When Yassi Jahanmir and Sara Tiffany became friends as kids singing in the Tucson Girls Chorus, it's a safe bet they weren't conspiring to create a Tucson theater entity. However, they have done just that with the Tucson Fringe Theater Festival, which will unleash its fifth anything-goes event Jan. 15 through 17.
This year, there are 17 solo artists or groups that will present a total of 46 times in four venues, making the event "bigger and badder than ever," according to organizers. For the first time, the event will also include international talent, including performers from San Francisco, San Diego and Torino, Italy.
For those unfamiliar with the fringe concept, the "sprawling, diverse and just a little bit crazy," fringe theater had rather humble (and accidental) beginnings. In 1947, the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival brought theaters from all over the planet together. A handful of theaters that had not been invited to the official festical decided to turn up and perform their shows anyway wherever they could snag a space. Thus, shows being produced outside the official festival earned the moniker "fringe."
The idea that artists could present their works without getting permission or some sort of stamp of approval quickly caught on because it allows for vital artistic experimentation. Now there are fringe festivals taking place all over the world, including throughout the U.S.
Years after their friendship had been forged, Jahanmir and Tiffany were walking around downtown and noticed a new energy in the air. It was from that simple realization that they agreed that Tucson just might be ready to support a fringe festival of its own.
In 2011, they gave it an inaugural go. Starting with shows by six artists performing in three venues over three days, the performances were not the only experimentation taking place. As a new organization making choices for the first time with no serious formal organization in place, there were a lot of lessons to be learned. Jahanmir's hope was for an audience of 1,000. In fact, it was more like 100.
Undaunted, the two tried again the next year. The audience doubled, then doubled again each succeeding year. This year they are expecting an audience of 800 to 1,000 experimental theatre patrons.
Although the form and function of fringe is to bend the rules to create anew, there are a few universally held tenets of the fringe experience. First, the cost is low, making participation accessible. Next, anybody—even if they've never been on stage before—can apply. Finally, perhaps the most critical tenet or "ethos of fringe," as Jahanmir calls it, is that the artists and shows are not juried. You and your act may be good, bad or boring, but the hosts of the festival do not judge your proposals or require that you have had good reviews elsewhere.
So how are participants chosen? Quite arbitrarily, actually. Those who wish to participate pay an application fee (here it's $15). After the festival organizers determine how many artists the event can accommodate, the participants are chosen by lottery should there be more entrants than time slots.
This year the festival itself has grown and the team behind it has become more official. After incorporating a few years ago, they have received the 501(c)(3) designation, which officially gives the group a nonprofit status. That means they can start applying for grants to help support the organization's work. There is also now a board of directors to offer guidance and ideas and contribute man-hours when the festival actually happens.
Jahanmir and Tiffany stress that no one in the organization gets paid for their work, which means they will rely entirely on volunteers when the festival hits the ground next week. Right now they are still seeking help with the festival.
"Without volunteers, the festival would never happen," Jahanmir says, pointing to the festival website, which has a feature that allows folks interested in volunteering to sign up for specific times and tasks. Information on the year's participating artists, their specific shows, and a full schedule is available online as well.
Maryann Green, the chairman of board of directors, said via e-mail that the imagination, inclusiveness and creativity at the festival is what makes it a valuable addition to Tucson's theatre community.
"The reason I think [Tucson Fringe Festival] is so important is that each theatre company here in Tucson seems to have its own niche audience and Fringe is the exact opposite of that," she said. "It's every kind of theatre you can imagine...It's a reflection of the diversity of artists that Tucson, and now the world, has to offer."
Green herself has been a participant in the festival, experiencing firsthand the benefits that it provides.
"As a theatre artist it was a safe way to take risks, and now I'm really proud to be able to help other artists do the same," she said.
By helping develop artists and audiences, fringe festivals offer a much-needed service for the growth and health of the theater world. The shows that the festival will unveil may not all be polished hits, but there are always shows that delight and surprise and maybe even provide a springboard for future development and success—and that's exactly what the Tucson Fringe Festival, is all about.