Last year, most of the media coverage of Seattle's first fringe festival since 2003 was dedicated to looking backward. Since the new festival hadn't done anything yet and was too brief to attract many reviews, preview stories focused on its doomed and overreaching predecessor—run by different people in a different decade. The 2003 festival featured approximately 100 performance groups and began approximately $40,000 in the red. In 2004, it went bankrupt.
So the Seattle Fringe Festival (SFF) of 2012 was the subject of cautious optimism, with 21 performing groups and relatively small audiences. In the middle of last year's festival, I ran into a member of the steering committee who seemed despondent that the shows weren't drawing bigger crowds—but by the end, some were selling out. The SFF of 2012 was able to pay its rents and its artists and walk away with a few thousand dollars of seed money.
Will audiences be warmer toward SFF 2013 now that one has come and gone successfully? "It's been a long time since we've had a fringe festival," says steering committee member Meaghan Darling. "And it's a certain way of theatergoing that Seattle audiences aren't used to anymore." Namely, taking risks on a bunch of shows they don't know much about. "There is an element of chance," she says. "If you can't get into a certain show you want to see because it's sold out, you can run down the street and see something totally different that starts 15 minutes later—it's that air of excitement, mapping it out, seeing what sinks and what floats." All the shows are less than an hour. (Except for one: In 1990, some Seattle actors including Shawn Belyea and K. Brian Neel staged Waiting for Godot for that year's SFF. One critic said they were "20 years too young" for their roles. So now, 23 years later, they're giving it another shot. SFF is making an exception to its less-than-an-hour rule for this full-length Godot.)
This fringe festival is not curated—shows are selected by lottery, in part because it hopes to someday join the Canadian fringe circuit, attracting the caravan of international theater nomads who cross the continent, from east to west, every summer. Selection by lottery is a requirement for joining the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals. But a lack of curatorial rigor can make audiences grumpy. (See some complaints about this summer's Lo-Fi Arts Festival at Smoke Farm and the NEPO 5k art walk on Beacon Hill a few weeks ago.) Darling says that sometime in the future, the festival may figure out a way to shine a bigger light on handpicked shows. But for now, they're sticking with the lottery.
Since it's all a crapshoot, audiences have to rely on a combination of inference and divination to figure out what they want to see. Here are a few of this year's shows (selected at random) and the opinion of a Magic 8 Ball found in a dusty corner of the Stranger offices.
AISLE 9: Powerhouse playwrights Wayne Rawley, K. Brian Neel, and Keri Healey (nominated for a Stranger Genius Award last year) team up to write a three-part play about a man and a woman who meet in the same aisle of a grocery store in 1983, 2013, and 2043. Magic 8 Ball says: "As I see it, yes."
Pussy: This San Francisco show is about a lesbian couple "teetering on the brink of a breakup," their landlady, and a cat with strong opinions. Magic 8 Ball says: "Cannot predict now."
(No Static at All): Alex Knox from Los Angeles named his solo show after a Steely Dan song and plays records on a turntable to augment his story about a friend who lived a wild life before joining a Hasidic community in Israel. Magic 8 Ball says: "Outlook good."
Bi, Hung, Fit... and Married: Another solo show, this one from Vancouver, BC, about "an erotic journey." Magic 8 Ball says: "Better not tell you now."
Hooked: Yet another solo show (they travel more easily) about seven "notorious and eccentric" women who had to fight with sexism and addictions, including Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles, Elizabeth Smart, and Unity Mitford. Magic 8 Ball says: "Signs point to yes."
What a generous Magic 8 Ball! May all its predictions come true.