Fringe Goes Mainstream

How this underdog festival continues to grow

if you want to start your theater-going year with a heady dose of the "bigger and badder" variety, you should check out the sixth annual Tucson Fringe Festival. It's happening January 13 through January 15, and the days and evenings will be packed with an array of original, unjuried works performed by local, national and international artists.  

Now, if you stumbled on the word "unjuried" above, you might need to understand the idea of "fringe" as it applies here. 

It's pretty simple, really. It means anything goes. 

The origin of the concept dates back to 1947, when a number of uninvited troupes of players crashed the very first Edinburgh International Festival, which featured theater groups specifically invited to perform. Although they hadn't been chosen to appear, the uninvited guests were determined that somehow, some way, they'd present their work. So, they snagged a space to perform wherever they could. A local journalist, Robert Kemp, is responsible for the "fringe" moniker: "Round the fringe of the official Festival ..." he wrote, there were performers outside the larger, more official goings-on. The concept and the name caught on. Now there are fringe festivals all over the world with the greatest concentration, interestingly, in the U.S.  

Several years ago, Yassi Jahanmir and Sara Tiffany, who'd been friends since childhood, were cruising around a Downtown Saturday Night event and dug Tucson's downtown vibe, which led them to think Tucson was ripe for a Fringe Festival. They launched the first in 2011. 

There are a few guidelines that govern a fringe event. Anyone, solo performer or ensemble, experienced or not, can enter by coughing up a small fee, which here is $15. The festival takes applications, but no one is officially invited. 

Next, the lineup of performances is chosen randomly, based on the number of spots the organizers have determined they can accommodate within the time frame of the event. Here, the chosen participants are picked, quite literally, out of a hat.  

Perhaps the heart of the Fringe concept—or the "Fringe ethos," as Jahanmir has called it, is the absolute freedom of content of the participating groups. There is zero input from organizers. The only restrictions consist of the running time of their performances and the time they have to set up and strike, which means that props and set pieces are minimal and light, and sound cues are pretty simple. 

The growth has been steady since 2011 too, in the number of applicants, the number of groups or individuals that actually perform, and in audience size. The Tucson Fringe has also grown as an institution. It is now officially incorporated as a non-profit, which allows the group to apply for grants and to seek tax-deductible contributions. There's a board of directors now. 

Maryann Green—by day is a drama teacher at Rincon/University High School—is president of the board, and a former festival participant. With the help of a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Green travelled to Montreal in November to the World Fringe Conference, where about 60 festival presenters were gathered. 

"It was exciting to see where Tucson fits into the world of Fringe and where it can be," Green says. "It gave me an opportunity to see where Tucson Fringe can go with a little more work. There was one from Cape Town and one from Taipei. It's exciting to see the movement growing still." 

Green sees "two basic tenets" of the Fringe endeavor.  

First, "the art is cheap and accessible to an audience in a way that some of the traditional stages in town aren't. Tickets are $10 and we're in non-traditional venues and perhaps can bring in audiences that don't go to the 'bigger name' theaters in town." 

The second is what such an event provides for the artists. They get a low-cost forum to put their work out there, which is particularly critical to the performing arts, and they also get 100 percent of the sales from ticket revenues. 

Green explains that here there is small production fee, which goes to pay for venue rental and production technicians—here it's $100-$200, depending on how many shows the artists perform. "It might not be possible for them to come up with money to produce their work and take care of the overhead as well," and that "allows them to take some artistic risks." 

This year will feature 19 groups/individuals giving almost 50 performances in four venues in the downtown area. You must purchase a "Fringe button" for $3—this is what goes to the organization—and individual tickets are $10. There are also some ticket packages available which can lower the cost per show. The folks who manage and organize the Fringe all volunteer their time. For the weekend of performances they are seeking more volunteers to help with logistics.

Monica Bauer, a theater artist that moved here from New York a couple of years ago, is performing this year. She has quite a bit of experience with the Fringe movement. She's played a variety of Fringe roles—producer, playwright and performer—twice at the granddaddy Edinburgh Fringe, one in Brighton, England and a couple in the U.S. 

"Each one has its own personality," she writes in a message, "but there is a shared ethos; there's room for everybody and everything! Puppets, dance, dance with puppets, sex with puppets while dancing, it's all good." She says her work is "less experimental," which she appreciates is also included. 

"The spirit of Fringe is, for me, freedom without self-indulgence," Bauer continues. "It's not slap-dash, it's craft, sometimes honed over many decades. ... There's room for the outsiders, the marginalized, to take the stage and shine."