Chicago-based Tantalus Theatre Group is dead now, its college-buddy founders having turned thirtyish and moved on with their lives. But its legacy is about to flower. Back in 2008 Tantalus took one of its shows, Dreadful Penny's Exquisite Horrors, to fringe festivals in Minneapolis and New York. Traveling by Megabus, schlepping costumes and props, and crashing with strangers, the troupe shared the total-immersion theater-party atmosphere with hundreds of other performers and avid audience members. Sarah Mikayla Brown, now 29, played Dreadful Penny in Minnesota and also caught a weekend of the New York fest. It was such a great experience, she says, that she came back to Chicago wondering why this best of all theater towns didn't have a fringe festival of its own.
The fringe fest concept got its start in Scotland in 1947, when eight theater companies showed up uninvited to take advantage of the crowds at the first Edinburgh International Festival. Now the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the world's largest arts fest (with 2,098 shows staged by 18,091 performers in 2009, by its own reckoning), and specialty blog Fringe or Die lists 77 similar events around the globe, from Indianapolis to Dubai.
For Brown, an actor with a talent for organizing (she was Tantalus's managing director), the question morphed into a conviction. By 2009, she'd recruited a couple friends, launched a website, set up a nonprofit, and landed a nest-egg donation from Tantalus, which still had $1,700 in its coffers when it croaked last year.
But things really came together, Brown says, when she got a call from Vinnie Lacey, who'd taken his own two-person show to DC's Capital Fringe Festival in 2009. While there, he'd mused aloud to one of the organizers about why Chicago didn't have a fest and learned that someone here was working on one. He and Brown met for coffee at Dunkin' Donuts and within minutes, Brown says, she knew she'd found a partner.
"Things clicked—his knowledge of festivals, excitement about the project, his outgoing personality, and leadership qualities. He's very different from me," she says. "I thought we would be complementary."
Now Brown is executive producer and Lacey associate producer of the Chicago Fringe Festival, which will have its inaugural run September 1-5, with 45 productions at eight venues in Pilsen. The two of them and their all-volunteer staff, now numbering 14, have been working intensely on the festival for at least a year, Brown says. They put out a call for artists on December 1, with a deadline of February 15.
Of course Chicago's already awash in fringe theater and home to such venerable fringy confabs as Curious Theatre Branch's RhinoFest and Mary-Arrchie's Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins Theatre Festival. (There was also a short-lived Chicago Fringe and Buskers Festival in the mid-1990s.) One thing that's different about Brown's event is the chance to see a lot of work from out of town: while the other events mostly showcase Chicago artists, only about half of the CFF 45 are local. And then there's that addictive atmosphere, part-theater-camp, part-frat-party. For Brown, fringe is all about an abundance of shows, a communal environment, and serendipity. The CFF lineup was decided by lottery—no curator, no censor, no jury, no inkling of what'll be worthy and what'll be crap. Caveat emptor.
The troupes pay to play, the fee keyed to the number of times they're performing: $400 for five shows, $250 for three. Brown expects them to make the money back on ticket sales: there's a suggested donation of $10 per show as well as deals ranging from a $45 five-pack to unlimited passes for $175. Participants get to keep 100 percent of their box office after online transaction fees, and the festival handles the house—ushers, stage manager, etc.—and hooks performers up with a free place to crash if they need it. (Brown says they had to find beds for about 40 bodies.)
According to Mr. Fringey—storyteller Slash Coleman—of Fringe or Die, festivals under three years old "are usually a bust" in terms of recouping expenses. Lacking some motive other than earning money, he advises, performers should hold off until the CFF establishes itself.
But Brown says she was swamped almost immediately. "It blew up beyond our expectations," she recalls. "We had 156 applications." Leery of spreading the potential first-year audience too thin, they capped the total number of shows. And, in another compromise with total serendipity, they instituted sub-lotteries to guarantee diversity. At least 25 percent of the roster falls into one or more of these categories: under 19, over 50, or non-Caucasian. The participants—and a list of back-ups—were determined in three drawings held on February 28.
One goal is to bring foreign performers to town, but there won't be any this year. Although four international companies applied—two from Canada, one each from Israel and the UK—and it looked like one of the Canadian troupes might actually make it, Brown says they got word this week that the visa wouldn't come through in time. "The visa process for performance groups is very expensive, especially if you need to expedite it," Brown notes, "and we weren't in a position in our first year to help them navigate that."
