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Fringe Festival seeking next level in 3rd year: Growing downtown theater festival hopes to draw cash as well as bigger crowds

August 6, 2007

Pauline Moffat, executive director of the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, expects a big turnout for this year's two-week salute to alternative stage productions.

The event takes over the Massachusetts Avenue Arts District Aug. 24 to Sept. 2, offering 228 individual performances staged by 40 theatrical troupes and presented at five different venues, including Theatre on the Square, The Phoenix Theatre and American Cabaret Theatre.

Moffat hopes this season will bring a third year of attendance growth and take the event to the next level of public visibility, attracting more corporate donors.

Personally, however, she holds out little hope of seeing many of the productions herself. As the Fringe Festival's only full-time employee, she simply won't have time.

"Last year, I saw a show by Hiram Pines called 'The Day the Universe Came Closer,'" says the Australian native. "And of course I saw the two Australian productions. I dragged them here kicking and screaming, so I had to see them."

These days, she spends more time turning people away than cajoling them into coming. During the inaugural run in 2005, only eight performance groups attended. This year there will be 40, with another 10 waved off for lack of space. Twenty are from Indiana, 12 are from elsewhere in the United States, and six are from other countries.

"Every year, it's gaining more and more popularity and more awareness," said Megan Scharnowske, communications coordinator for Indianapolis Downtown Inc. "I think its viability as a weekend destination is increasing every year."

But growth brings challenges, especially for an organization with a tiny staff and modest revenue stream. The big challenge in the coming years is to build brand recognition and market effectively to corporate donors and sponsors.

Not surprisingly, the fringe theater concept began as a shoestring operation. It was born in 1947 when guerilla theater groups offered unsanctioned performances on the fringes of the famous Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. The concept spread throughout the world, with more than 20 events springing up in North America alone.

The movement sprouted locally thanks to seed money from the Central Indiana Community Foundation and support from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, Riley Area Development Corp., and IDI.

In 2006, some 9,677 attended-up from 4,755 the first year. But the tickets those patrons purchased don't help fund the festival. At least, not directly. All that money goes to pay the acting troupes, with nary a dime ringing in the host's coffers. The only "cut" the organization receives is from the sale of $3 Fringe Backer Buttons, which must be worn to gain admittance to performances, even if you already have a ticket.

More corporate backers would certainly help, but developing that revenue source has been slow going.

"I know that it takes a long time to build relationships," Moffat said. "I have been working at this now for nearly two years. Working to prove that we are here to stay, and to show that the demographics are the sort of demographics that sponsors would be attracted to. And to demonstrate that we are a business and not just a not-for-profit."

Her copious survey of more than 2,200 attendees at the 2006 event seems to show that the Fringe is popular with more than just the black turtleneck crowd. It indicates, among other things, that 25.6 percent of poll subjects make more than $70,000 per year; that 68.9 percent possess a college degree or better; and that 51.2 percent are age 40 to 64.

One such attendee was the Fringe's newest board member, Gary J. Reiter, vice president for National City's private client group. A Mass Ave-area resident, last year he purchased 110 tickets, then held a couple of weekend functions at his house that were capped with shows.

"I thought it was a great way to have a corporate event, but also to get people walking down Mass Ave and seeing the different theater venues," Reiter said.

Moffat, who sold those tickets herself, couldn't agree more. Reiter was asked to join the Fringe board, and charged with thinking of ways to better market the event.

"I think building brand awareness has been the biggest challenge," he said. "But I think the demographics and the attendance is moving faster than the brand."

For her part, Moffat hopes to soon see a "critical mass" of corporate interest. This year, the sponsorship roster includes such high-profile names as Young & Laramore, Xerox, Cummins, and Kosene & Kosene. "Just by attracting the sponsorship we have this year, we hope it will attract others," she said. "They will have a look and at least talk to us."

Ideally, Moffat would like to see her group supported by a 50/50 split of sponsorships and funding from grant makers. On other fronts, she'd like to develop a Midwest "circuit" of fringe festivals, so international acts could play several venues in the United States, rather than face the decidedly less lucrative prospect of going halfway around the world just to visit Indianapolis.

"And I would like to see more theater space coming on board," she said. "We could even go down to Fountain Square."

Moffat's immediate post-Fringe plans are more straightforward.

"I'm getting every sponsorship proposal I can to people while they're still making budget decisions," she said. "We're getting good video footage of the festival this year, so that we're able to show people what we are. We'll do another questionnaire, and we'll be able to again ascertain exactly who's coming. And then I'll go out there and peddle my wares."
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