Why FringeNYC Matters
I've deliberately chosen an attention-getting title for this piece, one that can't be definitively addressed by any single essay or essayist. I begin with the assumption that we agree that FringeNYC is in fact of some significance, which I now back up with a batch of statistics—a longevity of sixteen years and counting; 3,000+ shows involving literally tens of thousands of artists; an enormous audience that ranks it among the top five or six cultural events in New York City every year.
So, in terms of sheer mass, we're looking at something quantitatively impressive. The natural follow up is, what about quality? Is American drama served in some meaningful way by the New York International Fringe Festival?
Here's my answer: resoundingly yes—precisely because of its size. What FringeNYC does is to bring together a whole bunch of new plays from all over the USA, facilitating an exploration of what's on the minds and in the hearts of our contemporary playmakers. There's no claim put forth that these are the best new plays, but the adjudication process is designed to find work that's diverse in every sense of that word and therefore representative of what's going on in the field right now. There's simply nowhere else that this is being done at this scale. And that makes it invaluable.
What you get, if you sample enough shows at the festival in any given summer, is a snapshot of America.
Take the year 2000, the last festival before the Bush years; a time that seems an epoch ago, in some ways. Three plays that I loved that summer stand out for me as emblematic of who we were as a nation back then. Trav S.D.'s House of Trash, in which a garbageman moonlighting as a Baptist preacher somewhere in the American Heartland tries to keep his crazy family under control, offers a loving yet satirical look at what we now call Red State culture; I dubbed it a "delicious celebration of American ignorance" in my review, unaware how prescient its characters—notably a smart rage-filled young man with a hair-trigger temper and a big rifle—would turn out to be. Trav S.D. ends his play with one of his protagonist's sermons, and re-reading it today it blows me away in its incisiveness about who we are:
Without a soul, brother, we're just cold, calculating matter:
treat animals like people, treat people like animals,
and treat 'em both like stuff that goes down the disposal—
biological matter, cells and DNA, same as lettuce leaves.
Big germ robots.
The old folk culture had a soul, an oversoul,
a spirit that bubbled up from the people
but that's gone. Gone the way of the dodo.
In its place is some kinda
electronic, amnesiac vacuum.
A daily tinselburg mind wash
that makes us little better than vessels
blank slates for the billboard writers to write on.
Adrian Rodriguez's debut play, Cuban Operator Please..., takes us into the world of a Cuban-American family living in Union City, New Jersey, reminding us that the mixed blessings of the American Dream still live strongly in the hearts of our most recent immigrants. Rodriguez's play is truly bilingual, with as many scenes performed in English as in Spanish and both untranslated for audience members deficient in one or the other; this made the experience of watching the play very much like the experience of an immigrant struggling to learn about his or her new country.
And also that year was Julia Lee Barclay's Word To Your Mama, described by its author as "channel surfing through a turn of the millennium mind trapped in the collective body of a night secretary." Barclay's nonlinear, stream-of-consciousness non-narrative structure anticipated a whole body of work to come in this century; and her stark, sometimes repetitive, always arresting text encapsulated—with alarming prescience!—the way it felt to be alive and aware at the end of the last one:
Nothing bad happens to us.
Nothing happens to us.
We watch TV.
We Interact on the Internet.
We Buy Stuff.
We Sell Stuff.
We Buy and Sell electronic numbers.
We don't die.
We couldn't die if we wanted to.
We surf the Net.
We actually Surf a Net.
There's no water to dive into—
no water to drown in—
because there's a Net.
Word To Your Mama, I will add, contains one of my all-time favorite lines ever; an indictment of inertia disguised as a non-sequitur: "Too many people live in Switzerland."
Now fast-forward two years to 2002, the first FringeNYC after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. What a different country, a different New York, we lived in, and it was reflected in the works seen in the festival that summer. Richard Hinojosa captured the chicken-and-egg combination of collective paranoia and media frenzy in his sharp satire Panichorea, while in Out to Lunch, Joseph Langham gave us two "campers" stuck in an eternal brunch, clueless and unaware as the world collapsed around them in chaotic, even apocalyptic, anarchy. Langham and Hinojosa both hail from Texas, by the way; Californian Ellen K. Anderson also weighed in at FringeNYC 2002 with an update of Aristophanes called Liz Estrada that anticipated the renewed anti-war movement to come. (All of which points up something particularly priceless about FringeNYC, namely that it features work from writers from everywhere in America, not just New York or the East Coast.)
