Don Downer here. Or at least that’s how I felt at a critics’ panel discussion, held at Fringe Central on Sunday, the last day of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Of the six panelists, I was the most skeptical about the long-term effects of the Fringe on L.A. theater.
But if there’s one thing that L.A. theater already has, in spades, it’s an excess of low-budget productions in small venues. Bringing coals to Newcastle isn’t nearly as redundant as bringing more actors’ and comedians’ showcases to Hollywood.
I recently spoke with a director who frequently stages plays in Hollywood but didn’t participate in the Fringe. Why? Because Hollywood is a perpetual fringe festival, said this director. It might be smart to avoid being associated with some of the lesser work at this organized but totally non-curated festival.
At the critics’ panel, I raised the question of why more local theater artists didn’t participate in the Fringe. The consensus answer seemed to be that not many locals were willing to join in the inaugural year, because they didn’t know if the festival would even get off the ground – but that they’ll probably participate next year. An added lure next year: the Fringe is likely to coincide with the Theatre Communications Group conference – which will attract most of the movers and shakers of the American nonprofit theater to L.A. from June 16 to 18, 2011.
Too bad the TCG conference is just a conference, not a curated festival. A fringe festival needs a more established counterweight to seem like a true alternative. The Edinburgh Fringe, granddaddy of all fringes, was and is a reaction to the Edinburgh International Festival. Still, it’s possible that the TCG get-together will inspire most of the established L.A. companies to make sure they have something to show off during that period – which could, in turn, make next year’s Fringe seem more alternative than this year’s.
Then again, plenty of other kinds of festivals also were happening during this year’s Fringe. The Los Angeles Film Festival occupied precisely the same dates. The Electric Daisy Carnival music festival (AKA a rave) attracted 185,000 people to the Coliseum last weekend. Closer to the theatrical arena, the amorphous, far-flung, three-month Festival of New American Musicals is now at its midpoint – although it feels more like a web site than an actual festival.
Actually, the establishment-bred festival that served as the heaviest counterweight to this year’s Fringe was the LA Opera’s Ring cycle and its adjunct, the Ring Festival LA. L.A.’s first crack at Wagner’s magnum opus attracted a lot of attention from the big media, including the Times theater critic Charles McNulty, who reviewed all four of the operas (before the Fringe opened) but didn’t write anything about the Hollywood Fringe.
I’m not criticizing McNulty for paying attention to the Ring. I saw three of the four Ring operas during the same period that I was also attending the Hollywood Fringe. The visions of the Ring‘s Brechtian-influenced director Achim Freyer were more eye-opening and will probably last longer in my memory than anything I saw at the Fringe (granted, those three operas also took up about twice as much time as the nine events I saw at the Fringe).
That word Fringe can mislead. It often connotes something adventurous and avant-garde. Yet in a non-curated festival, no one controls whether the programming is something truly unusual or something that’s more of the same. Admittedly I saw only a tiny sliver of the Fringe’s offerings, but my impression was that most of the Fringe consisted of the same kind of work that we regularly see in L.A.
You certainly couldn’t say that about Freyer’s Ring. Of course Freyer had a lot more money to play with than the Fringe – and a lot more money per opera than any L.A. theater company can muster per play. Tickets were priced accordingly. Maybe the word Fringe should simply connote “low-budget” instead of anything related to the aesthetics. The Ring and the Hollywood Fringe, when seen side by side, contradict the frequently heard notion that big budgets tend to buy conservative, conventional art and that shoestring budgets usually buy something wild and crazy. Here, it was the opposite.
I often hear that same notion when I point to the importance of supporting L.A.’s midsize theaters, as I did at the critics’ panel last Sunday. As I explored in greater detail here, midsize theaters (and those few smaller theaters that work on Equity contracts instead of the 99-Seat Plan) are essential. They commit to paying the actors more than gas money – yet they still maintain much of the intimacy of the under-100 seat arena. Supporting these fragile institutions – which are overshadowed both by bigger theaters and by the vast numbers of sub-100-seat theaters – is the most important ingredient in building a more mature, more professional theater scene here.
Yet too often we hear that if a company expands beyond the 99-seat world, its creativity, its risk-taking, and the scope of its productions must necessarily contract. This expectation is certainly understandable, especially during hard economic times, but it becomes inevitable only if these institutions don’t garner the necessary support that would allow them to pursue their less predictable programming.
I’d much rather see a festival that helps these companies and others pursue such programming on a better funded basis than one that simply invites more fresh young talent to join the hordes who are already flocking to Hollywood.
I’d like to see a Hollywood festival that supports the efforts of the tiny but enterprising Blank Theatre to grow into a larger space and to start paying its talent on a professional basis. Or one that would re-claim the Ricardo Montalban Theatre for theater, as opposed to its current use as a Nike store and as a center for big-screen World Cup broadcasts. And let’s not stop there – let’s also re-enlist the Henry Fonda and the Ivar for real theater, on a bigger-than-a-boutique level.
On the final day of the Fringe, after the panel discussion, I saw T-O-T-A-L-L-Y, a much-recommended Fringe show. In my last post, I wrote that the written description of this solo show in the Fringe program had alienated me, but that word of mouth was good, so I wanted to give it a shot. Sure enough, the performance of soloist Kimleigh Smith was as dynamic as others had claimed. But the writing, in retrospect, didn’t venture far beyond the usual self-affirming message that is found in a hundred other solo showcases.
Later that evening, I saw the final performance of a non-Fringe play, Elephant Theatre’s Supernova, at the Elephant Space on Santa Monica Boulevard, smack dab in the middle of Fringe activity. Timothy McNeil’s moving depiction of an Iowa family on the ropes and the L.A. wage slave who was the last remaining hope of the family’s forlorn matriarch was easily the best show I had seen in Hollywood since the Fringe started.
If you’re going to mount a theater festival in Hollywood, shouldn’t you make sure to include the best theater that Hollywood has to offer?
Fringe photo by Star Foreman.
LA Opera photo by Monika Rittershaus.