The Seattle Fringe Theater Festival has been back for three years now, and while the content offered in the past has been promising, the event itself has yet to fully bloom onto the local imagination. It’s difficult not to wonder why, and there are several likely culprits, a few of which are identified by local actor/director Aimée Bruneau in her plea to her fellow artists (re-printed here, with the author’s permission) — we’ll get to some of those later in this entry.
Looking at last year’s edition of the Festival objectively, one could argue that the essential piece for success is in place: the Festival provides a space for artists to create art simply for the sake of creating art.
Yes. Art for art’s sake. Despite what the world’s Artistic and Marketing Directors would tell you, art for art’s sake is actually beneficial for theater — this is an argument for a later date, for our purposes here today let’s just take this as a given. Or, as Ms. Bruneau would put it, artists are given “a venue […] an audience, [so artists] could actually afford to risk.”
What these strawmen naysayers fail to recognize is that just about everything fits under the “Art for Art’s Sake” rubric. Got a 75-minute rock musical that skewers American consumerism? How about a solo piece where a narrator reads letters written to a fast food conglomerate? Or a faithful telling of an HP Lovecraft favorite? Or would you want to stage an adaptation of a classic Twilight Zone episode? All four of these ideas were attempted at Seattle Fringe Festivals past and all received “Best of Fest” accolades in the process…the list of what’s possible is endless.
The importance of this particular ingredient is underlined by Ms. Bruneau’s list of past artists involved in the festival, which includes celebrated “genius” (as a certain publication would have it) names like John Osebold and Marya Sea Kaminski; former Seattle luminaries like Brandon Whitehead, Kate Czajkowski and Mike Daisey among a handful of others; though celebrated-in-the-NYC-underground-scene-playwright Tommy Smith isn’t on the list, but should be.
A closer look at this list may point to a complex issue that may need addressing in the future: a lot of those people were fresh out of college at the time they made their Fringe Festival appearances. Something that’s missing from the current Festival is the opportunity for young student artists like these to pull their friends to performances. The idea is to build something of a crowd mentality, and audiences would start building.
The current Festival would likely gain some momentum once more ambitious artists, whether in college or not, decide it is worth taking a chance in participating. Seeing as the bar for entry is already fairly low, this would mean both getting rid of the lottery system the current Festival employs in selecting their programming and creating more opportunities for more artists to take in the form of more venues and performance slots. Complicating this is that both of these options are pretty foolhardy in the face of uncertain popularity among the people.
Which points to another thing that the current Festival needs for its continued survival: The Spark. Those two or three shows that ignite audience curiosity and start the word of mouth spreading about what’s happening on Capitol Hill. One World Theater provided just such a spark for Beckett-lovers last year with their rollicking remount of their 1993 production of Waiting for Godot. With luck, one of the following productions will be able to provide that spark this year:
Head Over Heel’s Overlanders: An Oregon Trail Misadventure — combining the commedia dell’arte clowning/storytelling discipline with the ancient Oregon Trail Commodore 64 video game, this troupe from Portland, OR looks to make 8-bit dysentery a thing to laugh about.
Radial Theater’s Profile — Three of the artists from last year’s impressive Aisle 9 get together to create a new tale focusing on how people choose to present themselves to others in the digital age. This might seem like a rote topic for exploration, but you have local dramatic/comedic treasures Erin Stewart and Sam Hagen contributing with the aforementioned Ms. Bruneau at the helm promising to make this a bit more than it seems.
Mythodical Ensemble’s Mythfest — The group has taken three of the plays written for their production of Mythfest earlier this year at Pocket Theater and are reprising them for the Fringe, presenting us with re-imagined tales from Greek Mythology.
Moonshine Revival Tent’s Alligators & Debutantes — Bret Fetzer’s collaboration with Sari Breznau, Story & Song, combined Fetzer’s folksy fairy-tale-cum-yarn-spinning with Breznau’s folk music/Americana song-writing to create an impossibly charming evening. This is a continuation of same.
James Judd Entertainment’s Breathe Normally — We’re not too familiar with Mr. Judd, but we’re quite aware of his partner in this production, Keira MacDonald, and yes, that is enough for a recommendation.
Dustin Engstrom’s Private Accounts — The Festival is premiering a new venue this year, Gay City, which seems to be housing all of the LGBT material, though we’re not too sure about that. Regardless, the last time Engstrom teamed up with director Gary Zinter, they gave us a layered take on the obsessive behavior that can inform an addiction/kink. This time, they present us a tale of three lower-class Brits and their tangled sexual history in three inter-locking monologues.
Finally, one last ingredient is much needed for the Fringe Fest’s success: Patience, which is in very short supply in this day and age. Ms. Bruneau points out that the current Festival is “attempting to revive something that died” eleven years ago, and notes how it is a gargantuan effort. It is equally important to point out that at the time of its demise, the original Festival had thirteen years of tradition to back it up and make it the success it was in the eyes of many — the current festival is but three years old…the following years are the vital ones.
In the meantime, do yourself the favor of catching at least one of the shows described above and get in on the Fringe Festival action in the early going.