Fringe Fest Promises Risk, Responsibility

It might have the same name as the Seattle Fringe Festival of yore, but organizers of the new Seattle Fringe Festival, which will debut at theatres around Capitol Hill this fall, swear it’s not the same.

“No one who was involved in producing the old Fringe Festival is a part of this new group,” says SFF co-organizer and On the Boards regional programs director Sean Ryan. “There are a lot of things we’re taking from the old Fringe Festival and reinvigorating, but we are in no way related.”

It’s been almost nine years since the Seattle Fringe Festival imploded under the weight of debt, bringing an end to an event that, at 13 years old, was North America’s longest-running showcase of marginalized performance art. The crash left many already struggling artists with even emptier pockets and significant trust issues.

Cash is still rare on the edges of Seattle’s theatre community, but trust appears to be on the mend. Last month, a new organization called Seattle Contemporary announced an open call to theatre artists who would like to take part in five days of performance, “from raw and untested to perfectly executed.”

Applying is easy, requiring only that the artist propose a piece that is 30 to 60 minutes long, and requires minimal production. Taking even more pressure off the artists, the applications will not be judged on merit. Those who submit by May 7 are entered into a May 15 lottery at On the Boards where 13 local acts and eight visiting acts will be chosen for festival slots.

Charges have been made that the lottery is a feel-good move to get a large cross-section of the theatre community to “buy in” to the festival, before moving into a more cliquish approach for future editions. But Ryan contends that the lottery is at the very heart of the event and will continue after this year.

“We feel it’s important for it to not be adjudicated,” Ryan says. “It makes it so the festival is really based on risk and chance. It’s very important for fringe that the audience not be able to know what they are going to see.”

It’s also important that the festival stay financially solvent, which is why the first edition, produced by the unincorporated Seattle Contemporary with financial support from Theatre Puget Sound, is staying small. The old Seattle Fringe Festival ballooned to 500 shows but the new SFF will consist of just over 80. Also, to avoid debt, organizers are asking artists to take on some of the initial financial burden. Winners of the lottery will be asked to make a deposit of $200 (for a 49-seat venue) or $300 (for a 99-seat venue), in exchange for 80 percent of box-office receipts (tickets will be $10 each).

“It’s important that we grow this responsibly,” Ryan says. “We set up a platform so all the artists get paid. But the Fringe Festival is about investing in the arts, and it’s important for artists to invest in themselves.” 

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