “Does LA need a Fringe?” To that I offer an even more emphatic, “Yes!”
And here’s why.
What the Hollywood Fringe Festival does for LA Theater is one of the most crucial things that no one yet has been able to do within the LA Theatre Community. It centralizes it. Geographically. Yes, it’s only a brief centralization, a couple of weeks, and yes, clearly the rest of the theater community is carrying on as it should, making theater, running their season, mostly ignoring the Fringe as the fledgling festival it still is.
It’s not that we need more opportunities to make this kind of theater – though it does allow the opportunity for those new to the scene to make a splash – what we need is a center. And why not Hollywood? And why not the Fringe? Time and time again people lamented the fact that the Fringe station building with its bar and down stage and up stage were going to vanish after the Fringe closed. Why? Because it was a center. A unifying location around which the rest of the smaller theater community could orbit.
And perhaps even more importantly – and this is an extension of Anthony’s argument - the Fringe also capitalizes on what LA Theater already is: The Wild West. Hell, Los Angeles IS the Fringe of American Theater! Just nobody outside of here knows it yet. And part of that problem is the continued provincialism of our more established companies.
At our Bitter Lemons sponsored panel, entitled Theatrically Incorrect: Tapping the Potential of LA Theater, I put panelist Fountain Theater Producing Director, Simon Levy, on the spot, “Why doesn’t the Fountain use the Fringe? Why don’t any of the established companies use the Fringe? To experiment, to try out a new project, to reach out to a newer, younger, more technologically advanced audience? Why not use such an opportunity instead of letting it pass?” Simon’s response? Basically he said that the Fringe just isn’t a priority for them, just a blip on the screen and their energies are focused elsewhere. My interpretation: We’ll wait til the Fringe gets to our level and then we’ll see. And that’s a fair response for a company as prestigious as the Fountain.
But I think it’s a mistake.
Los Angeles needs a Fringe desperately. Yes, the festival itself, those eleven days of shows, but more importantly it needs what the Fringe represents – a place to call our theatrical center.
This year many companies took advantage of the Fringe timing to launch shows that would carry on after the festival was over, or to blend in a show that was already playing. Smart, smart and smart.
Can you imagine next year if the Fountain Theatre and Sacred Fools and the Odyssey and PRT and EST/LA and Circle X and Open Fist and Son of Semele and Rogue Machine and the Elephant and City Garage and Theatre 40 and the Ruskin Group and Zombie Joe’s Underground and Antaeus and all those other excellent smaller established companies that are spread far and wide had shows running in the Fringe along with the mavericks and the nomads and the new-to-the sceners?
Now that would be something to behold.
About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.