Another plan for the future is to move the festival around the city, staging it in a different neighborhood each year, even though Lacey says lining up the venues—"convincing business owners that all these strangers weren't going to come in and wreck their premises, and that it'd actually be good for business"—was one of the biggest challenges. The Pilsen venues are the EP and Dream theaters, Temple Gallery, the Chicago Art Department, two empty gallery spaces on Halsted, Simone's Bar, and Casa Aztlan.
The main box office will be at what's being called the Edinburgh Stage—one of the empty galleries—at 2003 S. Halsted. But tickets are also available at chicagofringe.org or, on a cash-only basis, at the individual venues. Fringe Central, an open lot at 18th and Racine, will offer beer, food, and music under a tent. Post-show parties are at Honky Tonk BBQ, 1213 W. 18th, starting at 10:30 nightly.
Brown hopes to see thousands of theater patrons eating, drinking, tweeting their reviews of shows they've just seen, and roaming the neighborhood wearing their $5 festival buttons. (A fringe-fest custom, the one-time button purchase is required of every patron, and the money goes to the festival.) The schedule and descriptions of the shows, which last 45 minutes to an hour each, are available online and in programs. Brown says all the productions are original, and the roster includes "a fair amount" of dance. But don't look for any improv: it was deliberately omitted, partly in deference to the Chicago Improv Festival.
A Kickstarter campaign raised over $5,000 for lighting and equipment. Operational expenses of about $25,000—of which more than half is earmarked for venue rentals—are to be covered by the performers' fees, button revenue, and individual donations. Brown says they had to cut back on some marketing and advertising plans when donations fell about $5,000 short of original projections. But the biggest challenge, she adds, is the fact that "all of us organizing the festival have full-time jobs." She's a paralegal; Lacey directs a young adult program for a Catholic church. Next year, Brown says, "I hope one person can be an employee, at least part time. I've never seen anything like the collaboration we've had. It's been amazing, and I'm so excited. But I've been thinking lately, we can't have another year like this one."
Coleman of Fringe or Die says there's "a big buzz in the fringe community" about Chicago, with "some people thinking it'll be a bust and others sure it'll do really well." According to Coleman, having a strong native theater community isn't necessarily an asset. "You'd think it would be the opposite," he says, "but a typical theatergoer is used to seeing a show here and there rather than 10, 20, or 30 in a week. They have to be educated differently than a person who doesn't go to theater at all." He also says the strongest festivals run as long as three or four weeks. "It's hard to build a buzz and get the crowds there in five days."
On the other hand, he adds, the fringe circuit more or less moves from the east coast across the country to the west coast every year, and "a lot people see Chicago as the connector city on that circuit."
Chicago Fringe Festival
The Chicago Fringe Festival debuts this week with 46 shows in eight Pilsen spaces. A ninth venue, located in a tent at 18th and Racine, has been designated Fringe Central—the official eating, drinking, and socializing hub for patrons and performers.
Participating troupes represent ten states and D.C.; productions run the gamut from a hip-hop play to Moliere. Most shows are performed every day of the festival, but the schedule is irregular, so consult the website for the full roster and curtain times.
Among the potential highlights: Local performer Rebecca Kling grapples with gender in Uncovering the Mirrors (Temple Gallery, 1749 S. Halsted). LA playwright Maire Clerkin supplies a comic antidote to Riverdance in The Bad Arm—Confessions of a Dodgy Irish Dancer, (Adelaide Stage, 1832 S. Halsted). A sketch comedy revue by local duo Weber and Einstein, Please Love Me, High School Boyfriend (Chicago Art Department, 1837 S. Halsted) is intended to "feel like what would happen if Shirley Temple was thrown into the ghetto and forced to hustle." Minneapolis's Opium, Fireworks and Lead premiere Exhausted Paint: The Death of van Gogh, a solo show structured to mirror the Dutch artist's approach to painting (Simone's Bar, 960 W. 18th). And local choreographer Megan Rhyme presents Inner Cartography, in which dancers become neurons and molecules inside a brain (Adelaide Stage, 1832 S. Halsted).
There's a free preview party, featuring peeks at fest performances, this Saturday, August 28, at Fringe Central. Reservations are required; RSVP to email@example.com.
Wed-Sun 9/1-9/5, various times and locations, chicagofringe.org, $5 required festival badge, $10 suggested donation per performance, $45 five-pack, $80 ten-pack, $175 unlimited pass. —Olivia LaVecchia