Fringe festivals have a reputation as free-for-alls: somewhere between a carnival and theatrical Russian Roulette. Some fantastically visceral pieces of theatre are born out of the crucible of a fringe; audiences also get accustomed to enduring more than a few duds in their search for greatness.
What isn’t often readily apparent is how much winds up going on behind the scenes of a successful Fringe fest. The Hollywood Fringe Festival, which will return for its third year this June for an 11-day stand at theaters throughout the Hollywood area. After growing their festival’s profile over the past two years, co-founders Ben Hill and Stacy Jones-Hill are looking to consolidate what works about the festival and start building an even stronger foundation for the future.
“Its always been a five year plan,” said Hill, “the first was just ‘make it happen’. Above all, if the event occurs then it is successful. The second year was expanding on the first year’s success and adding programs. We’re starting to set our framework for adding these things. The third year is about grouping and consolidating. It’s about taking what we already have and gold plating it, making it better.”
Hill has his eye on more than just expanding the number of venues participating in the festival. With the Hollywood Fringe he’s looking to create a new model for how fringe festivals can work. As Hill tells it, there are currently two major models that fringe festivals use
“There’s what’s called the CAFF model– the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals model– which is the predominant North American model,” said Hill. “The fringe actually rents and runs every single venue.” In most of these festivals shows are chosen either through a lottery or a first-come, first served system. The problem with this model being that it creates what Hill calls a “bulky central fringe organization”. Producers are left at the mercy of the luck of the draw or to fight over a small supply of performance slots.
The other major model is drawn from the Edinburgh Fringe, the festival that started the worldwide fringe movement. Edinburgh is a total free-for-all. If a producer can find a venue that will rent to them, then the show can go on.
“The major criticism of the Edinburgh model,” said Hill, “is that its very easy for the venues to start jacking up the price of the venue substantially. So what we’re trying to do is find an American model.”
In Hill’s vision of the Hollywood Fringe, the central organization controls a small number of venues, while the BYOV (Bring Your Own Venue) ethos of the Edinburgh Fringe plays out all around that hub.
“We set the basic rates and we publicize those rates,” said Hill. “So other venues see what Fringe Central is setting their rate at this year. It becomes like a Fed interest rate, a central rate. So vary from that at your own peril because we are not flooding, but we are injecting a very healthy dose of slots in the market at this rate.”
Open market forces at work means there’s more than a little healthy competition for the audience’s attention. Which puts a pressure on artists to think about the business of the show and not just the art and craft. Stacy Jones-Hill, the festival’s director of publicity, explained that they see part of their role as helping artists develop these skills too.
“We try and be hands on as much as we can without doing everything for anybody,” said Jones-Hill. “We’ve been laying out mathematical formulas about how to budget a show. Ben was giving very conservative estimated about what you should budget for and we try to give suggestions about how to market.”
“We always knew that we’d be creating a lot of producers as a result of this,” said Hill. “That’s kind of what we’re trying to train people on this year. Your show is a business. You’re an entrepreneur, you’re a producer.”
With two years of festivals and host of shows that have gone on to have longer runs post-festival– like Pulp Shakespeare and Four Clowns– the Hollywood Fringe will also turn to some of its alumni to run workshops on marketing and producing this year.
These are not the only changes. Fringe Central which was anchored at the Artworks theater spaces on Santa Monica Blvd. last year, complete with a beer tent, will be de-centralized for the third annual fest. The 99-seat Open Fist Theater will serve as the Fringe Central main stage along Santa Monica Theater Row. The smaller Theater of Note will be the Fringe run black box venue, creating a second locus of Fringe activity a little closer to the heart of Hollywood.
The Hollywood Fringe will continue to expand their slate this year, with plans to “double down” on the film programming that was kicked off at the last fest and an effort to stage free shows for junior and high school students of the LA Unified School District as part of the festival’s preview week. To encourage patrons to stick around, the festival’s discount button program– which patrons used to get a deal on drinks in the festival tent last year– is being expanded to provide a dollar discount on everything the festival sells, from tickets to merchandise. (Social drinkers need not worry, as the buttons steal score discount booze.)
The overall aim, Hill explained, is to continue to find ways to make the festival a “financially positive experience as well as a socially positive experience” for participating producers.