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A&E: Welcoming audiences

September 10, 2007

This week, more thoughts on the Fringe and its attendees.

It took me a while to figure out why the audiences at this year's IndyFringe festival were so friendly.

I don't mean friendly as in walking up to you, shaking your hand, and asking how your family's doing. I mean friendly in the sense that they seemed to warmly welcome whatever was being presented on stage.

Don't get me wrong: They didn't love everything they saw or feel obligated to give standing ovations if they didn't feel the shows or the performers warranted it. "Welcome," by definition, concerns greeting-the initial contact-and when a show didn't satisfy, the Fringe audiences weren't shy about discussing what they felt worked or didn't work. They were just, as I said, friendly about it.

Which was refreshing. To me, the audiences at IndyFringe say more about the potential for this city as a creative, cultural center than anything that I saw on stage during the fest. Having such an open-minded, savvy and, yes, critical audience is vital to a city's artistic health. It's what keeps companies pushing to improve, it's what encourages fledgling companies to stick around, and it's what builds institutions.

When I moved to Indy about 13 years ago, I was a little dismayed to find that most arts patrons here-at least the one's who went to homegrown productions-seemed to fall into two categories. There was the "It is my obligation as a citizen to love this" crowd. And there was the "This is local so it can't be good" crowd. I had trouble finding anything in between.

The reaction to the 3-year-old Fringe indicates that we've come a long way. Saying that a show didn't satisfy-taking to task weak writing or unfocused choices-wasn't perceived as being anti-Fringe. And saying that a show was "pretty good" wasn't tantamount to saying it was awful.

I think that's partially because patrons knew they could quickly move on to something else. If you found that a show was too experimental (or too conservative) for your taste or if you discovered that you prefer more formal productions to looser ones, you could pick the next one accordingly-and there it was, a half hour later.

Like bigger casts? Prefer more intimate shows? Want something more serious? There were plenty of other options readily available as your next choice.

That's the beauty of a festival. (Assuming they aren't all duds, of course.)

Well, in a sense, Indianapolis has a festival going all year long. Sure, much of it isn't on the fringe-you won't see many chances being taken with yet another production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" or "A Christmas Carol." But Indy's got enough going on that there's no reason for those who enjoyed IndyFringe to hibernate until next August.

Dig experimental Fringe shows such as "Down-A"? Then go see what Butler University Theatre is up to. Like the oneperson shows? Then you might want to hit the Alley Theatre for local playwright Tony McDonald's new monologue "Lies My Father Told Me." Prefer the movement-based selections? Watch for the next move by Susurrus.

Enjoyed "Married to Magic" or one of the other variety aspects of the festival? Check out what Indy-based Blue Monkey Sideshow is up to. Have a taste for improvisation now that you've seen Cool Table and other Fringe visitors? Make a date to see what's going on at ComedySportz Theatre on Mass Ave.

And there's plenty more. If you found yourself attracted to the thrill of seeing a show where you have no idea what's going to happen next, well, the Phoenix Theatre has a stack of brand-new plays on its season schedule. And keep an eye on what the increasing number of small theater companies in the area are up to.

I'll be doing the same, and alerting you through the weekly IBJ Daily A&E email (you can subscribe for free at ibj.com) and through reviews here.

Just remember: You aren't obligated to like what you see. Just arrive in a welcoming mode.

And, by the way, welcome to the 2007-2008 arts and entertainment season. As a starting point, give a read to our Focus section beginning on page 19A.
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