About 10 years ago, the local fringe festival imploded and left, in the words of one Seattle theatermaker, "a smoking crater" in the city's theater landscape. At the time of its collapse, it was America's longest-running non-adjudicated (meaning that acts were chosen by lottery) fringe festival, and it attracted performers from across the country and across the world. Its implosion created a scandal when the festival suddenly announced it was deep in debt and many performers wouldn't get the box-office money they were promised. People felt cheated, and they were pissed off. At the time, many folks—myself included—predicted that it would take several years before the wounds healed and people would trust a Seattle fringe festival enough to invest in it again.
This year, the fringe festival has returned, led by well-respected and longtime members of the Seattle theater scene (some of whom were burned by the old festival's collapse in 2003), including Sean Ryan of On the Boards, Pamala Mijatov of Annex Theater, and Beth Raas-Bergquist of Ghost Light Theatricals, who also wrote her MFA thesis for Seattle University on what went wrong with the old festival.
Raas-Bergquist said it fell apart due to a series of unfortunate events: They changed the date of the festival, changed their fiscal year, and hung much of their hopes on ACT Theater, which promptly cratered into its own bankruptcy troubles. Then the festival made the fateful (and unwise) decision to soldier on. "They thought: 'We are fringe artists, the show must go on, we can do anything with nothing!'" Raas-Bergquist said. "Everyone I talked to about this had the best of intentions, but the best thing to do would have been to just stop."
The new festival plans to avoid those problems by starting modestly and being as relentlessly transparent as possible. This year's festival, Ryan said, had more than 107 applicants, but restricted itself to just 21 acts over five days to see how things go. The conditions for the performers are punishing: Each show has a 15-minute load-in, 60 minutes to perform, and then a 15-minute load-out.
This revival also dredges up the old question: Why select acts via lottery, with no quality control? The Stranger consistently critiqued the old festival's lottery system as bad for theater: If people are taking their first dip into fringe theater and see something crappy, they're likely to think theater isn't for them, making them less likely to see any theater in the future. The festival organizers have an obligation to give their audiences the best experience possible, right?
The fringe organizers agree with that last statement in theory, but they don't think a panel of judges is any more a guarantee of a good show than a random process. "There's bad theater everywhere," Ryan said. "Sometimes, people make things that totally fail—even when there's a panel choosing the artists, and even at On the Boards, even in an adjudicated context! Sometimes, even adjudicated shows suck. But there are those remarkable glimmers, and you never know when they're going to show up."
Raas-Bergquist agreed. When she was presenting her MFA thesis, she said the number one question from her peers was: "Why would people come to see something when they know 90 percent of it might be crap?" But, she said, a fringe festival is attractive because it's "an instant introduction to the theater community, and a quick and dirty way to do theater research and development." She also made the truthful point that theater of uncertain quality, such as 14/48: The World's Quickest Theater Festival (in which people write, costume, rehearse, and design 14 short plays in 48 hours), has been hugely successful from a ticket-sales perspective. 14/48, in fact, has been expanding to do more shows per year because it sells out so quickly.
"People like the danger," Raas-Bergquist said. "They like the risks, they like that it's scary."
So, you want some scary this weekend? Here are three good bets for this year's fringe festival: One, the return of local company A Theater Under the Influence with their Most Foul, short plays about power by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and others. Two, Becky Poole (who used to live in Seattle, then moved to Chicago, and performs there with Second City) and her Kitty Poole's [mAke hAste / eAt pAste], which she described in a phone interview as a 6-year-old's paean to performance artists from Romeo Castellucci to Mike Daisey to Karen Finley. "I want to be someone like Castellucci [last seen in Seattle at On the Boards with his show Hey Girl!], but I can't," she said. "I don't have the resources, I don't have the brains, so I'm trying to do it with cardboard." This is her attempt. Three, '33, a Kabarett, a show from a New Orleans man about an MC trapped in a ruined theater that was described by the UK's Sunday Times as "sleazy," "stirring," and "utterly memorable."
Welcome back, fringe festival. Let's see what you've got.