Some New York theater folk were talking on Twitter about this write-up of shows in the Toronto Fringe Festival by Kelly Nestruck, and he makes some interesting points--
It occurred to me around my fifth show this year: Before Netflix or Napster, there was the Fringe Festival. I think we can only really begin to understand how forward-thinking and disruptive Canada’s unique Fringe circuit has been to theatre now that we’ve seen similar innovations undermine traditional cultural delivery systems on the Internet.
Thirty-two years ago, the first Canadian Fringe was started in Edmonton – and today there are at least 17 official ones across the country (more than any other country in the world), serving every province except Newfoundland and selling hundreds of thousands of tickets every summer.
What these Fringes have in common is this: Participating theatre, dance and comedy shows are selected by lottery instead of being curated with an eye to quality or artistic experience. Anyone who can pay the relatively cheap entrance fee can get a slot.
What the accessible Fringe movement did and continues to do is eliminate the theatrical gatekeepers, whether the artistic directors at the subsidized theatres or the impresarios with the cash to back a commercial run. It blurred the lines between “professional” and “amateur” in live performance and allowed everyone to compete on an equal footing long before digital did the same for journalism or music.And of course Hollywood Fringe is even more of a free-for-all, since there's not even the lottery system that other American festivals have (I think San Francisco is a prime example.).
It's interesting to see the fringe tradition's subversion of gatekeepers and institutions as a precursor to the internet's weakening of these things. I'd actually credit the way the internet has augmented the landscape around such things with helping me reframe my values around a DIY approach to theater.
Every time I start to question the value of self-production, I remind myself that opening channels of distribution are what the past 10 or so years have been all about. Self-publishing, self-promotion, music, blogs, webisodes, etc. Sure, I'd love a respected theater to do my plays, but why wait for them? Especially these days.
With mainstream commercial theater prices rising, maybe the fringe is the future of popular theater. The article goes on to suggest that low ticket prices and variable quality might be problematic for the form, but I find that much less troubling than high ticket prices and variable quality. There are things about the Hollywood Fringe that I often find crazy-making, but building audiences and generating excitement about affordable live performance isn't one of them.
So, it's nice to be reminded just how innovative, influential, and populist theater can be.