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Fringe Festival: A West Coast Rivalry

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By: Noah J. Nelson


Photo Courtesy of 4 Clowns

San Francisco's 20th annual Fringe Festival kicks off this week, with 44 shows playing over 12 days around the city by the bay. Non-Broadway theatre tends to be a regional affair, but the glory of the Fringe movement is that regional barriers are overcome by enterprising artists willing to take their shows on the road.

To whit: a small cadre of Los Angeles based theater artists -- all of whom were featured in this year's Hollywood Fringe Festival -- are traveling to the SF Fringe and backing each other's promotional efforts. The ensemble show 4 Clowns (whose creator Jeremy Aluma we interviewed back in June), and solo efforts Blink & You Might Miss Me, and Over There: Comedy Is His Best Weapon form the LA contingent.

Instrumental in this marketing collaboration is Matthew Quinn, the proprietor of Theatre Asylum, one of the venues of the Hollywood Fringe. Quinn used to be part of the San Francisco theater scene before moving to Los Angeles. He'll be attending the SF Fringe, on the lookout for shows that might make a good fit for his venue.

"I would love to find one or two shows that I feel could carry in Los Angeles," Quinn says. "The reality of it is it's tough to bring in a show from out of anywhere into LA unless they've got some sort of LA connection. Be it either [the creators] used to go to school here and [have] a bunch of friends or the show has a catch. This year we had one real international show called How To Survive A Zombie Apocalypse... and that did great, because it's called How To Survive A Zombie Apocalypse. That's gonna do well. We had last year a show called Mission of Flowers from Australia, it was a beautiful one person show. Literally for the first three or four nights it had two or three people."

While there are theater artists who take the financial risk of touring outside the Fringe circuit, the practice isn't all that common. On the surface it seems somewhat crazy that good shows from the Bay Area don't tour down to LA (and vice versa), the reality is that theater faces marketing troubles with discovery and perceived value. Productions can be expensive to mount, and even harder to move when sets and lighting plots are involved. Add to that the fixed ideas that many young companies have about what tickets should cost -- $25 tickets for a play you've never heard of is an all too familiar sight -- and you have a barrier to building a market even in the company's home region.

"The number of conversations I have with groups who are convinced that they sell those $25 tickets," says Quinn, "that they're gonna make a ton of money; and sure enough two days before the show I get a panic call. 'I don't have any tickets sold. How do I get butts in seats?' I'm like well two days before the show that's really hard to do. If you gave me two weeks ago we could put tickets on [discount service] Goldstar. We could go to freebies. There are places that you can dump tickets, but you've got to anticipate that and I think the smart producers realize that and will paper the first weekend."

Speaking from my own experience as a theater major, I can attest that at my own alma mater (San Francisco State) we were given little in the way of instruction or advice on how to handle the business part of "show business". Which makes creators like 4 Clowns' Jeremy Aluma all the more impressive for their ability to build not just a solid piece of theater, but promotional machine that pulls in an audience. It's the unavoidable obstacle of all indie endeavors: artists have to be entrepreneurs if they want to be artists at all.

In the meantime, we are lucky enough to have the Fringe Festivals. Bay Area audiences  should overlook the traditional regional rivalry (which, as a Bay Area transplant I have to tell you is a one way street) and give the LA slate of Fringe shows a go.

Related posts:

  1. Fly Your Freak Flag: Hollywood Fringe Kicks Off
  2. Theatre: RADAR LA Opens in Los Angeles
  3. 4 Clowns' Ringmaster: Jeremy Aluma on LA Theatre [Hollywood Fringe]
  4. The Spot: Lost Moon Radio [Hollywood Fringe]
  5. REVIEW: Porter's Macbeth [Hollywood Fringe]

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