It seems likely that the Seattle Fringe Theatre Festival--the incorporated entity that organizes an enormous event featuring, in 2003, more than 90 different productions in 10 different theater spaces--is going to collapse due to a mix of bad luck and financial miscues. But to be honest, the collapse of this administrative body may not be a bad thing; it may be possible to build something better upon the Fringe Fest's ruins. Here are a couple of proposals:

First, a huge chunk of every Fringe Fest bill is devoted to new plays--but in retrospect, the Playwrights' Festival that New City Theater used to produce was a better forum for them. The Playwrights' Fest fell by the wayside because the Fringe Fest offers novice playwrights (who are most often their own producers) the illusion of greater opportunity, whereas the Playwrights' Festival did all it could to limit production aspirations. But the narrow technical possibilities of the Fringe Fest, as well as the lack of storage space (so that shows have to haul everything in and out for every performance), make the Fringe Fest every bit as confining a format. The result is often disastrous for overambitious beginners. The strictures of the Playwrights' Fest put more focus on the scripts and fostered a more level playing field for all of the productions, and its "Best of" commendations gave many new playwrights a valuable boost. Creating a new version of this forum would better serve new playwrights.

Second, there's nothing stopping a fringe festival from happening without the Fringe Fest organization. Let's imagine that Theater Schmeater, Theater Babylon, and the Capitol Hill Arts Center each pull together a package of three or four shows that would run at their theater for a week. The theaters collaborate on the marketing (joint posters, programs, etc., paid for out of a mutual pool of funds), but everything else--show selection, show production, all financial arrangements with artists--is left to each theater to arrange to its own satisfaction.

Why is this a good idea?

1. Under the current Fringe Fest setup, money is split three ways between the venues, the performers, and the Fringe Fest organization, which has employees and an office. If we eliminate the third side of this triangle, we increase the expenses of the other two, but we also increase the amount of money they receive. It's unlikely that this arrangement will allow anyone to be paid full-time, but that's life in fringe theater. (One of the problems with the Fringe Fest may be that it's trying to be a professional organization in a fundamentally nonprofessional realm.)

2. Some of the most exciting work in the most recent festival came from out-of-town performers who toured through the Canadian fringe festival circuit. Under this model, participating venues would be smart to contact a couple of these touring performers and convince them to perform here (if they can be persuaded to return to Seattle after this year's financial burn). Not only are the financial possibilities better for these touring artists, but self-booked gigs will foster more personal relationships between out-of-towners and local theaters, perhaps leading to future collaboration.

3. The same goes for local nomadic theater troupes--smart venues will woo the troupes they like, which could lead to greater artistic cross-pollination.

4. Production circumstances will still be limited--three or four shows in the same space can't have full sets and their own light plots--but the Fringe Fest crammed up to nine shows in a single venue. Having fewer shows per venue and having the venues be responsible for the technical setup (and working with artists they themselves have selected) will make the production experience more flexible and, one hopes, felicitous.

5. Does this shut out beginners or nomadic groups who don't have a relationship with a performance space? Not at all--nothing is stopping these groups from banding together, renting out Freehold or the Chamber Theater, and presenting their own evening of shows. As many rental venues rent by the night, not by the performance, three or four shows can be presented at less cost to the individual producers.

Does this solve all potential problems or eliminate all risk? No. A festival of this kind can't avoid a lot of headaches. But decentralizing the festival makes the problems smaller in scale and puts them in the hands of the artists who are directly affected--the artists whom a Seattle Fringe Theatre Festival should represent.

theaternews@thestranger.com

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