Why I won't live in a city without a Fringe Festival

I’ve made the decision that I won’t live in a city that doesn’t have its own Fringe Festival. A Fringe city makes a statement about itself. It says it’s open to the unknown. It says maybe we don’t have avant-garde, uncensored, rock-it-out-to-all-hours-of-the-night events happening every week, but we think there’s a place for that and so we’re going to make it happen – even if it’s only for twelve days at a time to start. A city open to risk, to taking a chance on something it’s never tried before is a city that honors and respects its creative capital. It indicates an understanding that a city's uniqueness is tied to providing opportunity for its creatives to experiment and collaborate with other creatives from other parts of the world. More than just an arts festival, Fringes are essentially very cool conventions on what tomorrow's art will be. Like many things worthy of understanding and funding, it will take some time before all civic stakeholders see the twelve-day event that way, but Festival organizers say they're not plannning on leaving anytime soon.

Take any drive to any city and on your way in you can pretty much guarantee what kind of shopping you’re going to run into, what kind of music will be playing (or not playing) on the radio and what kind of food you’re going to eat based on the pretty pictures on the menus. But a Fringe city tells you something different. It tells you that amid this homogeny lies a group of creatives who are willing to offer something much more exciting than the safety of the familiar. They’re willing to offer a gamble. And that gamble is what a Fringe Festival is all about - there is always something for anyone to love or hate, you just have to find it.

The Fringe movement, previously the domain of Europe and Canada, only fell into its stride in the US during the early ‘90s when a handful of cities including Seattle, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Orlando began creating one and two week festivals open to anyone who had the guts to take an idea and put it out there. The concept is simple. Festival organizers provide individual artists or small theatre groups a space, some tech support, and then let them do whatever they want. To anyone who has ever attended a fringe, the attractions are obvious: cheap tickets, a slew of shows to choose from and a casual, party-like atmosphere. But it means a lot more to the artists and to the communities that stage them. Fringe Festivals succeed because they fill a need for artist and audience alike - the need to take part in something they normally would never experience. 

Cincinnati didn’t have a festival when I first moved here five years ago. At that time, Jason Bruffy, an actor/director brought here by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s young acting company, was debating whether or not he wanted to stay in Cincinnati. A project he felt would keep him here, “at least for one more year” was a festival of free-flowing theatre, dance, poetry and art that would normally never have any play anywhere else in Cincinnati. Bruffy is now the Producing Artistic Director of Know Theatre of Cincinnati which recently merged with the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. Tonight marks Cincinnati Fringe Festival’s fifth anniversary. 

This year’s festival features over 175 different performances of more than 35 productions throughout the 12-day festival in multiple venues around the city. More than 400 local, regional, national and international artists will turn up in Cincinnati to participate and over 150 volunteers will help to make everything run smoothly. The fringe introduces performance to new audiences, says Bruffy. “People that wouldn’t necessarily spend $60 or $70 on a theatre ticket will spend $10 at the fringe to try it out." He knows Cincinnati also benefits from the exposure. "I love it when I hear other Fringe artists telling their colleagues back home what a great time they had here in Cincinnati. We're getting a bit of a reputation as a cool place to fringe." Applications from outside of the city have increased every year since the Festival began.

Every Fringe is a treasure hunt. Word-of-mouth recommendations are the most reliable way to gauge what’s hot and what’s not. Recognizing this, newly appointed Fringe Producing Director and general Fringe puppet-master, Eric Vosmeier has ensured all media reviews are posted to the Fringe Website the day they come out. Conveyor blogger, Brian Griffin steps up this year to serve as the official Cincy Fringe Blog to capture the voices of the people.

When it comes to the inside scoop, Vosmeier suggests dipping into conversations overheard at the official Fringe bar series held at Know Theatre each night. This is where the real dirt is shared between traveling national and international artists, the locals, producers and audience members. Of course, your best bet is to take a chance on something new but for those who need the reassurance of the crowd, you’ll quickly get a sense of what’s popular between the blog, the reviews and the gossip on the street. The Fringe website is also an excellent source of detailed information about performances as well as places to park as well as finding the places to eat and shop that are offering extended hours to accommodate all your fringing needs. 

The fringe draws a significant number of tourists and artists who call Cincinnati home for two weeks each year and provides new insight into how and why our city is more impressive than we might have previously thought. New Jersey natives, Joe Rodolfo and his partner, Chuck Blesser ran across the Cincy Fringe website last year while planning a trip to Chicago. “The Fringe Festival sounded more interesting than what we were looking at in Chicago so we made a detour to check it out. We ended up staying here the whole week.” Festivals in Fringe cities across Canada have grown so large that in some cases populations nearly double during festival weeks.

Festival organizers are expecting record crowds in 2008 thanks to the momentum of previous years as well as the improved logistics of Over-the-Rhine’s emerging arts corridor. Almost everything Fringe related is centralized across 12th Street between Race and Sycamore.

Not just for performing artists, the festival encapsulates a film component as well as the Visual Fringe held primarily in the Art Academy of Cincinnati’s Convergys and Chidlaw galleries. The Visual Fringe opens the 2008 Fringe Festival with the Gallery Opening Reception on Tuesday, May 27 from 6 pm to 9 pm. Following that will be the CityBeat Fringe Kick-Off Party at Know Theatre’s Underground from 9 pm to 1 am.

The flagship of the Visual Fringe this year is the commission of local artists Matthew Dayler, Danny Babcock and Eric Lowenstein to create a mural for the South wall of Know Theatre. The mural will serve as its own Fringe performance as Art Academy faculty and students will begin the project on day one of the festival and will complete the work of art on the last day. “This project will bring the art out of the galleries and to the public,” says Visual Fringe Chair, Matt Steffen. Vosmeier looks forward to having a permanent Fringe installation as part of the city’s landscape. “It will be something for all of Cincinnati to be proud of” he says.

The CityBeat Fringe Kick-Off Party will take place following the opening of the Visual Fringe at Know Theatre’s Underground (a.k.a. Fringe HQ) from 9:00 pm to 1:00 am.

Soapbox suggests taking a chance on:

then after water
Available Light Theatre

Fringe favorite, Available Light Theatre, led by Columbus based Matt Slaybaugh produces the kind of theatre that makes you want to run out and change the world, literally.

Body Language: A Radical Truth
True Body Project

Headed by local fitness guru, playwright and Pilates mistress, Stacy Sims, The True Body Project has been creatively working with Cincinnati-area teen girls and women to discover the complexities of how we experience our bodies and the secrets we might keep related to these experiences.

Car / Street
Andy Marko

Who doesn’t love car performance art? Over twenty cars and people will come together to create an elaborate, living streetscape on a closed-off city block. Yeah, I don’t get it either but I can’t wait to see it.

Inner:City Tours

Inner:City promises to be a fringe show unto itself featuring a guided walking tour through the spaces between the Fringe venues through the help of a podcast downloaded onto audience’s own iPods.

Tickets and Fringe Passes for all events are available online (eliminating congested will-call experiences) at www.cincyfringe.com or through the Cincinnati Arts Association box office at (513) 621-ARTS.

Photography by Scott Beseler

The first day prep for The Know Theatre mural

Cincy Fringe Festival Logo yo

Eric Vosmeier

Robby Burgess, Matthew Dayler, Danny Babcock and Eric Lowenstein

Zoe Beseler, Eric Lowenstein, Matthew Dayler and Danny Babcock

Jeff Syroney is the Managing Editor of Soapbox and was one of the original founding board members of the Fringe Festival. He has been known to continue to help out with the Festival every once and awhile.

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