Every year since I was in eighth grade, I’ve gone with a friend and her dad to Los Angeles in June and San Francisco in September for a celebration of independent theater.
Some of the best, most emotional, most thought-provoking performances I’ve ever seen have been given in front of a crowd of a dozen people, in a tiny black room.
And yet, I’ve nearly never met anyone who knew about “fringing” outside of the festivals themselves.
In fact, I’m not even sure how my friend and her dad found out about this phenomenon.
It seems bizarre that the festivals are so unknown, though, considering that the Hollywood Fringe Festival bills itself as “LA’s Largest Celebration of the Performing Arts.”
So what is a fringe festival?
It’s when performers – from singers to actors to clowns to burlesque dancers to speakers – crawl out of the woodworks of a city and temporarily inhabit venues – from clubs to parks to churches to fully-equipped theaters – to put on shows and entertain audiences.
Each festival is slightly different. For instance, in San Francisco, the Fringe is centered around four tiny black-box theaters and the slots are limited, so performers get venues by lottery. In LA you may end up sprinting six blocks in two minutes to make your next show, but virtually everyone who wants to perform gets a venue.
Like the city itself, the fringe in LA is sprawling and barely organized, but exudes a sense of happy chaos and serendipity.
The one in San Francisco is much more restrained, but perhaps better curated, and the scheduling is much cleaner and overlaps a lot less.
Fringe festivals are all about cultivating artistic expression outside of what can usually get a platform to be heard – most of the performers haven’t quite broken into the mainstream or made much money doing their gigs.
Of course, this means that among the diamonds in the rough, the amazing shows that just haven’t been discovered yet, there are a fair share of plain old rocks – those who don’t quite have what it takes.
These are, of course, just part of the fun.
Which shows will be incredible? Which will be duds? The only way to find out is by seeing them. (Although it is possible to read the reviews of a show before shelling out for tickets, there’s a lot that can be chalked up to taste. I’ve been to shows that had good reviews and hated them, and vice versa.)
One of the best shows I’ve ever seen was a rock opera at the San Francisco Fringe in 2012 – “Weightless,” by kate kilbane and the cellar doors (now called The Kilbanes). It was a Greek tragedy recounted through amazing original music.
And the best part?
Usually, tickets for a musical or play are anywhere from $20 to hundreds of dollars at the biggest Broadway productions.
At a fringe festival, I’ve never seen a ticket for more than $15.
The low cost per show makes it much more feasible to see multiple shows in a day or a weekend. Usually when I go, I marathon eight or nine shows in a two-day period.
This year, the Hollywood Fringe Festival starts on Thursday, June 2, and continues until Sunday, June 26.
If you want a taste of the festival for yourself, the website for the LA version is at www.hollywoodfringe.org.
The San Francisco Fringe isn’t until September, but its website is at www.sffringe.org.
And while I don’t have personal experience with any festivals outside of California, they exist in cities from Missoula, Montana, to Edinburgh, Scotland. Every fringe is different, so explore!
—By Amelia Fineberg