Festival prepares to kick off with help from friends: Groups met in the middle to make theater on the Fringe

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The plays are hardly household names: “A Midsummer Night of Fairies and Asses.” “Fresh Meat.” “Hooray for Speech Therapy.”

Ditto for the performers: Ganas Theatre Productions. Master of Trades. Too Much Free Time Productions.

That’s the point of Indianapolis Fringe Theatre Festival, a 10-day, 30-troupe, 150-show whirlwind of plays that people may never see again performed by groups from around the world.

The inaugural festival kicks off downtown Aug. 19, the culmination of a twoyear effort that brought together myriad theaters, not-for-profits and civic groups for a common cause.

“It provides a venue for artists that don’t normally have a venue,” said Melli Hoppe, a local performing artist and one of the founders of the festival. “People also get to see new groups come in, and we don’t often have [that] here.”

Hoppe and New York transplant Kathleen Robbins had the idea for the festival several years ago, but making it happen took help.

They tapped into financial and in-kind contributions from Central Indiana Community Foundation, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, Indianapolis Downtown Inc., the mayor’s office, five theaters and Riley Area Development Corp., among others. The unprecedented collaboration is evidence of the community’s increasing willingness to create more cultural destinations, organizers said.

“It’s such a huge undertaking,” said Tom Battista, president of IndyFringe’s board, noting the squadrons of volunteers that will be used during the festival’s run. “We’re going to get a lot of people involved who wouldn’t normally become involved.”

Battista, a professional stage manager, has been involved with public art and other efforts in the Massachusetts Avenue Cultural District. Shortly after Robbins and Hoppe approached him in 2003, he suggested downtown theaters would be the perfect place to host the festival.

“We had a temporary art sculpture program and we were looking for ways to reach into performing arts,” said Battista, who is the stage manager for Jimmy Buffett’s worldwide tours. “But we weren’t very good at talking to the theaters.”

Enter Indianapolis Downtown Inc., which is working with the city to boost the presence of six cultural districts, including Mass Ave.

“They put a bunch of money on the table, and theaters started going to the meetings,” Battista recalled.

The “bunch of money” raised by IDI and the Riley Area Development Corp. eventually reached about $100,000, much of which was used to make improvements to American Cabaret Theatre, Phoenix Theatre and Theatre on the Square, which will host IndyFringe performances.

“One of the roadblocks was that the theaters didn’t have the space to accommodate the Fringe in addition to regular performances,” said IDI President Tamara Zahn.

Some of the money went to theaters to add performance spaces with soundproofing and other theater equipment. After the festival, the venues will continue to reap the benefits of those improvements for their own performances and, IndyFringe organizers hope, more visits from outside theater groups.

“They made the space worthy of outside companies coming in,” said Sharon Gamble, managing director of Phoenix Theatre. Phoenix received about $40,000 of work on its Underground stage, renamed the Frank and Katrina Basile Theatre.

Compared to lining up funding, venues and support, finding artists to perform at IndyFringe was relatively easy, said Hoppe, vice president of IndyFringe’s board.

“Once the Web site was up, the applications came,” she said.

Fifteen of the festival performers will be largely unknown local theater groups. The rest come from across the country, as well as Rome and India.

Many of the troupes travel the country performing at similar festivals. The fringe festival tradition began in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1947, when rogue theater groups set up on the edges of the Edinburgh International Festival. Since then it has spread across Europe and North America.

The 60-minute performances at IndyFringe are billed as “old and new, edgy and not so,” but with titles like “Testaclese and Ye Sack of Rome,” Phoenix Theatre’s Gamble predicts IndyFringe will go beyond the comfort level of some patrons.

“That’s sort of the reputation fringe acts have,” she said, noting it’s similar to the Phoenix’s mission of bringing edgy contemporary plays to Indianapolis. “They’re going to push the boundaries a little bit.”

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