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A&E

The Fringe Connection

September 1, 2008

A&E The Fringe Connection

It's a challenge writing about IndyFringe, the festival that adds a shot of late-summer life to Mass Ave (Aug. 22-31). Part of the challenge comes from the fact that IndyFringe, unlike the plays, exhibitions and concerts I normally review in this space, exists in two forms-the macro and the micro.

The macro is the festival itself-more than 50 companies and individual performers spread out over six stages. It involves art exhibitions (including one where you can ditch art and take art), outdoor concerts and people pushing postcards into your hand so that maybe you'll come see their show. It's $3 buttons (that allow you to buy tickets) and $10 tickets (that allow you to see shows). It's seeing people in Bazbeaux and Aesop's Tables and Yat' and Scholars

wearing the buttons and somehow finding yourself in conversation with them about what they've seen and what they are planning on seeing. It's about changing their minds and changing yours.

The macro event is a remarkable feat. So add me to the virtual audience applauding it. It's great for the city-as artists from around the world take the Indy hospitality message with them. It's great for local artists-who have a chance to work and (here comes a word that makes artists cringe) compete in the same arena with international artists. And it's great for audiences, who get to experience the work for relatively little money (although, to be honest, less than three hours of theatrical time for $33 isn't necessarily cheap).

That's the macro. There's also the micro. Individual performers staging individual shows that have to stand or fall on their own merits. The festival has offered 50-minute works that feel like hours and 50-minute works that feel like nothing you've felt before. And a lot in between.

Here's what makes it either very interesting or very frustrating, depending on your perspective and expectations: The acts that are part of the festival are not there because of proven talent or a juried opinion. They are there because they got their money in on time and signed up. Yes, that's all you need to do to be a part of IndyFringe. Want to read your memoirs for just under an hour? You can be part of the fest next year. And if you put something naughty in the title, you might even get an audience for at least your first performance.

After that, it's all word of mouth. And maybe reviews. Hard to tell.

As I write this, I've seen and reviewed nine of this year's IndyFringe plays. I hope by the time this sees print, I will have seen five or six more. I've been writing about them on my A&E blog (www.ibj.com/arts).

I don't usually review shows there, but for the Fringe, I make an exception-although it isn't quite the same thing that I do in this column. Those mini-reviews are more impressionistic than what you usually find here. I'm very aware that a great part of the pleasure of fringe is surprise-of not knowing exactly where a plot may be going, where a laugh will be coming from, or what a performer may be capable of doing-and so I try to hold back on too many details.

Some readers have taken me to task for them. Of course, these have been readers affiliated with productions I didn't like. Still, I've tried to answer their questions and respond to their comments honestly, and the only comments I've removed from the blog have been those that were intended strictly as self-promotion and had nothing to say that wasn't blatantly promotional.

The near instant reaction to the blog reviews has been interesting-especially when it leads strangers to approach me before shows (feel free, by the way) and artists to glare from a distance. When the festival started four years ago, the first few days were relatively quiet-until Nuvo's exhaustive review section arrived midweek. This year, with IBJ in the mix along with bloggers and posters from The Indianapolis Star, Smaller Indiana, Indy Theatre Habit and elsewhere, it seemed like the conversation was happening online and all around long before Nuvo's Wednesday arrival. All adding, I think, to the energy.

And Hoosier audiences seem more willing than ever to offer their opinions.

I've heard complaints of too many juggling and magic acts (if they are as delightful as Brent McCoy and his "Clown at Work" show, I say bring them on).

There have been complaints of too many one-person shows (If they are as inventive and emotionally honest as "Stinky Flowers and the Bad Banana," I say bring them on, too. Besides, it's the Fringe. One-person shows are cheap to stage).

Some people complain about companies doing already established shows rather than original material (I haven't seen the Jesus Quintero Studio production of Tennessee Williams' "27 Wagons Full of Cotton" yet, but I say why not? Plenty of room in the pool for a seldom-seen, one-act from a theatrical legend).

And some people complain that the critics just don't get it and that what is important is the artist satisfying his or her self. (I'm not a fan of that school of thought, by the way.)

These complaints are balanced by the many folks online and on the streets who are telling people, sincerely, how moved, amused and/or engaged they were by certain shows. By Fringe Day Two, people were insisting on shows "you gotta see."

This sort of thing may well go on during the rest of the theater season. But you don't see it happening in front of you.

"What is IndyFringe about?" I've been asked by the uninitiated.

The answers always seem contradictory. The festival is about professional artists from around the world and amateurs from around the world. It's about ego deserved and ego undeserved. It's about shows that make you feel like you never, ever, ever want to see another play again. And it's about shows that restore your hope. Sometimes with only a 40-minute break in between.

So far, I'm three for nine with IndyFringe shows that I would recommend to others. In baseball, batting over 300 is pretty good. Whether those odds sound good to you in a theatrical context should help determine whether or not you, like me, are looking forward to next year's IndyFringe.
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