That same year, another Californian, temporarily transplanted to NYC at the time but since removed back west to Denver, gave us Last Call, a play that dealt with the apolitical aftermath of 9/11. Kelly McAllister follows in the footsteps of John Steinbeck and Eugene O'Neill, telling the story of a group of stalled yet not-so-old buddies who spend their evenings at a watering hole in Salinas, and how their lives are transformed when an old friend who went east to make it big returns after 9/11. This character, David, has a speech that evokes much of what so many of us felt a decade ago:
DAVID: It was about three months after 9/11. After everyone started acting like their normal, boring, creepy selves.
VINCE: Including you?
DAVID: Oh yeah. Especially me. Thousands of people dead. A war on terrorism that just gets curiouser and curiouser. Anthrax, some kid putting pipe bombs in mailboxes—things are totally fucked up. And there I am, buying this and selling that, closing deals like nothing ever happened. Keep going on like before. That's what everyone said to do to fight the terrorists. Keep going on like before. Even if you're an asshole, keep going on like before. It's all so fucked and weird. You ever feel like nothing makes sense, that time and space are all warped and you're just sort of floating through it, powerless? .... So, one night, I go out drinking down on the Lower East Side, and I get into a fight with the bartender because he doesn't have the kind of vodka I like. I was screaming bloody murder at this guy because he didn't carry my brand. And in the middle of the argument, while I'm screaming, it hit me. I'm an asshole.
I'll submit 2009 as my third and final example of how FringeNYC plays and
playwrights effectively boil down the American consciousness. This was the first
recession summer, and the mindset that had led to much of the economic collapse
was reflected in Felipe Ossa's
The premise of this satirical comedy was that a promising student's "futures"
were put up for sale, available to the highest bidder. Also that year we saw
Candide Americana, recasting Voltaire's satire of optimism in the 1990s
and 2000s, with the eponymous hero witnessing or becoming embroiled in such
recent human and natural catastrophes as the sinking of the Staten Island Ferry,
the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina, and E. Coli
contamination. And Trav S.D. was back with
a musical about Charles Manson that dissected celebrity and gangster cultures
with the same precision that House of Trash applied to Heartland
America's family values.
For me, the landmark play of 2009 at FringeNYC was John Clancy's The Event. On the surface it's an exercise in meta-theatrics, as its nameless single character comments frankly and sardonically about the artifice of the one-man play. But if you look beneath its surface, Clancy's true intent becomes clear. The Event is the ultimate attack on the way we live now, in postmodern America:
Progress; that great historical, tectonic force, that enormous thing that seemed to be inevitably paving a path towards a heaven on this earth seems to have stalled, like an earth mover in an abandoned worksite, its enormous claw still raised, rusting, as the earth below returns to weedy chaos.
The idea of a society held together by something beyond and above merely pecuniary interests.
Civilization working towards a sense of universal justice, a life lived in virtue and honor being its own reward, these larger promises that when the man was young seemed to hang in the air, unquestioned, manifest, are no longer spoken of, let alone kept.
Conclusion, and an Invitation
Would The Event and these other plays have gotten hearings in New York
outside of FringeNYC? Possibly; but the power of the New York International
Theatre Festival is that each August it provides context for these new works
simply by placing them in juxtaposition with one another. When the commercial
and mainstream nonprofit sector in NYC theater only supports a few dozen new
American plays in any given season, the opportunity to hear more than a hundred
in just two weeks—most of them from emerging, undiscovered, and/or
underrepresented voices—is not only exhilarating but essential; vital.
Understanding this is what made me decide, back in 2002, to review every show in FringeNYC on nytheatre.com—something we've done every year since and will do again in 2012 [and 2013!]. And it's also what made me decide to launch Indie Theater Now in 2011 with a collection of scripts from FringeNYC, from its beginnings in 1997 through the present.
[August 5, 2012]