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FringeNYC: Shows Sink Or Swim At The Biggest Fringe Festival In North America

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Before Mindy Kaling was a glimmer in Hollywood's eye, she donned a tracksuit and appeared in a show at the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival.

"Matt and Ben," which she co-wrote with fellow actress and comedian Brenda Withers, imagined that the script for "Good Will Hunting" was not an original creation, but simply fell from the sky onto Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's table. Kaling played Affleck and Withers played Damon. The combination of buzz-worthy celebrities and a catchy blurb -- not to mention the caliber of the show -- made it a monster hit. After winning the Fringe award for Best Play, "Matt and Ben" had other productions around the country, and also helped to launch Kaling's career.

This month, 190 companies featuring thousands of artists will aim for a similar trajectory when they participate in FringeNYC, currently running at 20 venues across Manhattan. Though New York's Fringe is the largest "multi-arts" festival in North America, boasting an attendance of 75,000, it is certainly not the largest in the world (the historic fringe festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, also running throughout August, takes that prize).

With so much going on, it can be difficult for a Fringe play to break out of the pack. For every "Urinetown," which went on to become a Broadway hit, there are hundreds of productions that simply fade away.

Marketing becomes the magic word. Elena K. Holy, the founder and artistic director of FringeNYC, said that for a Fringe show to catch on and sell out, it has to maximize the "Fringe package" -- that is, the combination of title, blurb, and "icon," that tiny picture to the left of your show's title on all Fringe marketing materials. With almost 200 shows for audiences to choose from, each company really needs all the help they can get.

"We also have our marketing speed dates," Holy added, referring to the lighting-fast meetings that companies get with FringeNYC staff to help promote their show.

It also seems important, at least from a P.R. perspective, to have a topical premise. Last year, there was a "Jersey Shore" musical, and another called "The Legend of Julie Taymor: The Show That Killed Everybody," which satirized the travails of Taymor's bloated Broadway fiasco, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." This year a timely political satire, "Tail! Spin!" starring Mo Rocca and Rachel Dratch, sold out its entire run before its first performance and has already garnered positive reviews.

Shows from previous years have referenced Tom Cruise's couch-jumping, Perez Hilton, Britney Spears and Facebook in their titles, while others simply go for something outlandish, like "The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival" and "Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party."

But that type of strategy doesn't guarantee Fringe success, according to Holy.

"I think there was probably a time early in FringeNYC when sensationalism sold things," she said. "As did mentioning nudity. But our audiences here are amazing, because they're well-read and interesting people and they love great writing."

Holy added that the rise of social media has also changed the way Fringe shows are marketed. In 1997, there were only pamphlets and flyers; now there are Tweets and Facebook events. "It's hard to imagine that in the first year of the Fringe, nobody had email," Holy joked.

Gina Rattan, a New York-based director whose show "Sweet Tooth" runs at this year's Fringe, has come up with more unorthodox ways to market her show. She's asked friends in Broadway productions like "Chicago" and "Newsies" to Tweet or Instagram pictures of them holding up the "Sweet Tooth" image.

"Some of these people have hundreds of followers on Twitter and Instagram," she said, "So they'll post a picture of them drinking their coffee or eating a cookie and get about 400 likes. This is a way for them to support a show, too."

Rattan said that her show, which she has been workshopping with playwright Z.N. Lupetin for about two years, doesn't necessarily comply with some of the more eccentric Fringe marketing tactics.

"I've seen [Fringe performers] wearing costumes around, singing in the street, and that's great and helpful to them," she said. "But our show is a traditional play, so that tactic doesn't work as well."

Rattan has also been reaching out to performing-arts high schools, as well as theater groups at Hunter College and New York University, in hopes of reaching audiences outside of her network. If the show succeeds, perhaps it will be a testament to Holy's suggestion that a "great show" will always find an audience.

"People are sometimes more likely to take a chance on recognizable names or the ripped from the headlines stuff," Holy said. "But once they get down here, talk to our fabulous audience, it all seems much more accessible."

See the full FringeNYC lineup here.

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