by Dan Savage"Our fringe festival is a fucking joke."

So said Jená Cane, co-founder of One World Theatre, in 1995. At the time, Cane's Seattle-based theater company was a fixture on the North American fringe-festival circuit (and still is), but Cane's company wouldn't have anything to do with Seattle's fringe fest.

Why not? Unlike other fringe festivals in North America, Seattle's fringe festival didn't allow artists to set their own ticket prices or keep their own box-office receipts. Instead, the Seattle Fringe Festival charged every company a flat fee--around $125--and paid every company a set amount--around $400--at the end of the festival. Shows that sold out made $400; shows that sold one ticket made $400. Seattle's fringe festival, under the brain-dead "leadership" of fringe fest director Gretchen Johnston, penalized success and rewarded mediocrity.

So established local companies stayed away or used the festival as a workshop for plays they were developing, not for finished, polished work--the kind of work one expects to see in a theater festival. Instead of well-rehearsed, wire-tight productions by local theater artists, the schedule was dominated by one-off productions by once-a-year fringe companies, and most of it was crap. While the fringe festival was supposedly designed to develop "new, supportive, enthusiastic audiences for live theatre," people who endured two or three pieces of shit at the festival were unlikely to take a chance on plays at established local fringe theater companies.

Another consequence of the Seattle Fringe Fest's box-office policy was an inability to attract the national and international touring acts that enliven other festivals in North America. Companies and theater artists that got to keep 100 percent of their box office in Alberta or Winnipeg weren't going to make a special trip to Seattle for $400. Making matters worse, the North American fringe-fest circuit begins on the East Coast in early spring and moves west over the summer, ending in British Columbia in early September. By holding Seattle's fringe festival in March, Johnston and the other organizers seemed to be doing all they could to keep national and international groups out of Seattle's festival.

In a piece I wrote for The Stranger in 1995 (the piece in which Cane's quote originally appeared), I urged the Seattle Fringe Festival to reform itself. If the festival would let the artists set their own ticket prices and keep 100 percent of the money their shows generated, more established local theater artists would enter the festival. With the promise of a windfall if a show was a hit, theater companies and artists would have a vested interest in the quality and success of the pieces they entered in the festival. My second recommendation was moving the festival to September, so Seattle could join the fringe circuit and attract national and international touring acts.

After seven long years, the current administrators of the fringe festival finally took my advice. (After nearly running the Seattle Fringe Festival into the ground, Johnston left to head the Washington State Arts Alliance.) The Stranger ignored the fringe festival for most of the last seven years, since we didn't want to help the festival turn audiences off to fringe theater. This year is different. With its new structure and new date, the festival has real promise again. David Schmader, The Stranger's performance editor, has written up The Stranger's festival picks and we have some advice about what kinds of shows to avoid. We especially encourage you to see shows from out of town, so that next year Seattle will attract an even greater number of companies working the North American fringe-fest circuit.