At the Fringe Festival (opening Thursday, August 4), as in life, you can’t experience everything. To get the most out of the limited time you have, you need a plan.
If you are the type who prefers a full-proof, easy-to-recommend, no-risk philosophy of life, then hold back until the second weekend of the Fringe when all the shows that everyone says are good have already been identified.
The upside of this philosophy is that you will be entertained. Life is short and plentiful. Why waste time? Generally, the overarching consensus around a show is pretty accurate.
The downside of this philosophy is that you probably won’t be that entertained, no more than you would be on any other night of the year at the theater or by staying home and watching Adult Swim. The kinds of shows that are generally accessible enough to everyone at the Fringe Festival are a certain kind of comedy (but of course not always) with a slightly-broader-than-realistic aesthetic and an appealing, we-don’t-take-ourselves-too-seriously air. Plus, pop culture references. Pop culture references expertly woven into the fabric of a wacky premise, or the plot of a Shakespeare play, or the lyrics of a song are pretty common in most of the most popular shows in the fringe.
On the other hand, you could adopt a more literally fringey attitude (as in “fringe, adj, unconventional, left-field, innovative. . . ”) and aim to see instead all the shows with only the most interesting commentary and reviews attached to them, the ones where someone felt the need to explain what they thought they were witnessing in writing on the Fringe website or in line in front of you at another show, where someone wrote more than just “[Name of Theater Here] does it again” or “Always a fringe favorite,” the one with the good and the bad reviews, even maybe more bad than good but really really strange and passionate reviews. See that stuff. Then, go online and write your own long, strange, questioning review of it. More than simply living for passing entertainment, you’ll be inserting yourself into a conversation about something.
Unless you consider yourself a person with a truly extreme, balls-to-the-wall philosophy of life. Then you should only go to the shows with the absolute worst reviews. They are guaranteed to be an experience you will remember.
Even better, if you are an artist yourself, you will learn a lot—a lot more than just what not to do. Cause the people who make this particular kind of disaster generally have no idea what they’re doing on stage. It is one of the Fringe Festival’s primary virtues that it is open even to people who have never set foot onstage before. And these people—who have no real frame of reference for what they’re doing—will stumble onto something that no one with any experience would ever do, and it’s completely unexpected and amazing. Thrillingly surprising and even dangerous. For a minute or two and then it’s gone. But, still, really really awesome. Yes, you’ll need a stiff drink afterward, and probably before, but you will also actually witness a bunch of stuff that no one thought to do on stage, and when you adopt it in your own work (only with skill), people will think you a genius.
Not recognizing your philosophy of life yet? Consider these potential plans:
The expected vs. the unexpected
Search the Fringe website for the genre or topic or artists that you know appeal to you. Only comedies. Or only shows with nudity. Or only political shows, solo storytelling shows, or dance. When you know you like something, binge on it, right?
Fringe Variation #1: Search the Fringe website for subject matter, genres and aesthetics that seem to be repeating. Use the abundance of the Fringe Festival as a chance to explore what is on the minds of your fellow citizens right now. Ride the energy of the moment. Surf the zeitgeist
Extreme Variation #2: Let chance be your guide. Decide on some absolutely random criteria for your Fringe schedule, like all shows that have the word “peace” in their title, or the word “buffalo,” or any show in a particular location at 10 pm every night, or any show that has a woman in a blue hat waiting in line to see it when you happen to walk by. People who have tried this in the past report that chance is no worse a predictor of quality than anything else. But you got to commit to it. It’s a numbers game, and Chance needs a real chance.
Fulfilling your obligations
Unfortunately, if you are a working member of the theater community yourself, you may not feel as though you have the luxury of a philosophy. You’ve got obligations, don’t you? You’ve got friends in this town, and if you ever expect them to support you, then you’ve got to see their show, right? Because life is about relationships. It’s not what you do or what you want; it’s about how nice you are to the people who you think can help you in the future.
Allow me to suggest this slightly more Fringey approach to fulfilling your obligations. Ask your friends how the show they’re doing is pushing them outside the boundaries of the work they normally do the rest of the year. Ask them in what way this is some kind of special work. Even if it’s a small thing—the best ensemble they’ve ever worked with, the best director, the most complicated script, the most amazing singular joke they’ve ever had the pleasure of saying, the strangest moment—make it clear to them that of course you support their work but, you know, everyone has to pace themselves—so is this the show they really want you to be supporting? How are they striving for something exceptional here?
The downside of this approach is that if they say, yes, this show is more special than anything they do the rest of the year, then you pretty much have to see that show. Or lose the friend.
This year, I’m going to try for a more extreme variation on this approach: I’m only going to see shows produced by and starring NO PEOPLE I KNOW. None. I figure the purity of it inoculates me from any resentment from friends and, honestly, I want to know what new people are doing right now. The Fringe shall be like my own personal unified auditions, but with jokes.
What artists in Fringe shows are relatively new in town (last 3 years) that I probably don’t know but should? Suggestions are welcome.
I intend to commit to this philosophy completely, hardcore from day 1 to day 11—well, except for Four Humors. I'll probably see them. And also anything John Middleton may be in. The exceptions prove the rules, right? Also dance. Every year Fringe rolls around, and I am reminded how much more I would enjoy life if I had more dance in it all year round. O, and I'm a little curious about that Shakespeare thing where they’re doing the whole play but in two different 60 minute shows, Twelfth Night and What You Will, that seems like a bold idea worth checking out. And there are some new plays that I kind of want to support. And. . .
At the Fringe Festival, as in life, it’s important not to let your best laid plans blind you to the joys of spontaneity.